Category Archives: Agriculture

Incense Production in Ancient Southern Arabia

Incense Production in Ancient Southern Arabia: Developing an Archaeological Project

by Joy McCorriston, 1995-96 Fellow
Professor of Anthropology, The Ohio State University

Impatience.

I sensed it in ethnographer Ietha’s scowl, in S_____’s interruptions. How could I translate for her, while I struggled with even basic comprehension of what Letha tried to convey? It was all so foreign to me—the stone scatters on rocky surfaces seemed like nothing I could dig; the crumbling heaps of ancient towns were too recent to conceal the homes of prehistoric farmers. Where did producers of Yemen’s fabled frankincense live, and what were the networks that brought incense into trade caravans headed toward the Classical world?

Left to right: Ietha al-Amary, ‘AbdalKarim Barkani, and Ghufran Ahmad relax on the back of “Flower,” a trusty rented SUV.

All the research on Incense Kingdoms or Caravan Kingdoms had ignored this basic problem: the kingdoms and their caravan departures were not where the frankincense trees grew. CAORC’s Multi-Country Research Fellowship had given me an opportunity to tackle that question, and out of it grew two decades of archaeological team research, my own and others’ scholarly careers, and the training several generations of American students. With CAORC support through the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, I spent three critical months in Yemen and Oman, hiking and driving through unpaved terrain, building collaborations through sharing resources and hardships, and learning the landscape and research logistics. In the end, Ietha and I worked and camped together, argued, and acquiesced for a decade. Early scowls and struggles became smiles and semantics.

I selected a region for study and returned the next year with coveted funds from the US National Science Foundation, the first of nine more major grants I would obtain for the Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia (RASA) Project, a multi-disciplinary study of the landscape of southern Yemen’s highland pastoralists in Wadi Sana, a remote valley in the mountains of Hadramawt. We camped in the desert for months, we sweated by day, shivered by night, and told time by the stars. We excavated the earliest herder’s camp in Arabia. We found a ring of skulls from a cattle sacrifice that happened more than six millennia ago. In all, the team spent six more seasons collecting field data in Yemen, and we published 25 articles and books, including two doctoral dissertations, two masters’ theses, and my book-length answer to the question I’d started with (Pilgrimage and Household in the Ancient Near East, Cambridge University Press 2011).

The RASA team at our Wadi Sana camp, 2004.

Terrorism finally caught up with us, and with regrets at leaving colleagues in Yemen, we shifted our emphasis to nearby Dhofar, Oman, a region I’d first studied as a CAORC fellow. We received three more major grants, including a 1.6 million dollar award from The National Science Foundation. We were still studying ancient pastoralists, the people who collected and transported frankincense, still teasing questions that grew out of our foundational CAORC study.

Good research raises more questions than it answers, and even as I today understand what Ietha was saying, I am driven by new questions and a conscience that in these decades we have been not only researches and scholars but American science ambassadors, bringing together people who would otherwise never meet and shaping positive perceptions of each other through working together.

Two Talks on Yemen in Vienna

On July 3 Dr. Najwa Adra will present a talk at the Institute for Social Anthropology in Vienna, Austria entitled: “What Does it Mean to Be Tribal in Yemen?”

On July 5 Dr. Daniel Martin Varisco will give a talk at the same institute on “Agriculture in the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.”

Both talks are free and open to the public. For details, see https://www.oeaw.ac.at/en/isa/events/upcoming-events/

Details on both talks are provided below:

What Does it Mean to Be Tribal in Yemen?

A large majority of Yemen’s population self-identifies as qabili /pl. qaba’il, terms normally glossed in English as “tribal.” Qabyala a uniquely Yemeni term that can be translated as “tribalism” comprises tribal ideology, customary law, behavior in formal contexts and a set of presumed personal characteristics ascribed to tribal Yemenis. This talk, based on long term field research, explores the behaviors and events associated with qabyala, in contrast to activities that do not connote tribalism; describes the interaction of tribes with urban elites; and suggests ways in which Yemeni tribes can collaborate with the state in peacebuilding and national development.

Najwa Adra (www.najwaadra.net) holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Temple University. She is   a cultural anthropologist with long-term experience in field research and development  consulting in Yemen. She has studied tribal identity and customary law in Yemen’s Central Highland Plateau as these have changed over the past 30 years and the ways in which these indigenous institutions can contribute to state building. She has written on Yemeni tribal mediation for ISA and is currently completing a book on tribal identity in Yemen. Her research also extends to Yemeni dance traditions, women’s role in Yemeni agriculture and literacy.

