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Daniel Martin Varisco is President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.

Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

Sam Liebhaber with Gregory Johnsen in Sanaa, 2004, having an evening cup of shay halib at Ali al-‘Imrani’s café in Sana’a, next to the Qubaat al-Mahdi, overlooking the Sayla.

by Sam Liebhaber

It is a daunting task for me to list the ways that the AIYS has guided and supported my research in Yemen; they are almost too many to count.  Indeed, my experience in learning about Yemen and developing proficiency in its languages is inseparable from my relationship to the AIYS, which has stood as one of the few constants in a changing – and often tumultuous – landscape.

My first encounter with the AIYS dates back to my earliest steps in learning Arabic at the beginning of my graduate career in 1998. I spent the summer studying Arabic at the Center for the Arabic Language and Eastern Studies (CALES) in the Old City of Sana’a and a colleague brought me to the AIYS, which at the time was located on al-Bawniya street.  During that summer, I spent many pleasant hours studying and reading about Yemen in the AIYS library – a lovely, glass-enclosed space that looked out onto a courtyard garden.

When I returned to Yemen the following year for further language study, I was once again welcomed to the AIYS by the resident director, Marta Colburn, who offered me guidance and advice on future research and studies in Yemen. On a side trip to Asmara in 2000, I befriended Bob Holman, New York-based poet/performer and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, at a conference and cultural celebration marking Eritrean independence.  Bob was gathering information for his TV documentary, On the Road with Bob Holman, and when I told him about Yemen’s vibrant poetic culture, he returned back with me to Sana’a.  Marta Colburn graciously arranged for Bob and myself to attend the weekly gathering of literati in the home of Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih, Yemen’s “poet laureate”, who was impressed by Bob’s extemporaneous composition and performance of a poem about the beauty and elegance of Sana’a.  This led to an offer to Bob and myself to translate Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih’s Book of Sana’a – myself an Arabic neophyte and Bob a Nuyorican slam poet.  Marta Colburn wisely engaged a friend of hers, Muhammad Abd al-Salam Mansur, to help us with the translation.  Muhammad Abd al-Salam remains a close friend and served as a frequent mentor to me during my subsequent visits in Yemen.  After a few years of work, our translation of the Book of Sana’a was published in Yemen thanks to the effort and support of the AIYS, especially that of Christopher Edens who assumed the role of resident director after the departure of Marta Colburn and who oversaw the final editing and annotation of the Book of Sana’a.

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Steve Caton on AIYS

Steve Caton (right) and Najwa Adra in al-Ahjur, February, 1979

by Steve Caton

In its early days, AIYS seemed to operate on a shoe-string budget. (Perhaps its officers would maintain that it still does so today.) And so its first resident director Jon Mandaville had to be entrepreneurial to make ends meet, and one of his money-making schemes was to sell t-shirts that had an image and “American Institute for Yemeni Studies” printed on the front. I believe this was sometime in 1980. I bought one. I only could afford to buy one because I too had a hard time making ends meet on my meager fellowship. I imagine my student colleagues in AIYS were not much better off financially, and so I wonder how big a money-maker the t-shirts were in the end.


I’ve kept t-shirts over the years which I associate with different places I’ve been to, and this has amounted to quite a collection. When I rummage through my drawers to retrieve one, I pick a t-shirt that seems to fit my mood on that day. Even after they’ve gotten torn or faded, I continue to wear them, until I reluctantly consign their tatters to the scrap heap, where they have second lives as cleaning rags.

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مكانة المرأة اليمنية العظيمة في اليمن القديم

womanbustSouth Arabia alabaster bust of a woman,
1st century B.C.-1st century A.D.

مكانة المرأة اليمنية العظيمة في اليمن القديم

بقلم: حسني السيباني

لقد إرتبط إسم اليمن و تاريخه العريق بحضور و مشاركة دائمة و فعالة للمرأة اليمنية بشكلاً عام منذ 5 ألف سنة قبل الميلاد على أقل تقدير لنساء تلازمت أسمائهن بحقب من الإزدهار و العظمة من ” ملكة مملكة سبأ العظمى إلى شوف السبئية و من قبلها ألبها السبئية و طريفة الخير الحميرية و لميس بنت أسعد تبع الحميرية و برآت سيرة جاهلية ديمة من بيت رثدة القتبانية و صفنات الأبذلية الحميرية و أب صدوق القتبانية إلى الملكة أروى الصليحي و غيرهم الكثير و تتضح لنا مكانة المرأة و دورها الفعال في اليمن القديم من خلال النقوش القديمة و كذا ما ذكره المؤرخين و ما ذكرته الديانات السماوية و كذا أيضاً الأساطير و الحكايات .

