The book They Die Strangers: A Novella and Stories from Yemen is a fiction book written by Mohammad Abdul-Wali and published in 2002. The book is a series of thirteen short stories which cover a range of topics that are unique to Yemen. The stories showcase the struggles that the average Yemeni goes through daily. The book also includes sections that describe the author and some history of Yemen, which illustrates the overall context of the short stories shown throughout the book. Some of the themes in They Die Strangers: A Novella and Stories from Yemen include deep poverty, civil conflict, police, culture, masculinity, among others. This paper seeks to explore several of the sections and discusses the major themes that they address.
The book begins by discussing the North Yemen Civil War, which lasted from 1962 to 1970, and how the country was divided because of the war. This historical background is relevant today due to the current Civil War in Yemen and the fact that the war is fought along religious lines between the Sunni-dominated Yemen government and the Houthis, a Shi’a rebel group that seeks to put in place a new government in Yemen. The book also gives some background on the author, who was born in Yemen but lived in Ethiopia for most of his life and how he was viewed as an outsider in Ethiopian society. The theme of the individual’s being perceived as outsiders and as disconnected from their culture is shown throughout his writings. The opening chapter also talks about the fact that the divide between religion in both Yemeni politics and the author’s own personal life. The author also mentions being married to a Swedish wife, having an administrative position as director of the aviation authority, and spending two years in jail for political activism. As such, one can conclude that the author attempts to tell his life story in an indirect way through fictional story-telling.
One of the more notable parts of the book was entitled The Last Class. The Last Class follows the story of a group of young students who had a passionate, young, and energetic teacher in his 20’s who inspired them to expand their knowledge and take an active interest in what was being taught in school. The teacher would come in, and the students would always be excited about everything that he discussed in their lesson because he taught with such passion and brought the school lessons to life. For example, the teacher would go over lessons not included in the curriculum such as the history of Yemen, which is often ignored by the government and glossed over by the media and society of Yemen. The writing in The Last Class was very realistic even for a work of fiction and left a personal mark on the reader.
Another section called The Slap is about how a small boy gets disciplined by his father through physical punishment. The boy gets hit once in the side of his face, and his cheek turns bright red. His father says that he hits him because that is the only way that he will learn right from wrong. Additionally, a man with tuberculosis is depicted in this section, which is a disease that was all but eliminated in the developed world during the latter half of the 20th Century. This portrayal makes one remember that much of the world remains under-developed and poor to the point in which diseases considered to be eradicated in the developed world are still present and represent an existential threat to the lives of numerous people.
Abu Rupee is another interesting passage in the novel. It follows a boy who talked with an old man who ran around painting people as donkeys or dogs. It is an amusing section and can be applied to society today how people are afraid to speak together, so people are forced to mock each other through art. Abu also discussed how the papers only care to print lies to make money and support the rich. That is akin to how the media slants news stories in the Western world and similar to the themes discussed in Noam Chomsky’s film The Myth of the Liberal Media which details how the media is only there to serve corporate interests. The man would go around painting pictures of people and talk about returning to Yemen and how it important his homeland is to his identity. Abu Rupee takes place in Ethiopia and then back to Yemen. The man in Abu Rupee eventually went to back to live in Yemen, and the people there would call him “Madman.” Even though he would speak the truth about how things were, he was regarded as crazy. The man made the young boy want to become an artist instead of a businessman. Abu Rupee is one of the better stories he wrote which shows class issues, poverty, and the migration of Yemeni residents to other countries, which has only increased in recent years.
In conclusion, They Die Strangers: A Novella and Stories from Yemen was a well-written book despite being primarily fiction. Many of the themes Mohammad Abdul-Wali touches upon in this work include rampant poverty and inequality, civil conflict, masculinity issues, and the role of government in society. The main strength of the novel is that is mirrors the daily lives of people in an increasingly important area of the world and gives them a voice that they would have lacked otherwise.