Agriculture in the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen

Yemen has a rich tradition of agriculture, stemming from the South Arabian kingdoms through the Islamic era. Yemeni scholars, anthropologists and agricultural experts have written about Yemen’s agriculture in the past half century, but less is known about the state of agriculture during the Mutawakkilite Kingdom in Yemen of the Zaydi Imams Yahya and Ahmad (1918-1962). This talk draws on Arabic resources, accounts by foreign travelers and the report of a 1955 FAO agricultural mission to Yemen in describing the role of agriculture and cultivated crops in the area ruled by the imams in the first part of the 20th century.

Daniel Martin Varisco holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania for ethnographic research on water resource use and agriculture in Yemen. He has also conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. He serves as President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, editor-in-chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net), and was editor of Contemporary Islam (2006-2016). He has published on the history of Yemeni agriculture in the Journal for the Economic and Social History of the Orient, the Journal of Semitic Studies, History and Anthropology and in his Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science (1994).

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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Charles Schmitz on AIYS

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Charles Schmitz in Sanaa

by Charles Schmitz

I was lucky to arrive in Yemen during the optimistic period that followed unification. By 1993, Ali Salem al-Baydh had already absconded in Aden and the expulsion of Yemeni laborers from Saudi Arabia took a toll on the economy, but there was still a euphoria for the new liberal era.

At the time, AIYS in Safiya Shimaliya hosted a score of prominent researchers headed by Sheila Carapico. Sheila was hard at work on Civil Society composed on a laptop with no screen—as I remember, someone had rigged a big dusty desktop monitor to make do. Iris Glosemeyer meticulously collected newspaper articles on every prominent Yemeni political family and could recite the names of the mothers of the Members of Parliament, as well as their sons and granddaughters, by heart. Anna Wuerth was a regular fixture in family court and the court of AIYS’s mafraj gatherings. Eng Seng Ho appeared occasionally in from the Hadhramawt to boil lobsters (it took a long time in Sanaa’s high altitude) or fix a laptop. Resident Director David Warburton somehow managed to keep the place running. These scholars’ guidance and support were critical to my research in Yemen, and my gratitude to them and to AIYS led me to later serve AIYS in the hopes of providing a new generation of researchers the same supportive experience in Yemen.

I took up residence in al-Hawta, Lahj, to observe the reestablishment of property rights in agricultural land. Though completely rudderless, the Yemeni Socialist Party still controlled the south. Those with foresight in Lahj at the time were the Islahi activists in the rebuilt Ministry of Religious Endowments who were well prepared for their post-war reign of terror in al-Hauta. For comic relief, I would join the resident Abdali clan members whose stories of the socialist years in al-Hawta resembled Garcia Marquez’s surrealism. One of the Sultan’s relatives spent four years locked inside his house before finally emerging to join the socialist experiment in progress. My days in al-Hauta were interrupted by the Seventy Days War of 1994. Though we all had hoped the daily peace demonstrations would prevail, deployment of forces along the former border foreshadowed a different outcome. I flew out of Yemen seated on the rear door of a C-130.

By the time I returned to Yemen in 2001, AIYS had grown significantly thanks to Sheila Carapico and Mac Gibson’s work in the early nineties. AIYS indeed had operated on a shoestring for its early history (see Steve Caton’s t-shirts), but tired of running AIYS with student help from her office at the University of Richmond, Sheila applied for new grants that allowed AIYS to hire professional staff. In 1996 AIYS under Mac Gibson hired its first executive director, Ria Ellis, who ran AIYS from her palatial home office in Ardmore, PA.  Ria and her assistant, Joan Reilly, not only administered an expanded AIYS but also produced a spree of new publications, including much of the translations series by Lucine Taminian and Noha Sadek and Sam Leibhaber’s Diwan of Hajj Dakon.  In the early 2000s under Tom Stevenson’s watch, AIYS landed a Middle East Partnership Initiative grant for a permanent residence. Hired as resident director in 2000, Chris Edens undertook the arduous task of finding a permanent building. Chris not only found a well located and suitable building, but also oversaw its substantial reconstruction and the relocation of AIYS from the Bayt al-Hashem location.

