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Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance

in Yemen (review)
Daniel Martin Varisco
The Middle East Journal, Volume 63, Number 1, Winter 2009, pp. 151-152
Published by Middle East Institute
DOI: 10.1353/mej.0.0023
For additional information about this article
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for Western Sahara is still to be demon-
strated. In particular, regional as well as
politically binding instruments such as the
Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe (OSCE) documents may not be
the best support for vetting Moroccos latest
autonomy proposal. Furthermore, the West-
ern Sahara dispute appears to be more the
symptom than the cause of an aborted pro-
cess that should have led to regionalization
and decentralization, including autonomy,
in the North African states. Instead, nascent
and clashing nationalisms have rendered a
Maghrib-wide democratization and decen-
tralization evolution at least premature, if
not unattainable, thus making the case of
autonomy for the Western Sahara an excep-
tion rather than a trendsetter.
Therefore, a further discussion of, for
example, the novel model of shared sover-
eignty and prospective international guaran-
tees for any future autonomy-based settle-
ment of the Western Sahara conict would
have enriched our understanding of what
may lay ahead in the ongoing UN-mediated
negotiations between Morocco and the Al-
geria-backed Polisario Front.
Jacques Roussellier, Adjunct Scholar, the
Middle East Institute
Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and
Performance in Yemen, by Lisa Wedeen.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
2008. xv + 223 pages. Notes to p. 262.
Bibl. to p. 290. Index to p. 300. $65.
Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco
A weak state but a strong, communal-
ly-oriented people with multiple public
spheres: such is the Republic of Yemen, the
result of unication in 1990 between revo-
lutionaries north and south and the seat of
the longest serving (since 1978) ruler in the
Middle East, President Ali Abdullah Salih.
Political scientist Lisa Wedeen traces the
experiment in nation-state formation (p.
2) that coincides with the longevity of Presi-
dent Salihs tenure. What makes a Yemeni
a Yemeni in the context of the states fragili-
ties, and why does Yemen hold together to
the extent that it does? (p. 2), she asks at
the outset. Wedeen explores the making of
identity beyond the institutional apparatus of
the state and electoral politics for a country
with distinct and multiple loyalties to tribe,
region, and religious groupings. The result
is an important contribution to the study of
the recent political evolution of Yemen as a
nation state in search of itself.
In the introduction, the author identies
her approach as interpretivist (p. 17), com-
bining eldwork in Yemen for more than 18
months (between 1998 and 2004) with in-
terviews, limited analysis of texts, and many
hours spent in afternoon qat chews. The role
of the qat chew as a public sphere is exam-
ined in Chapter Three. Much of the chapter
is given to a critique of Eurocentrism in Ju-
rgen Habermass framing of the concept (p.
118). From her own experience in largely
political qat chew forums, Wedeen con-
cludes that these are sites of active politi-
cal argument where issues of accountability,
citizenship, and contemporary affairs can be
negotiated (p. 139), almost a kind of infor-
mal diplomacy of the commons. Her focus
is on the chew as performative practice (p.
145), one that can serve either to criticize or
consolidate support for the state, over and
above the values discussed by the partici-
pants. It should be noted that the qat leaves
stimulant impact is technically like pseudo-
ephedrine rather than the weaker caffeine
effect of coffee (p. 104).
Of particular relevance is Wedeens
analysis of the al-Huthi rebellion, initiated
in 2004 and still reverberating in Yemens
north. The traditional confessional division
between Zaydi Islam in the north and Shai
in the south and coastal region is no longer
an appropriate way to dene the changing
Islamic identities circulating in Yemen,
especially under the inuence of nearby
Saudi Arabia. Thus, the presence of the po-
litical party al-Islah and the local notion of
Sala complicate the common distinction
of Sunni versus Shia without attention to
historically distinctive and locally mediated
circumstance (p. 160). Wedeen is right to
label tribe a vexed category (p. 170),
but a large part of the denitional problem
is treating tribe primarily as an institution
rather than the values invoked in Yemen as
tribal, especially in the indigenous concept
of qabyala (tribal ethic). In her narrative,
the author is determined to detribalize Ye-
men, referring to North Yemen as primarily
a land of peasant sharecroppers and inde-
pendent farmers and herders (p. 31) when
the vast majority of these would consider
themselves tribal (qabili) if asked.
The nal chapter reaches beyond the Ye-
meni case to explore the global emergence
of contemporary Islamic movements (p.
186). Here Wedeen wades through theories
of neoliberalism to argue the need to recog-
nize divergences in neoliberal reforms (p.
207) as well as the diversity of Islamic po-
litical practices. Her text engages with a wide
range of scholars who have theorized on
nationalism and political change, including
Benedict Anderson, Hannah Arendt, Joseph
Schumpeter, Gilles Kepel, Judith Butler, Ta-
lal Asad, and others.
In sum, Peripheral Visions emphasizes the
performative dimensions of political life, how
persons are established as national through
iterative performances of particular national
acts, just as pious or democratic persons are
produced through everyday enactments of
piety and agonistic deliberation respectively.
Such a framework accounts for the fragility
and contingency of solidarities in a way that
many explanations do not (p. 213).
The Yemeni case elaborated in this book
is indeed of value for broader comparison
of the growth of Islamic movements within
national borders.
Daniel Martin Varisco, Professor of An-
thropology, Hofstra University
Queen of the Oil Club: The Intrepid
Wanda Jablonski and the Power of
Information, by Anna Rubino. Boston:
Beacon Press, 2008. xiii + 281 pages. Ac-
knowledgments to p. 289. Notes to p. 332.
Index to p. 346. $29.95.
Reviewed by Barbara Slavin
The best journalists are part detectives,
part diplomats: tenacious gatherers of infor-
mation who sometimes serve as go-betweens
among sources and can, on occasion, inu-
ence history. One such journalist was Wanda
Jablonski. Little known today, she covered
the oil industry from the 1950s through the
1980s, played midwife to the Organization
of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
and started a major business publication, the
Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, that became
the bible in its eld.
Anna Rubino, who worked for Jablonski
in the 1980s, has written a book that is far
more than a biography. Through the telling
of Jablonskis fascinating life, Rubino has
provided a history that puts in context the
continuing struggles between oil producers
and consumers. Fifty years ago, Jablonski
told a conference that Americans needed to
learn to think how the Arabs think, not how
we think they should think (p. 280). Of the
Iranians, she wrote in 1951, after they had
nationalized the British company that had
taken the lions share of their oil earnings:
U.S. diplomats and oil companies would
be making a costly mistake if they did not
take full account of Iranian sensibilities
(p. 73).
Born in Slovakia of Polish parents in
1920, Jablonski rst learned about oil from
her father, a geologist who took the family
to Texas, California, New Zealand, and the
Middle East. A polyglot product of schools
in a half-dozen countries, Jablonski did not
let the fact that she was female block a ca-
reer in a male-dominated eld. Applying to
university in 1938, she went to Cornell after
learning to her astonishment that Harvard,
Yale, and Princeton did not admit women.
Rejected by the prestigious Council on For-
eign Relations, she took a job as a copyboy
at the more prosaic Journal of Commerce in
New York in 1943. Less than a year later,
she had her rst byline and soon after, be-
came the papers oil writer. Wanda, Ru-
bino writes, was in her element: derricks
and yields, sweet and sour crude this was
the language she had learned as a child (p.
By 1947, after a string of scoops,
Jablonski was writing weekly columns un-
der the byline W.M. Jablonski. Journalism