The area where the country of Yemen is now found was long known to geographers by the Latin Arabic Felix; felix meant “fertile” but also “happy” or “lucky”. Yemen is much in the news today and little of it is either happy or lucky. When Peter Schlesinger visited the Yemen Arab Republic (the northern half of a country still split in two) in 1976—hitching a ride, as it were, with his friend Eric Boman, who had been invited to do a story for a French fashion magazine—the country had only just emerged from civil war and entering an all-too-brief period of peace and hope.
In the eight days he was in Yemen, Schlesinger shot the photographs that are reproduced in this book. Eight Days in Yemen consists almost entirely of 150-pages worth of largely uncaptioned photos, except for an informative but woefully brief introduction by Princeton’s Bernard Haykel. These are not glossy professional shots but rather, as Haykel puts it, “a truthful and uncontrived representation of what Yemen was then like.” The effect is rather like coming across an old photo album with the photographer himself largely absent.
This might have been little more than a collection of holiday snaps—and some, indeed, are a bit grainy and not all are in perfect focus—but Schlesinger who is an artist) has an eye: “by his own admission,” Haykel goes on, Schlesinger
knew little about this land and its people. Perhaps because of this unfamiliarity, his camera captures scenes and details without premeditation or prejudice, producing photos that are quite revealing of a social and economic reality during a period of change.
These include both the buildings for which Yemen is famous, and well as people, many going about their daily lives. Haykel notes that much has since changed: the photos document clothing styles that are no longer to be found:
we see a woman in a cloak called a sharshaf which drops to just below the knees and not to the ground as has since the 1980s become de rigueur with the modern Islamic revival that has swept across Yemen from such places as Saudi Arabia. The same woman is wearing a yellow face cover called a litham or lithma which is no longer worn at all.
He also notes that
some of the uglier sides of development, namely plastic bags, had not yet reached the country and because of this the landscapes and streets were still clean and not strewn with this unattractive feature of modernity. Today, unfortunately, Yemen is awash with plastic, in both urban and rural areas. Virtually everything being used back then was still biodegradable such as baskets made of palm fronds.
Eight Days in Yemen is all the more appealing for being (apparently) unplanned. The life it depicts was a hard one, but the world is poorer for it having vanished—not just in Yemen, of course, but pretty much everywhere.
Reproducing the photos without captions or explanation and with only a rudimentary guide in the introduction was an interesting choice. The result is both a lack of distraction, as if one were there, but one also context: one is left with the feeling that a great deal of meaning is being missed. But one cannot view the collection of photographs and disagree with Haykel’s judgement that it “is truly wonderful”: