Oral histories are at least as much a matter of presentation as they are recitations of absolute truths. The presenter uses devices to add authenticity to his account, slant the circumstances to deliver a message, or invest events with renewed significance. I knew this intuitively but did not recognize the power of narrative performance until engaged in anthropological field research in 'Amran, Yemen.
Until the early 1970s virtually all houses, government offices, and mosques were inside the medina, the high-walled, gated city. Just outside the walls were a smaller enclosed village and the market. The 1962 revolution and ensuing eight-year civil war that brought an end to North Yemen's theocratic rule ushered in many changes. This was obvious in the brisk pace with which homes, shops, and mosques were being built to accommodate new settlers and those relocating outside the old city. By 1978, when I began a nineteen-month stay there, the town's prerevolution population had doubled to about six thousand. The socioeconomic and political impacts of these changes were the focus of my research project.
Traditional agriculture, modern commerce, and expatriate labor in the oil-rich Gulf states were the primary engines of the local economy. The workday was long and hard, but, as throughout the country, the grind of daily life was relieved by an afternoon break during which men gathered to chew qat. When chewed, the fresh, young, tender leaves of the qat shrub stimulate and depress, leaving the user with a sense of euphoria and a tendency toward introspection. Men spend three to four hours sitting, chewing, and chatting. The setting is ideal for recounting tales that contain, as do some styles of Yemeni poetry, commentaries on life. Rooms are often crowded with chewers, so it is easy for someone to take the stage and regale the assembly with messages intended to instruct as well as entertain. It was during these gatherings that I heard and reheard many stories.
A distinguished storyteller
The father of my closest friend in 'Amran was a talented storyteller. Hajj Abdallah had a distinguished history. As was common before the revolution, to ensure the loyalty of tribes, Yemen's ruler, the imam, had taken him as a hostage. Hostages were held for years in a distant city, where their treatment depended on their families' support of the imam. For those on favorable terms, the housing was acceptable, and, in contrast to most Yemeni men, they received secular and religious education. After their release, many became agents of the monarch.
As one of the imam's representatives in 'Amran, Hajj Abdallah accumulated large landholdings and was once seen as an important member of his huge, powerful kinship group. But time was not on his side. He was unsuccessful in a bid to head the tribe, and his investments lost value as interest in agriculture waned.
When I met him in 1978, he was in his late sixties. He was short and lean with a wizened face but with an impish grin, sparkling eyes, a quick wit, and rapier tongue. Despite his former prominence, he dressed like everyone else, in a white, flowing calf-length shirt, sport coat, head scarf, and dagger. The erect posture evident in old photographs had given way to a slight stoop, but he carried a walking stick as much for show as for support.
We would often stroll through 'Amran's market together, he to make purchases and chat with friends, me to use the opportunity to observe and learn from him. On these excursions, he was often irascible, trading accusations and insults with merchants and shoppers alike. Occasionally he revealed elements of people's lives I'm sure they'd rather have been left unsaid. In the heat of verbal combat, my guide frequently wagged his stick, feigning swats at those, including me, who were gaining ascendency or not playing by his rules. Occasionally he landed a surprising hit, which, I can attest, stung as much as from failing to meet expectations as from pain. …