 المكانة الإجتماعية للمرأة اليمنية قديماً

إن القول بأن مكانة و دور المرأة في المجتمع اليمني القديم كانت متميزة قول يحتاج إلى أدلة و شواهد و هي موجودة في نقوش مكتشفة في مواقع الآثار اليمنية و هي موجودة أيضا في كتب التاريخ التي تعرضت لتاريخ الجزيرة العربية أو اليمن بصورة خاصة في فترة ما قبل الإسلام إلا أن هذا التميز النوعي الذي نقصده لا يعنى المبالغة في حجم مكانة المرأة و دورها في مختلف مراحل التاريخ اليمني القديم و لا يعنى أنها متساوية الدور و المكانة في كل القبائل اليمنية أو الممالك و الدول و الدويلات المتعاقبة و إنما يعني هذا التميز النوعي أنها أي المرأة كانت في بعض الفترات أحسن حالة منها في جنوب الجزيرة العربية و قد تحدث ا.ف.ل. بيستون : في بحث نشرة عن المرأة في مملكة سبأ : و هو يتحدث عن ظاهرة الوأد في بعض القبائل العربية و أن أسبابة تكون إما من الفقر أو من خوفهم من سبيها في الحروب و ليس لأنهن كارثة في المجتمع الرجالي و أكد البحث أن وأد البنات لم يكن عاماً و شاملاً في كل القبائل اليمنية و قد بينت لنا النقوش الدور الذي تقلدته المرأة في عهدها سواء الإجتماعي أو الديني أو السياسي حيث تشير النقوش التي قدمت من قبل النساء أنفسهن و هي نقوش تتعلق بأمور دينية أو دنيوية كنقوش النذور و نقوش الخطيئة و التكفير و نقوش البناء و نقوش الصيد و إلى جانب ذلك دونت أسماؤهن على التماثيل و اللوحات الجنائزية و شواهد القبور .

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Janet Watson on AIYS

Editor’s Note: Dr. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University.  Her main research interests lie in the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages and modern Arabic dialects, with particular focus on theoretical phonological and morphological approaches to language varieties spoken within the south-western Arabian Peninsula. Since 2006, she has been documenting dialects of Mehri, one of six endangered Modern South Arabian languages spoken in the far south of the Arabian Peninsula. She has written three books on Ṣan‘ānī dialect.

Ali al-Mahri and Janet Watson, 2016

I was at AIYS between November 1985 and February 1987. The resident director at the time was Paul Martin, who lived in the AIYS building near the hospital with his wife Laila. Later he was replaced by Jeff Meisnner. I tried to get AIYS sponsorship in 2008 when I began to work on the Mehri spoken in al-Mahra, but research sponsorship was becoming difficult to obtain at that time.

I remember taking a taxi from the airport with the Hungarian Ambassador. I had flown with Aeroflot. The building was clean and traditional, and everything I needed was supplied. Once the AIYS building moved to a more traditional building near al-Gā’, I remember wishing I had arrived later to Yemen. I loved that building.

I remember thinking years before I went to Yemen that I had travelled widely, but that what I would really like to do would be travel into the past. For me, going to Yemen in the 1980s was like travelling into the past. Working in Raymah at a time when there was no electricity and water had to be fetched, I remember looking up into the sky at night and seeing stars ripe for picking, like apples. I will never forget that sense of awe, and will always hope that the sight of a black, black sky with sharp, huge stars may return.

I remember meeting Jean Lambert and talking about music in Yemen. I had recorded women singing in the mountains by al-Jabin in Raymah and he was interested in the material. I went to the YCRS with Noha Sadek, who was also staying at AIYS. I visited her at the mosque in Taizz several months later. Tim Mackintosh-Smith first introduced me to AIYS when I wrote to him from SOAS in London. He was instrumental in my research then and continued to be for all the time I worked on Yemeni Arabic, and later on Yemeni Mehri. Selma al-Radi I met in 1986.

It is essential to show our Yemeni colleagues, both academic and non-academic, that we care and that we have not forgotten them or the country that helped our careers. I have colleagues in al-Mahrah and Ibb now who have not received salaries for almost 2 years. I receive whatsapp messages saying they have had to sell their gold, or their wife’s gold, in order to buy food. The world and its media have erected an iron shield between it and what is happening in Yemen. We cannot do the same.

 This post is part of the anniversary of AIYS at 40. Click here for other reflections.


Yemen’s Akhdam


Luca Nevola has just published an article on the so-called Akhdam in Yemen at Open Democracy. Here is the first paragraph, but click here for the full article.

In 2013, Nu‘man al-Hudheyfi – a man of akhdam origin – participated at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) held in Sanaa as part of the crisis reconciliation efforts following the 2011 Yemeni Arab Spring. At the time, Hudheyfi was the President of the National Union for the Marginalised and a member of the General People’s Congress, the majority party in the country. In the past, he has defined the ‘marginalised’ as all “those people excluded from property and instruction, forced to live at the margins of society”. But during the conference, his focus was mainly his fellow people, the akhdam, as he condemned the NDC’s racism (‘unsuriyya) by pointing out that Yemen’s three million ‘black people’ had only one representative at the NDC.

