The Yemeni literary scene is replete with examples of fiction that accompany the tragic events Yemen is going through, principally the war, on the one hand, and on the other the desire for social and political change. This phenomenon is clear in many Yemeni fictional works, including novels by Wejdi Al-Ahdal and Nadia Al-Kawkabani, as well as the short stories of Huda Al-Attas, Arwa ‘Abd Uthman, Saleh Ba Amer, and others. Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran in particular is among those who have touched the heart of real life in Yemen, and whose voice has reached the wider Arabic nation.
Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran’s most recent novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, was published by Dar As-Saqi in 2014. Prior to that, he had written two significant works, The Red Quran, published by Dar Riyadh Arreyis in 2010, and Yael or Yael’s Darkness.The former produced strong reactions, especially in Yemen, where the book was banned because of its bold ideas, and the latter received the Tayyeb Saleh Award in 2012. He has also written short story collections, including Bed Sheets (1997), published in Damascus by The Union of Arab Authors, and Black Minaret, published in 2004 by The Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.
Yemeni history serves as the common thread between the three novels (The Red Quran, Yael, and The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite.) There is a narrative fabric that connects them to Yemen’s history and the issues and obstacles facing Yemeni society. By observing his country’s present and future through its past and using inventive narrative styles, Al-Gharby Amran demonstrates how history repeats itself cyclically in Yemen. It would be appropriate to say that Al-Gharby has taken the Yemeni novel out of isolation, and as such he holds a place in the literary vanguard not only within Yemen, but also in the broader world of Arabic fiction.
From its title alone, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite reveals a controversial perspective. We are accustomed to Al-Gharby using bold titles for his short story collections and novels, such as The Circumcision of Bilqis; Hareem; May God Strengthen You; and The Red Quran. These demonstrate Al-Gharby Amran’s eagerness to break monotony and confront the reader with with explosive titles. For instance, with The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, we find ourselves confronting a paradox: how can the revolutionary, typically associated with masculine qualities such as sacrifice, bravery and heroism, be a hermaphrodite?
The revolutionary in this novel has versatile experiences and multiple personalities. He is not just a hermaphrodite, but also ostensibly suffers from schizophrenia. He takes advantage of his victims and kills them in cold blood. After taking revenge on them, he renews his attempts to escape the various pursuits of which he has made himself the subject. Perhaps if the coincidences that occurred in the text had not benefited him, his fate would have led him to a prison or cemetery, but as it were, he was saved and so came to power before everyone’s eyes as a heroic revolutionary. In contrast to those men with egos inflated by power, the novel’s protagonist pauses in front of the public so that they recognize the reality of his authority. This does not occur in real life, but it comes true within the novel’s framework.
On the last pages of this long novel, Qamer, the protagonist, answers partially “Yes, I recognize that I am not a hero and I do not deserve your medals or to be honored… Forgive me, I admit to you all that I am just a killer and the desire for revenge has overcome me.” Among the aspects that give the novel depth and puts it among the ranks of important novels, is that we—meaning those within the wider Arabic nation—are living in a crisis of real revolutionaries. Most disasters that befall the Arab nation—and that is happening right now in Yemen—come from inadequate leaders that unexpectedly seize power, taking on the color of their toxic environment like a chameleon or a viper. Indeed, no sooner had Qamer touched the collars of power than he began to treat his previously supportive public with hostility. In Yemen, most do not stop at that, but go on to prepare their sons for governance. Some have succeeded while others failed within the scope of unexpected events and contexts, demonstrating nothing less than contempt for the people, their dreams, and their desire for justice and truth.
Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran takes inspiration from the pioneering novelist Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj in his novel, The Hostage, where Dammaj introduces novelistic techniques and a structure similar to A Thousand and One Nights. This is made especially clear through the character of the protagonist, Qamer (for whom Al-Gharby chose a name used for both men and women, although perhaps more common among women), who meets with tens of characters and each encounter includes a thrilling story that gives the novel its special voice. Also adding to the storytelling tone is Qamer’s long journey that is reminiscent of Oedipus in the play of the same name written by the Greek playwright Sophocles, or Saber Sayyed Ar-Rahimi in the novel The Way by Naguib Mahfouz.
