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MESA Round Table of Yemen’s Cultural Heritage

destructionYemenis search for survivors under the rubble of houses in the UNESCO-listed heritage site in the old city of Yemeni capital Sanaa, on June 12, 2015.

There will be a MESA round-table titled, “Challenges facing Yemen’s Millennia-Long Cultural Heritage” in San Antonio this coming November.

Session Description: UNESCO world heritage sites from the Old City of Sana’a to the Island of Socotra are under critical threat as a consequence of the ongoing conflict. Monuments and museums have been damaged in aerial bombardments. Archaeological sites are being looted and Yemen’s antiquities have appeared on the international black market. Also under duress is Yemen’s rich heritage of handicrafts, jewellery production, and rare Arabic manuscripts. Long before the current conflict, external political influences disrupted Yemen’s rich and diverse heritage of dancing, music, and storytelling commonly referred to as “intangible” heritage. Due to its location at a pivotal point along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade and pilgrimage routes, Yemen has long had extensive contacts with Egypt, the East African coast, the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia, and even as far as China. In addition to exploring the richness of Yemen’s heritage and the challenges facing it, the roundtable will discuss existing local and international preservation efforts. Speakers will explore the concept of “living heritage,” a critical component for the sustainable development of Yemeni society after the current conflict ends. In addition to the speakers, the roundtable will draw on the collective experience of those in attendance.

Presenters:
1) Dr Najwa Adra (Intangible Heritage that includes poetry, music and dance in Yemen).
2) Professor Nathalie Peutz (Environmental heritage, Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen)
3) Dr Sabine Schmidtke: (Islam’s Rationalist Heritage and the Preservation of Yemeni Religious Manuscripts).
4) Dr Alexander Nagel ( “Saving Cultural Heritage” as a method of exploitation during the war).
5) Sama’a Al-Hamdani (The shifting of Yemen’s political landscape and its effect on Yemen’s heritage).

Michele Lamprakos on Ṣan‘ā’

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The recent book by Michele Lamprakos, Building a World Heritage City:  Sanaa, Yemen (Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015) has received Honorable Mention in the 2018 SPIRO KOSTOF BOOK AWARD.

Below is the commendation for the award:

Michele Lamprakos proves that it is possible to write a book about conservation that is also an astute urban history. Her meticulous analysis of conservation efforts in Sanaa examines the period from around 1970 to the 2000s but does so from a perspective that takes into account the longer history of conservation itself, from the discussions of Alois Riegl at the turn of the twentieth century to more recent consideration of issues such as authenticity, cultural relativism, colonialism, and the meaning of the Islamic city. With evidence culled both from archival sources and a rich array of oral testimony, Lamprakos gives voice to local officials, architects, builders, and residents. Through her attention to their definitions of such contested terms of conservation as “tradition” and “modernity” she produces a subtly delineated account of the multifarious processes at work in shaping urban form. Her case studies enable us to reconsider and challenge assumptions about the relationships between development and conservation, representations of the past and contemporary practice, everyday life and professionalism.

Michele Lamprakos teaches at the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation of the University of Maryland-College Park.

Dan Varisco on AIYS

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Dan Varisco in al-Ahjur, 1978

by Daniel Martin Varisco

In early 1978 I arrived in Yemen to conduct ethnographic fieldwork on water allocation and springfed irrigation in the Yemen Arab Republic. Najwa Adra, my wife, would also be carrying out her dissertation research on the semiotics of Yemeni dance. I had a Fulbright-Hayes dissertation grant and Najwa had a National Science Foundation grant, so between the two of us we managed to support ourselves for a year and a half in the field. On the way to Yemen we had an unintended stop over in Egypt when our connecting Yemenia flight decided to leave three hours early from Cairo.  When we finally arrived in Sanaa, we were met at the airport by a family friend who had an apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. Soon we found a temporary place to stay with a Yemeni family, while waiting for clearance and looking for an appropriate field site.