Pomegranate seller, Yemen. Rod Waddington/flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ian Tattersall on AIYS


The Sanaa that greeted us in May, 1988

Ian Tattersall, American Museum of Natural History

When a paleontologist becomes interested in the fossil possibilities offered by a remote and unknown country, what does he or she do?  In the case of a group based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and intrigued by the paleontological potential they saw in the United States Geological Survey map of the Yemen Arab Republic, the answer was to turn to the American Institute of Yemeni Studies.  Directly across the Red Sea from Ethiopia and Eritrea, northern Yemen is in many ways a geological mirror-image of those fossil-rich countries; and although it sadly lacks any equivalent of the famous Afar Triangle in which many of Ethiopia’s and all of Eritrea’s most famous fossils have been found, our preliminary review of the USGS map suggested that the largely unexplored fossil potential of Yemen was well worth looking into.

Accordingly, in 1987 Ian Tattersall, a curator in the AMNH’s Department of Anthropology, contacted Jon Mandaville, then the AIYS President.  Jon was enormously helpful and encouraging, and put us in touch with Jeff Meissner, then Resident Director of AIYS in Sana’a.  AIYS was already well established as the principal English-speaking center of research in history, archaeology and the humanities in Sana’a, but it had never welcomed geologists before.  Jeff had the excellent idea of not putting us in touch with the Antiquities authorities with whom he customarily dealt, but instead with the Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).  This was a brilliant decision, since the MOMR proved not only to be very supportive of our paleontological objectives, but also had the authority to issue us permits to prospect the entire Yemen Arab Republic for fossils.

With funding from the National Geographic Society in hand, the AIYS Center in Sanaa as a base, and preliminary research permission from the MOMR granted, an AMNH team travelled to Sanaa at the end of May, 1988, and remained until the middle of July.  The group consisted of Ian Tattersall, Mike Novacek, then a Curator in the AMNH’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, now AMNH Provost, and Maurice Grolier, a geologist who had worked on the USGS geological map of Yemen – and who had also chosen the spot for the first manned lunar landing.  Jeff Meissner joined us for some of our explorations, and we also benefited greatly from the advice of Dr Hamel El-Nakhal of the Geology Department of the University of Sana’a.  AIYS provided the field vehicle as well as an essential center of operations, and we remain particularly grateful to His Excellency Ali Gabr Alawi, Deputy Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, for his understanding of and support for our goals.

ian2Maurice Grolier (l) and Ian Tattersall on the roof of the AIYS Sanaa building, 1988

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Delores Walters on AIYS

Delores Walters in Wadi Dhabab, 1994

Delores M. Walters, Ph.D.

I first went to Yemen in the summer of 1981 on a FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) Fellowship to study spoken Arabic, having minored in Modern Standard Newspaper Arabic at NYU. My Arabic language study was in preparation for a doctoral dissertation fellowship in cultural anthropology funded by SSRC and Fulbright between 1982-84. Steven Caton, who was director of the Peace Corps in Sanaa, headed the language-training program, which included several Yemeni teachers. Peace Corps residents in Sanaa that year included American, Dutch, British and German volunteers.  Steve introduced me to Leigh Douglas who was resident director of AIYS at the time.

It was quite a shock to learn later that Leigh Douglas was one of three men, including two British citizens killed in Beirut in 1986 in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Libya.  Leigh had taken genuine interest in my research and was particularly helpful in insuring that Lee Maher, my partner at the time, would be able to accompany me when I returned to Yemen in 1982 to begin my field research. He had made the introductions at the Yemen Center for Research & Studies (YCRS) to begin the process of obtaining residency and research clearance.  AIYS and the resident directors were chiefly responsible for connecting Americans to the Yemeni research center and were especially helpful in that regard. Once introduced, the staff and director of YCRS, Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Maqalih, (also a literary scholar and poet) were remarkably helpful, kind and attentive. Lealan Swanson became resident director of AIYS early during our stay. Occasionally, Lee filled in for Lealan when the latter was away for short periods.

Delores and Lee Maher, 1982

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Markazi Exhibition



NYU Abu Dhabi, The Project Space  February 4th – February 27th

NYU New York , 19 Washington Square North    February 4 – May 30, 2018

Markazi, the exhibition, casts light on the conditions of mobility and immobility in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, through its focus on households and everyday life in Markazi. Photographs by Nadia Benchallal, taken over several extended visits between December 2016 and October 2017, depict camp residents navigating a state of increasingly permanent suspension. These household portraits attest to the diversity and dignity of Markazi’s – and Yemen’s – population. In addition to Nadia Benchallal’s black-and-white and color photographs, the exhibit features the work of nine Markazi residents who collaborated with Nadia Benchallal and Nathalie Peutz over the course of a year.