Reviewed by Tom Little
Although Yemen’s revolution has been simmering away since January 2011, coverage of the country has been scant compared with the hoards of journalists currently holed up in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has spent the last 33 years as Yemen’s head of state, signed a Gulf Cooperation Council agreement to transfer power in November, but it is still unclear what is going on in the country.
Many are sceptical Saleh’s inner circle will release their hold on power so readily and protests are continuing across Yemen, led by a bold and committed youth movement.
Matters are complicated further by sectarian conflict near the northern town of Sa’adah, where Shia insurgents, the Houthis, are battling hardline Sunni salafists in the village of Dammaj. News from the north has been trickling out bit by bit, although exactly what is happening around Dammaj is, like so many things in Yemen , uncertain.
In light of this Theo Padnos, an intrepid American writer who previously taught in the US’s toughest prisons, has written Undercover Muslim, an account of his travels in the region.
In 2005, Padnos travelled to Yemen’s capital, Sana’a to work as a journalist at a state-run English-language paper, but jaded by working as a government mouthpiece, Padnos threw in his job as a hack after a couple of months and converted to Islam, studying Arabic and Quranic studies at a mosque and taking in Yemen’s culture.
However, Padnos grabs the opportunity to go and study in Dammaj, home to an infamous Quranic studies school, the Dar al-Hadith. Every year, hundreds (possibly thousands) of Muslims from around the world flock to Dammaj to learn the rigidly literalist brand of Salafi Islam taught at the Dar al-Hadith. Padnos relates his experiences at the school and encounters with other western converts who made the journey to Dammaj in Undercover Muslim.
So far so good, right? While the subject is undoubtedly topical and one to which few (if any) journalists have had any access, Padnos’ account is fatally flawed. Throughout Undercover Muslim, the author comes across as self-satisfied and patronising.
Padnos seems unimpressed by the Yemenis he meets, depicting them as childlike morons in perpetual awe of his worldly-wise manners. At one point, he claims Yemenis do not question anything they are told and later on, he describes how Sanaanis are so alien to the concept of irony, that even the slightest hint of it sends them into paroxysms of delight.
Even besides this, Padnos is remarkably slow at reaching conclusions. He takes weeks to realise that the state-linked newspaper he is working for is little more than a government mouthpiece – something most people with a reasonable sense of intuition would probably be able to glean with a quick trip to Wikipedia.
Contrary to what the title suggests, Padnos does not spend the greater part of the book in the notorious Dar al-Hadith in Dammaj, but dripping about Sana’a as he follows a course of study at a local mosque with other European converts.
Certainly it is interesting to take a look inside the heads of adherents of the hardline salafist schools of islam, and Padnos shows us people behind the headlines.
Sadly, Padnos offers no radically new insights – those who convert feel alienated by society and are seeking some dignity, hardly ground-breaking news in itself.
Most disappointing of all is Padnos’s final trip to Dammaj: it could have been revelatory, but instead our Undercover Muslim sticks around just long enough to get bored by memorising the Qur’an before speeding back home to write it up.