Biography and life writing have long mirrored prevalent power structures and elite constellations in Yemen. Before the 1962 revolution, biography primarily featured the sīrah and ṭabaqāt genres, both of which served to elaborate and strengthen existing discourses of legitimacy and domination. After the 1962 revolution that ended a millennium of sayyid rule in Yemen’s north, this shift in power structures was also reflected in biographical production, for it contributed to a new prominence of non-sayyid, non-saintly, non-elite persons, who had not previously been the focus of biographers, and brought them into the spotlight of biographical production and thus the focus of cultural memory. In the decades after the revolution, life writing began to focus on the lives of non-elite persons who in one way or another represented the new ethos of the northern Republican state, which derived its legitimacy above all from Qaḥṭanism (South Arabian tribal heritage) and its opposition to the ancien régime.
This paper discusses the biography of a such a non-learned, non-elite person in rural post-republican highland Yemen: The life and the times of a tribal leader (shaykh) from Sufyān in ʿAmrān province, as recorded by the author. The special feature of this biography is that it retells Yemeni history from the vantage point of one who was in constant opposition to the regime of ʿAlī ʿAbdallāh Ṣāliḥ (r. 1978-2012; d. 2017). The shaykh’s firm opposition and associated status as outsider and “unperson” in the political system of republican Yemen render his life story a kind of alternative discourse that retells the recent history of northern Yemen from a suppressed, “peripheral” point of view. As the grand themes of his life, the motives of resistance (muʿāriḍah) and “proud refusal” (ibāʾ) to prevalent power structures run through his narrative, produce his life story, and enable him to offer a complementary view of recent Yemeni history “from the margins.”