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Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am

Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land

by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

John Murray, HK$160

The cover of Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land bears a quotation claiming: 'This book is a classic.' It's hard to disagree. Travel literature, memoir and historical text combined, Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith's work grabs readers from the introduction, in which he tells his Oxford University tutor he is visiting Yemen. 'Why don't you go somewhere respectable ...?' is the shocked response. The following chapters answer the question tangentially. Having become a resident of San'a, it makes sense that Mackintosh-Smith should begin his 'journey' there, in the capital of a land described as a 'dictionary of our people'. He also takes readers - qat (narcotic leaf) in hand - to Aden, the former British protectorate; the Hadramawt, with its 'palazzos of the merchant sayyids [descendants of the Prophet Mohammed]'; and the remote island of Suqutra, whose people, Marco Polo reported, were 'the best enchanters in the world'. 'Mine has been a digressive account,' Mackintosh-Smith writes in explaining why there is a chapter on Suqutra when it was to have been a footnote (he is offered space on a small boat). Not that these annotations should be glossed over. A memorable example explains Yemeni generosity: 'Travellers who did not stop to accept hospitality ... in Hadramawt would be shot at.'

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