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Najwa and Dan in al-Ahjur

This was before AIYS had officially started, but the U.S. Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer Marjorie Ransom helped us through the process of getting permission to do our research and we were put under the umbrella of the Yemen Center for Studies and Research. On the way to Yemen we had stopped over in London and had a chance to visit Prof. R. B. Serjeant at Cambridge, where we also saw Martha Mundy at work on her thesis about irrigation in Wadi Dhahr. In Sanaa we were privileged to meet Qadi Ismail al-Akwa‘, one of Yemen’s most prolific modern scholars. One of our dearest friends was Père Etienne Renaud, who had a great love for Yemen and contributed to the study of Zaydi law.

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Dan and Etienne Renaud in Rome in 1983

In a couple of months we found our site, the breathtakingly beautiful valley of al-Ahjur, a headwater of Wadi Surdud. This had a spring line with allocation from cisterns into an extensive terrace network of agricultural plots. We settled in a room in the country house of our host, Abdullah ‘Abd al-Qadir, and were within easy walking distance of several villages. I spent many afternoons in Abdullah’s afternoon qat chew, where local matters were discussed, an anthropologist dream time. Najwa and I can never repay the kindness of the people we met in al-Ahjur; they treated us as guests and were very patient with our questions.

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al-Ahjur panorama

We met Jon Mandaville and his family when he started as the first resident director of AIYS in Sanaa. Jon invited Najwa and myself on a vacation trip to the Tihāma, where I have vivid memories of a night spent on the beach under the palms, hearing the gently lapping waves, at Khawkha. In the 1980s I returned to Yemen many times as a development consultant and to do manuscript research in the Western Library of the Great Mosque. The small library room (the manuscripts were kept elsewhere) was run by two elderly gentleman, one of whom was almost deaf. His conversations on the telephone were at times quite hilarious. It was here that I first met the Yemeni historian Muhammad Jazm and we soon became close friends.

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Dan and Muhammad Jazm

On my trips to Yemen I always stopped by AIYS, which changed buildings regularly, and was pleased to meet each new director and wave of researchers. In 1983, while I was starting an ARCE Fellowship in Cairo, I came to Yemen to write up the final draft of the USAID Social and Institutional Profile of Yemen. The AIYS President at the time, Manfred “Kurt” Wenner, had solicited articles from a number of scholars, but these had to be merged and edited into the kind of document that USAID needed. The anthropologist Barbara Pillsbury joined me for a marathon writing session and the result was a thorough analysis of the development context of Yemen as of 1983.

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AIYS director Jeff Meissner and Dan in 1987

Even after I started full-time teaching in 1992, I would return at times for consulting. In 1990 I took over the newsletter of AIYS and created a bulletin called Yemen Update, with some of its articles and book reviews archived online. With funding assistance from Hunt Oil we were able to distribute hard copies. In 2014 I became President of AIYS, having served in the past as a secretary and board member. I created a blog called Yemen Webdate, for posts on Yemeni history and culture, and a Yemen Expert Guide to list the names and contacts of individuals with expertise in Yemeni Studies. I also have promoted a Scholar-to-Scholar Program to put Yemeni and foreign scholars into contact with each other for joint research and mentoring. I encourage colleagues to send in material for our AIYS Facebook Page, where news items on the current conflict, etc are posted.

As I write these reflections, Yemen remains in a precarious humanitarian crisis with little end in sight. All of us who have worked in Yemen desire a peaceful settlement so that Yemen’s people can build up their own lives with freedom and security. America’s political choices have greatly angered many of Yemen’s people, but as an educational institute AIYS remains committed to promoting knowledge of all aspects of Yemen’s rich heritage and cultural diversity.

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

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Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

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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

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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.

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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

AMNH PALEONTOLOGICAL SURVEYS IN YEMEN, 1988 AND 1991

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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

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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.

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Delores and Lee Maher, 1982

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Markazi Exhibition

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MARKAZI

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

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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 http://nyuad.nyu.edu/en/research/faculty-research/akkasah.html
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.