Category Archives: Photographing Yemen

Yemeni Arts on al-Madaniya

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Despite the turmoil and suffering in Yemen, a number of Yemeni artists are continuing to write, draw, photograph and film. One of the more exciting online resources for this is the website al-madaniya, published in English and Arabic.  Current posts include an article on Muhammad Mahmud al-Zubayri, Art in prehistoric Yemen, Yemeni songs, the poets ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Muqalih and ‘Abd Allah al-Baradduni, several short stories and much more. All the articles are published in Arabic and English, so they are also suitable for anyone interested in learning Arabic.

As note in the “About” section…

al-Madaniya magazine is a platform for Yemeni art, culture and civil society. It aims to highlight and nurture Yemeni art, culture and civil society initiatives through contributions from emerging and established writers, photographers and creatives

The magazine aims to impact the way Yemenis view their own society by providing a space for its cultural, intellectual and artistic productions, and by highlighting initiatives bridging social divisions. By presenting all contributions in both Arabic and English language, the magazine allows the international reader to explore an undiscovered side to Yemen, which differs from images of Yemen created in mainstream media

al-Madaniya magazine is a project implemented by the Yemen Polling Center and made possible by the generous funding of the German Institute of Foreign Affairs.  Yemeni artist Ibi Ibrahim has been commissioned to lead the project and serve as the Editor in Chief.

Noha Sadek on AIYS

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Noha Sadek in AIYS office in Bayt al-Sammān, December 1997

Since I landed in Sanaa for the first time on a brisk early morning with Ed Keall and four other members of the Canadian Mission of the Royal Ontario Museum in Zabīd, Yemen became the main focus of my research and AIYS played an important role in providing a reassuring base, administrative support as well as contacts with fellow researchers. Located near the Tourism office on Taḥrīr Square, AIYS in 1982 was a small house whose director, Leigh Douglas, gave us spartan but reassuring headquarters. Gazing then at AIYS’s colourful qamariyas, I had little inkling that I would return to Yemen three years later for my Ph.D. thesis research on Rasulid architecture.

Thus, I deemed myself lucky to have been awarded the AIYS doctoral fellowship for 1985-86. I shrugged off objections voiced over the fellowship being given to a Canadian, and I spent most of my six-month research period in Ta‘izz studying its magnificent Rasulid monuments. By then, AIYS had moved to a house on 26 September street but I did not reside there during my trips to Sanaa as I lived in Selma Al-Radi’s house in ḥārat al-ʿAjamī, an alley named after the family that owned most of the buildings in it, and whose major landmark was the French Centre for Yemeni Studies (CFEY). I subsequently returned to Yemen to continue work on Zabīd with the CAMROM, and with the help of local historian ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ḥaḍramī I succeeded in mapping the town’s 86 mosques. Our common interest in Yemeni architecture made Selma and I decide to embark on a survey of Yemen’s painted mosques, for which we received an AIYS grant in 1993 that allowed us to hire a car and a driver that made travel to remote mountainous regions, where several of these incredible buildings were located, a lot easier.

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Noha Sadek on the mosque trail in Zabid (Photo by Ed Keall)

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Nathalie Peutz on AIYS

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Nathalie Peutz in Homhil, Soqotra (2003, AIYS fellowship)

It was during my first summer in Yemen as a novice Arabic student at the Yemen Language Center (YLC) in 1999 that I discovered the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and all that it had to offer. Conversations with prominent scholars based at or passing through YLC and a fortuitous meeting with AIYS resident director Marta Colburn led to my applying for a NMERTA/AIYS language fellowship for the following summer and, over time, to a fulfilling career that I owe entirely to Yemen and the repeated forms of AIYS support that helped launch it. Looking back, it is difficult for me to imagine how I would have navigated my anthropological research in Yemen or my academic career without the financial, material, logistical, and social support in addition to the physical base that AIYS provided.

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Justin Stearns on the roof of the AIYS hostel on al-Bawniya Street (2003)

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Ghosts of Hodeidah

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by Lily V. Filson

In the summer of 2005, I arrived in a Yemeni coastal port on a road trip that had brought us from the lofty tower-palaces of Sana’a, capital of Arabia Felix for the Romans, down to the Tihama plain on the Red Sea. Apart from this narrow sea, little separates Tihama from East Africa, but much more than mountains separates Tihama from Sana’a. The air got exponentially hotter and saltier, and the landscape flattened into an arid brown. Our destination was Al-Hodeidah, also seen as Hudaydah, in the Latin alphabet’s perpetual attempts to nail down those mutable Arabic vowels. Translated, it becomes “the iron,” a metal charged with magic and miracles in the long memory of Arab lore, and one which has recently been through the fire of a brutal war.

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But back to 2005: as a foreign girl, the fisherman were enthusiastic to show me everything; some I could identify, others had melted into slime. Most impressive for everyone there were the long masses of shark corpses rolled together like so many unsettling logs. Yemeni machismo won the day, and with great flourishes, a row of teeth was sawed out of one’s mouth, tied up in plastic, and ceremoniously presented. Those teeth travelled around the length of almost all of Yemen on that trip, and five years later, I was in Florence, Italy, where a graduate program was letting my creativity flourish in unexpected ways. I was exploring jewelry design, and the shark teeth which had been my gift in Hodeidah now occupied a small velvet pouch, and they became the stuff of a dream I sketched in silver that quickly took shape at a bench in a workshop in the Oltrarno. In another life in 2013 across the world again, they walked the runway as part of the inaugural New Orleans Fashion Week; those few teeth were destined for a very different life, but their ultimate connection to Al-Hodeidah on Yemen’s Red Sea coast invests them now with a gravity beyond the passing their flashing moments of past glamor.

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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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