The Memoirs of an “Unperson”: The Case of a Yemeni Dissident Shaykh

By Marieke Brandt
Submitted to Session P5920 (Biographies in Tribal Arab Societies, 2020 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper discusses the life trajectory of Shaykh Hamis Hamadan (pseudonym), during the momentous decades from the late 1970s to the Houthi expansions in 2011. Naturally, no narrative of a single person can make manifest Yemen’s historical processes in all their complexities and contradictions. The life of Hamis Hamadan would hardly deserve the telling if it were not these extra-personal dimensions that come to light in it: his personal biography is inextricably linked to the political biography of his time, incorporating the discords, protests, anxieties, and hopes of the age in his own self to a remarkable degree. The special feature of the Hamadan narrative is that it tells Yemeni history from the vantage point of one of those who were in opposition to the prevailing political system. The Hamadan narrative is, similar to those tribal narratives explored by Shryock (1997) in Jordan, by nature an oppositional one. In the Hamadan case, his firm opposition and associated status as outsider and “unperson” in the political system of the Yemeni republic(s) render his narrative a kind of alternative discourse that retells the recent history of northern Yemen from a marginalized and suppressed, “peripheral” point of view. His narrative at times corresponds with, at times differs from the discourse produced by the dominant “ingroup” (in Delgado’s phrase) – such as the memoirs of Abdullah al-Ahmar (2008), Sinan Abu Lahum (2004) and other representatives of the Yemeni state including the “historiography” of the former regime itself (the biographies of long-time president Ali Abdullah Salih). The subject of refusal and opposition to the prevailing political power structures and their representatives runs through Hamadan’s narrative, produces his life story, and enables him to offer a complementary view of recent Yemeni history “from the margins”. The result is a profound, original, even intimate insight into tribal life and the often turbulent relation between tribes and the state in 20th century Yemen.