Category Archives: Member News

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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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.

Sheila Carapico on Yemen


Professor Sheila Carapico, widely recognized as a leading expert on Yemen, spoke about the country’s current political crisis at the 9/11 Memorial Museum on Monday.

Engaging in a discussion with Clifford Chanin, executive vice president and deputy director for museum programs, Carapico explained the current drivers of Yemen’s ongoing civil war and the history of Saudi influence in Yemen.

In the clip below, Carapico locates the Yemeni Civil War within the broader Middle East:

“The kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, they were worried about the uprising in Tunisia. They were worried about Egypt, they were worried about Libya, they were worried about Syria… They were panicked about Yemen. It’s right there, it’s so close and it’s half the indigenous population of the whole region.”

Yemeni Refugees in Djibouti

The Gate Of Tears Yemeni refugees, camp of Markazi. Obock, Djibouti, Decembre, 2016
The Gate Of Tears: Yemeni refugees, camp of Markazi. Obock, Djibouti, December, 2016; photograph by Nadia Benchallal

At the upcoming MESA meeting in Washington, D.C., Dr. Nathalie Peutz (Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Arab Crossroads Studies Program, New York University Abu Dhabi) will be presenting a talk on her research among Yemeni refugees in Djibouti. This is entitled “Becoming Permanent Refugees: Yemenis in the Horn of Africa.” Her talk will be at the AIYS Business meeting, Sunday, November 19, 4-5pm, in Park Tower Suite 8216 (L). This talk is not on the official program, so please spread the word.

The conflict in Yemen has precipitated what many consider to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Yet, despite the raging cholera epidemic, widespread hunger, and unprecedented displacement within Yemen, there have been fewer than 100,000 registered arrivals of Yemeni citizens and foreign nationals in the Horn of Africa since the start of the war. Today, roughly 1,000 of these refugees reside in Djibouti’s Markazi camp, where they are now being treated as “permanent refugees.” Who lives in the camp? Why did these particular families and individuals leave Yemen, and what are their hopes for a durable solution? This informal talk will provide an overview of the current situation of Yemeni refugees in the Horn of Africa and of how various aid regimes are constructing their future.

New Book on Yemen and the Gulf States


This book has just been published by Gerlach Press:

Edited by Helen Lackner, Daniel Martin Varisco
Publisher: Gerlach Press, Berlin & London
Hardcover, 143 pages
ISBN: 978-3-959940-30-6
Publication date: October 2017
EUR 85 / GBP 80

More information on the title and the order form can be downloaded from here:

Title Information with TOC:

Order Form:

The South in the Yemeni Conflict Panel


At the upcoming annual MESA conference in Washington, D.C., AIYS is sponsoring two panels on Yemen. The second panel is entitled “The South in the Yemeni Conflict” (P4744) and was organized by Charles Schmitz. This will take place Sunday, 11/19/17 at 10:30am. [For details on the first panel, click here.]

The panelists include:

Noel Brehony ( Menas Associates  )
“Regionalism and nationalism in South Yemen”
•  Elisabeth Kendall ( Oxford University )
“What Does Eastern Yemen Want and What Is It Doing About It? The Voice of al-Mahra”
•   Thanos Petouris (Independent Scholar)
“Southern Yemen after the Saudi Intervention: Political and Social Change”
•   Charles P. Schmitz (Towson University)
“Salafism in the South”

Here is the Panel Abstract:

This panel will explore the new political and social developments in the south in order to chart the possible contours of the new southern Yemeni landscape.  In 2007 the Hirak, or southern movement, emerged with a clear political agenda for political autonomy but without a coherent leadership. In 2012 following the fall of the Saleh regime, Hadi’s transitional government installed southerners in key leadership positions in Yemen’s government, but most southerners remained very wary of Hadi’s government and largely boycotted the National Dialogue Conference that created the proposed federal Yemeni state.

The Houthi coup in late 2014 and the military onslaught of the Houthi Saleh forces on Aden in the spring of 2015 dramatically transformed the southern political landscape. The emergence of the southern resistance brought new leaders to the fore, the Emirati reconstruction of the southern security apparatus is building the foundations of new leadership in the governorates, and the Hadi government in Aden is vying for legitimacy in the south for the national government. These developments have dramatically transformed the southern political landscape in yet unknown ways. The panel aims to clarify some of these new developments in the south.

AIYS at MESA 2017


At the upcoming annual MESA conference in Washington, D.C., AIYS is sponsoring two panels on Yemen.  The first is a roundtable entitled “Updating the Yemen Crisis” (RS4740 on the program at  Monday, 11/20/17, 3:30pm ). For details on the second panel, click here.

Participants include:

• Nadwa Aldawsari  ((Project on Middle East Democracy)
• H.E. Amat al-Alim Alsoswa  (Former Minister of Human Rights, Yemen)
• Sheila Carapico  (University of Richmond)
• Walid Mahdi (University of Oklahoma)
• Daniel Martin Varisco (President, AIYS)

Here is the abstract of the panel:

Of all the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, one of the least reported in the media is the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.  This forum brings together five experts who work on Yemen to discuss the current state of the conflict in Yemen, changes in the shifting alliances and prospects for cessation of hostilities. These experts come from the disciplines of Anthropology, Political Science and American Studies, as well as a former senior Yemeni diplomat. The goal is to provide an update on the current state of the civil strife in Yemen by the time of the annual meeting. The turmoil in Yemen is part of a wider regional struggle that has pitted Sunni vs. Shi’a groups in a political battle for influence and dominance. Following the “Arab Spring” revolution in Yemen that led to the removal of Ali Abdullah Salih after three decades of power, a failed National Dialogue Conference failed to reconcile political differences. The expulsion of interim President Hadi by the Huthi/Salih forces led to a protracted bombing campaign by a Saudi-led coalition after March, 2015. Yemen, unified as a state in 1990, has been split apart by competing sectarian factions, with a Huthi/Salih alliance in the north, anti-Huthi Saudi-backed forces in the south around Aden and cells of Ansar Shariah (al-Qaida) and ISIS in the east.

Despite international efforts brokered by the United Nations to resolve the conflict, there has been no viable resolution to the conflict by the start of 2017.  Many experts consider the conflict an unwinnable war, yet it drags on. The extent of destruction, primarily from the bombing campaign and blockade, has affected the entire population.  Over 10,000 thousand civilians, including many women and children, have been killed, in addition to an unknown number of combatants.  In January, 2017, the UN Humanitarian director of OCHA noted that every ten minutes a Yemeni child died of preventable causes.  Hospitals and clinics, even those maintained by Medecins sans frontieres, have been bombed, as well as many factories, mosques and heritage monuments. Massive unemployment has created a potential pool for the different armed groups fighting each other for power. The roundtable is intended not only to update information on the situation but also to stimulate research by scholars in multiple disciplines on one of the major humanitarian crises in the Middle East.