Continue reading Charles Schmitz on AIYS

AIYS Yemeni Fellowships 2017

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Some of the 2017 AIYS Yemeni Fellowship Recipients

Despite the continuing crisis, AIYS has been able to offer fellowship research grants to Yemeni scholars. This year, with limited funding, a total of 15 proposals out of 47 were awarded. Seven researchers out of fifteen who received AIYS Fellowship grants for 2017 gathered on Friday May 26, 2017 in the AIYS premises. Each researcher gave a brief presentation about his/her own research. The Resident Director of AIYS welcomed the scholars and congratulated them on winning the fellowship grant, wishing them success in their studies.

The researchers belonging to different academic specialties, including history, medicine, agriculture, science and literature.

Those present included:
1- Dr. Amat Al-Maliq Al-Thawr, Professor of History at Sanaa University, whose research is aimed to study the cultural relation between Yemen and Mecca during the reign of the Al-Qasimi Imamate State. She discussed the main objective of her research, highlighted the importance of such study and explained her methodological approach. Dr. Al-Thawr suggested that the Yemeni Imams paid great attention to the relation between Yemen and Mecca so that they had the final word on the religious and cultural activities in the Holy Mecca. She stated that her research is designed to provide a detailed study about Yemen’s relations with Mecca during that period.

2- Dr. Ebtisam Shamasan, a professor at Sanaa University College of Science, will study the nutritive value of the Indian mackerel fish species. She explained her research’s objectives, methods and importance. The researcher suggested that her study is mainly intended to explore to what extent freezing may affect the nutritive value of Indian mackerel fish.

3- Arif Al-Afeef, a Master degree student at the College of Medicine, Sanaa University, gave an overview about his research on the liver disease Cirrhosis.

4- Dr. Nabilah Al-Wasi’aee talked briefly about her research topic which focuses on a poetry collection entitled “Sanaa” by Yemen’s great poet Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh. The researcher said that her study aims to shed light on one of the most distinguished poetical works by Dr. Al-Maqaleh, who is one of the most celebrated and influential figures in Arab literature and culture in the temporary history of the Arab world. Al-Wasi’aee argues that this book “Sanaa” can be described as one of Al-Maqaleh’s most impressive poetical works. “It is filled with poetical images, symbols, rhythm and metaphors,” she said.

5- Dr. Monirah Jamel, head of the Psychology Department at Sanaa University, dedicated her research to study psychological impacts upon the teenagers of Internally Displaced People (IDP). She explained the objectives of her research that aims to explore the negative impacts of displacement upon the internally displaced students.  “My research is intended to study to what extent displacement can undermine ‘self-esteem and achievement impetus’ among IDP students in the secondary schools,” Jamel said.

6- Dr. Amirah Qasim, a professor at Sanaa University’s College of Agriculture, gave a brief presentation about her research on “Livestock Food Substitution.” She gave details about her research’s objectives, approach and importance. Her research aims to study how leaves of the Prickly Pear plant can be used as a food to feed animals, mainly sheep.

7- Saleh Al-Faqeeh, a doctoral degree student in the Antiquities Department, Dhamar University, will study “Ottoman Facilities in Yemen.” The scholar gave a detailed presentation about his research that aims to document the Ottoman civil facilities in the city of Sanaa.

At the end of the gathering, the researchers received the grant funds. As usual every researcher received 80% ($1000) of the total amount. The remaining 20% is held back and will be paid as soon as researchers get their studies accomplished and have submitted a copy of it. The researchers expressed their pleasure to get the Yemeni Researcher Fellowship, highly appreciating AIYS assistance at this critical moment. Some Yemeni Students who study abroad for master and doctoral degrees also received the fellowship. They made presentation about their researches via the Internet, so their funding was transferred to them.

Here we have to express our deep thanks to Mrs Heidi Wiederkehr of CAORC for her continuous contacts and tireless efforts she made to get the money allocated to the Sanaa AIYS office amid very difficult conditions.

Dr. Salwa Dammaj
Resident Director
American Institute for Yemeni Studies
Sanaa Yemen

Burrowes on Al-Eryani

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Abd al-Karim was one of my two best Yemeni friends (the other being his nephew, Abd al-Ghani), the man who taught me the most of what I know about Yemeni politics, and in my opinion the most important political force in Yemeni politics over the past generation.  He founded and shaped the old Central Planning Organization (CPO) in the mid-1970s, designed the multi-step process that led to the creation of the GPC and the consolidation of the Salih regime in the early 1980s, orchestrated the unification of Yemen and creation of the Republic of Yemen in 1990, negotiating the final border agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2000, and helped engineer the transition from the 30-years-old Salih regime in 2011.  Did anyone do half as much over this 35-year period? May this great Yemeni rest in peace.

Robert Burrowes, University of Washington, emeritus