Parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing

November 17 2013

A conversation […] took place in the nineteen-twenties between the Zaydi Imam Yahya of Sanʿa and a British envoy whose mission was to persuade the Imam to restore peacefully a portion of the British Aden Protectorate which he had occupied during the general War of 1914-18 and had refused to evacuate thereafter, notwithstanding the defeat of his Ottoman overlords. In a final interview with the Imam, after it had become apparent that the mission would not attain its object, the British envoy, wishing to give the conversation another turn, complimented the Imam upon the soldierly appearance of his new-model army. Seeing that the Imam took the compliment in good part, he went on:

“And I suppose you will be adopting other Western institutions as well?”

“I think not,” said the Imam with a smile.

“Oh, really? That interests me. And may I venture to ask your reasons?”

“Well, I don’t think I should like other Western institutions,” said the Imam.

“Indeed? And what institutions, for example?”

“Well, there are parliaments,” said the Imam. “I like to be the Government myself. I might find a parliament tiresome.”

“Why, as for that,” said the Englishman, “I can assure you that responsible parliamentary representative government is not an indispensable part of the apparatus of Western civilization. Look at Italy. She has given that up, and she is one of the great Western powers.”

“Well, then there is alcohol,” said the Imam, “I don’t want to see that introduced into my country, where at present it is happily almost unknown.”

“Very natural,” said the Englishman; “but, if it comes to that, I can assure you that alcohol is not an indispensable adjunct of Western civilization either. Look at America. She has given up that, and she too is one of the great Western powers.”

“Well, anyhow,” said the Imam, with another smile which seemed to intimate that the conversation was at an end, “I don’t like parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing.”

The Englishman could not make out whether there was any suggestion of humour in the parting smile with which the last five words were uttered; but, however that might be, those words went to the heart of the matter and showed that the inquiry about possible further Western innovations at Sanʿa had been more pertinent than the Imam might have cared to admit. Those words indicated, in fact, that the Imam, viewing Western civilization from a great way off, saw it, in that distant perspective, as something one and indivisible and recognized certain features of it, which to a Westerner’s eye would appear to have nothing whatever to do with one another, as being organically related parts of that indivisible whole. Thus, on his own tacit admission, the Imam, in adopting the rudiments of the Western military technique, had introduced into the life of his people the thin end of a wedge which in time would inexorably cleave their close-compacted traditional Islamic civilization asunder. He had started a cultural revolution which would leave the Yamanites, in the end, with no alternative but to cover their nakedness with a complete ready-made outfit of Western clothes. If the Imam had met his Hindu contemporary Mr. Gandhi, that is what he would have been told, and such a prophecy would have been supported by what had happened already to other Islamic peoples who had exposed themselves to the insidious process of “Westernization” several generations earlier.

Toynbee’s distant perspectives are as dangerous as the Imam’s. The modern cultural interaction of the West with other societies was a subtler process than he acknowledges. He rarely examines its nuances. He had a rather superficial conception of what constituted modernity.

The Imam is, in Toynbeean terminology, a Zealot rather than a Herodian.

Britain in Yemen (old post).

List of British residents in Aden.

Civilization on Trial, OUP, 1948

One Response to “Parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Kuwait is a country that has said yes to parliaments and no to alcohol. Abdullah III Al-Salim Al-Sabah, frightened by Nasserism, introduced a parliament in 1962. The politics of the country is now a long standoff between this National Assembly, which is dominated by rather ignorant Bedouin and acts as a kind of trade union for Kuwait’s pampered public sector.

    As far as I know, it is the only Arab country apart from Saudi Arabia which enforces a total ban on the official sale of alcohol even to foreigners and bars foreigners even from bringing any in.


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