Al-Gharby also draws from events and people from the period before the 1962 revolution, eventually arriving at the revolution and declaration of the Republic. The novel unequivocally celebrates the culture of that period. Before the revolution, we were forced to believe in the djinns of “our master” the Imam, Yemen’s ruler at the time: “The djinns of our master fill the wasteland of the prison. He sees with their eyes and hears with their ears, so nothing escapes him. He sets free whoever moves with obedience and he feeds his sword with every increase in our insubordination. Al-Dweedar tells me that some of the prisoners say beings appear so that they vanish, and the last one was certain that they came to chat with him. There is a lot of news about the djinns of Al-Imam in that place.” The belief in djinns is present and still exists until now, although it was used at that time as a tool for protecting the seat of the Imam. This issue is a religious one because it is usually a cover for political goals, throughout human and Arabic history equally.
It is also said that the graves of holy men such as Ibn Alwan and his miracles, which has come to be seen as the mausoleum of Ibn Alwan, are a sanctuary for ordinary people to be rid of their troubles. This can be witnessed on the day of the yearly visit to the holy man Al-‘Aidaroos’ grave: “Hymns, drums, flags, dancing, incense and kaak. I join the women in the procession of followers and those carrying his attire. They ascend parallel to the big grave, in the middle of the women’s ululations and the songs of recitation; their faces shine with sweat and tears, the dust on their feet increases, the heat of the sun is strong, their youthful forearms lift the masts of green banners. The grandson of the holy man wears his green turban, the adornments hide him, carried upon necks, drums among circles of singers.” Thus, the novel is a mirror for an entire period in history. Al-Gharby Amran successfully provides an image that makes that time penetrate the mind deeply and moves us into its atmosphere, styles of thinking, creed, ambition, and dream for revolution and change.
The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite brings together the art of the novel and recent historical events that bear direct influence on the Yemeni citizen. As this bold novel makes clear, the Yemeni citizen is living through the hardship of war and the seizure of power by inadequate leaders, or those with ulterior motives that rally under different facades, perhaps the most prominent being religion, revolution, or change.
I would now like to share my discussion with the writer and novelist, Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran, who is now in Cairo, and may not be able to return to Yemen due to current political circumstances.
Dr. Sabri Muslim Hummadi (SMH): Have any of your novels or short story collections been translated before?
Mohammed “Al-Gharby” Amran (AG): No, none of my novels or short stories have been translated.
SMH: Why did you choose narrative fiction to express yourself?
AG: I don’t know exactly why. I think I am garrulous… I found myself to be harmonious with the wide horizons provided by narrative fiction, especially in the novel form.
SMH: Do you think that your novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, reflects the period in which Yemen is living now or does it refer to an earlier time?
AG: In the novel, I tried to stand up for a civilian code of ethics, which was implemented by the previous civilian president (the judge, Abdul-Rehman Al-Iriani) who was the only civilian president among the military rulers that sustained power for sixty years. He is also the one who represented, despite the military’s domination, hope for creation of a civil state, in contrast to the military dictatorships have destroyed my country and many others. As proof of the military’s continued dominance, our societies are still suffering. However, I recognize that I failed to stand up for him and for a civilian code of ethics, which I called for in my novel.
Even if I spoke of a past in the novel, it presents questions about what we are living through today and questions about tomorrow and the future of our society that still lacks freedom, equality, and peace.
SMH: Have you addressed the subject of women in your novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite? Because many of your stories focus on women in particular.
AG: Yes, in my fictional work, including The Revolutionary [is a Hermaphrodite], I have addressed topics related to Yemeni women, such as the intricate relationship between traditions and religious ethics. That’s why you find that the female characters, as with the male characters, are in constant struggle with their selves. They have questions about existence and God (in their search for Him), which always serve as background for dialogue with the reader.
SMH: You have a bookstore in the middle of the city of Dhamar. Is it still standing given present circumstances? Did the bookstore play an important cultural role in your opinion?
AG: Unfortunately, the bookstore closed recently, after almost thirty years of work. The circumstances in my small city today cannot be endured—the streets are filled with militias and partisan calls dominate. There is no room for any other opinion aside from that of the militias. Because of this, the bookstore was closed. Other bookstores have converted into shops selling construction material. The bookstore was open for all types of books from all different perspectives. Furthermore, it was available to the new generation of young people, not to mention it provided access to local as well as foreign magazines and newspapers. Today, you can only find the newspapers of the militias, no foreign magazines, or even local ones, not even books. There is only one voice and it is the voice of violence.
SMH: Is there anything you want to add to describe your cultural role in motivating the new generation to write, including your establishment of a club for short stories (Al-Meqah or the God of the Moon) in addition to other distinguished cultural efforts?
