Category Archives: Photographing Yemen

Yemenis in 1873

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It is rare to find photographs of Yemenis in the 19th century, especially ordinary people and not members of the elite. A series of photographs were taken of individuals within the Ottoman Empire for a book entitled Les Costumes Populaires de la Turquie en 1873. This was compiled for the Turkish Imperial Commission for the Universal Exposition in Vienna. The book is available as a pdf at archive.org.

While only four individuals are identified as Yemeni, there are many other people across the empire in the photographs.  The two photographs here, each with three individuals, are presented below, followed by the description of each in French.

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left to right: Scholar in al-Ḥudayda (#1), woman of Ṣan‘ā’ (#3)
middle-class man of al-Ḥudayda (#2)

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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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Philby in the Hadramawt

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The British traveler H. St. J. Philby is best known for his writings on Saudi Arabia, but he also visited the Hadramawt in the late 1930s, driving down from Najrān through the eastern extent of the Empty Quarter to Shabwa and then into the Ḥaḍramawt. It is a chatty text like an extended diary, with names of people met and places visited, including archaeological ruins with inscriptions.  Philby has his bias, as is evident throughout, but the photographs are good documentation of life at the time.

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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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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.

Traveling in War-torn Yemen

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The traveler Stephen Gollan recently traveled to Yemen, despite the conflict there, and has provided a number of nice photographs about his trip. It is well worth perusing.

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Here is how his article starts:

“What brings a traveler to places like this? Is it the desire to be so far from other travelers and achieve an authentic experience, or is it the thrill of stepping into the forbidden and unknown corners of the world?

When it comes to Yemen, I found my attraction drawn from its plethora of historical sights and its splendid natural beauty. But if I am to be one hundred percent honest with you the tremendous lure in coming to conflict areas like Yemen are the people. Yemen’s people are unlike anywhere I have ever been. Their hospitality is contagious, they smile even when there are airstrikes happening blocks away and no matter who you are, or what you believe in, they will be your lifelong friend.

This is what makes all the pain, all the danger, and all of the after effects worthwhile in venturing into finding the truth for yourself. This is Yemen, true Arabia.”

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Yemen in 1960

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The author, born in 1929.

In 1961 the Yemeni scholar Ahmad Husayn Sharafaddin published a short book in English of about 80 pages entitled Yemen “Arabia Felix.” The book was published in Rome Italy, but distributed from Ta‘izz.  It provides a short summary of Yemen just before the revolution that toppled the Zaydi imamate.

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As narrated by the author, the population of Yemen was estimated at 5,834,000 with 4,400,000 in what he called “Free Yemen” (the Mutawakkilite Kingdom) and 1,434,000 in the “Occupied area” under the British. The city of Ṣan‘ā’ was said to have 60,000 residents and Ta‘izz had half that amount.

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Most of the book is devoted to the archaeology of the ancient South Arabian kingdoms.

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One of the highlights is a pull-out chart of the genealogy of the Zaydi imams.

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Of particular interest are the pictures, as noted here.