AG: The club for short stories, “Al-Meqah,” was established in the nineties, and this club does not depend on support from the powers at be, but instead on love of writers and their relationship to what they write as well as a desire to publish and familiarize others with the art of narration in an environment filled with poetry.
I believe that we have succeeded until now. When previously the number of fiction writers did not exceed the fingers on one hand [in Yemen], today they are in the tens. Further, they have revived and diversified their writing.
The club for short stories has continued for more than twenty-five years, publishing short stories in a society dominated by poetry. For the purpose of addressing the dominance of poetry, meetings and festivals were organized where anyone who likes and tries to write stories in Yemen was invited to attend. Meanwhile the club continued to organize activities, composed of various seminars. These included readings of stories and critical works, celebrations of pioneers, and events highlighting new publications, experiments in short story and novel writing, and providing as much support as possible with publishing.
Due to the efforts of young men and women themselves, the club for short stories continues today despite the harsh situation that exerts overweening power under the shelter of extremely difficult circumstances. They still put on weekly seminars in Sana’a and Dhamar. In fact, we began activities in Ta’z, ‘Aden, Almukalla, and Alhudaida, although everything stopped because of the war. A beautiful aspect of all this is that the majority of the organizing members are young women—in fact, they exceed 60%—and this is an amazing and striking feature for a society inundated with male representation. Women write, publish, and are published in many of their own publications within the country as well as places like Cairo and Beirut. Furthermore, they are an essential part of the club’s administration, as coordinators and planners of the activities.
The club for short stories continues its activities in an organized fashion at a time when the Union of Writers and creative organizations have stopped their activities due to conditions of the war. This is thanks to the love the members have for literature and culture as well as their belief that both serve a role in changing human consciousness to reach preferred and more beautiful horizons for women and young people, equally. Before, the short story and novel forms were considered a novelty not yet established in Yemen, and narration was relegated to the sidelines of a panorama in which poetry’s standing is aggrandized. Today, I can say that narration occupies a new space, which is widening among readers, and has come to compete with poetry at gathering and meetings.
SMH: Have you received awards or honors for your short stories and novels?
AG: Yes, I received the Tayyeb Saleh Award for my novel The Darkness of Yael as well as the Ketara Award, which is given by the Qatari government, except that the award was withdrawn because my book was published forty-five days before the award’s announcement. Additionally, I received a tribute from the Alexandria Library for all my narrative fiction work. I also cannot forget the tribute I was given by the University of Dhamar and the Ministry of Culture in Yemen before the war.
SMH: Are you satisfied with what you achieved in the realm of narrative fiction?
AG: We aren’t satisfied with what we have presented either on a personal level in terms of writing or through the club for short stories. I am certain that what is coming will be greater. Under the shelter of a peaceful atmosphere for which we are still waiting, hopefully the military grip slacken and allow us to build a civil society based on equality and justice.
 A condition of the Ketara award is that the novel be previously unpublished.
 The word used for the title is الشراشف which in classical Arabic means “bed sheets”, but in Yemeni dialect refers to a type of dress worn by some women that normally covers the entire body except the eyes. Although there are some versions that cover the eyes as well.
 As is perhaps clear from context, djinns here also may be a possible reference to government spies.
 The original text says “قفار الحبس”, which literally translates as “the wasteland of the prison” or “the desolate land of the prison.” However, here Al-Gharby is also referring to the fact that the prison was located in most barren desert land so that no one could escape from it.
 Al-Dweedar refers to the position of the house keeper inside the presidential palace.
Translated from the Arabic by Jessie Stoolman.
Dr. Sabri Hummadi has published numerous pieces on Arabic literature, including The Influence of Popular Culture in the Iraqi Novel “أثر التراث الشعبي في الرواية العراقية” (The Arabic Association for Research and Publication, Beirut, 1980) and Yemeni Texts “متون يمانية” (Studies of Poetry and Fiction, Sana’a, 2008.) He worked as a professor at the University of Mosul (Iraq) for almost 15 years before relocating to Yemen with his family to take a position at the University of Dhamar, eventually becoming Chair of the Department of Arabic Language and Dean at the School of Humanities. He is currently a professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Jessie Stoolman is Editor-at-Large, Morocco at Asymptote. She currently works as a language educator in Tetouan, Morocco and intermittently contributes to transnational research projects, when possible.
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