Category Archives: Arabic Language

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.

Continue reading Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

Janet Watson on AIYS

Editor’s Note: Dr. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University.  Her main research interests lie in the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages and modern Arabic dialects, with particular focus on theoretical phonological and morphological approaches to language varieties spoken within the south-western Arabian Peninsula. Since 2006, she has been documenting dialects of Mehri, one of six endangered Modern South Arabian languages spoken in the far south of the Arabian Peninsula. She has written three books on Ṣan‘ānī dialect.

Ali al-Mahri and Janet Watson, 2016

I was at AIYS between November 1985 and February 1987. The resident director at the time was Paul Martin, who lived in the AIYS building near the hospital with his wife Laila. Later he was replaced by Jeff Meisnner. I tried to get AIYS sponsorship in 2008 when I began to work on the Mehri spoken in al-Mahra, but research sponsorship was becoming difficult to obtain at that time.

I remember taking a taxi from the airport with the Hungarian Ambassador. I had flown with Aeroflot. The building was clean and traditional, and everything I needed was supplied. Once the AIYS building moved to a more traditional building near al-Gā’, I remember wishing I had arrived later to Yemen. I loved that building.

I remember thinking years before I went to Yemen that I had travelled widely, but that what I would really like to do would be travel into the past. For me, going to Yemen in the 1980s was like travelling into the past. Working in Raymah at a time when there was no electricity and water had to be fetched, I remember looking up into the sky at night and seeing stars ripe for picking, like apples. I will never forget that sense of awe, and will always hope that the sight of a black, black sky with sharp, huge stars may return.

I remember meeting Jean Lambert and talking about music in Yemen. I had recorded women singing in the mountains by al-Jabin in Raymah and he was interested in the material. I went to the YCRS with Noha Sadek, who was also staying at AIYS. I visited her at the mosque in Taizz several months later. Tim Mackintosh-Smith first introduced me to AIYS when I wrote to him from SOAS in London. He was instrumental in my research then and continued to be for all the time I worked on Yemeni Arabic, and later on Yemeni Mehri. Selma al-Radi I met in 1986.

It is essential to show our Yemeni colleagues, both academic and non-academic, that we care and that we have not forgotten them or the country that helped our careers. I have colleagues in al-Mahrah and Ibb now who have not received salaries for almost 2 years. I receive whatsapp messages saying they have had to sell their gold, or their wife’s gold, in order to buy food. The world and its media have erected an iron shield between it and what is happening in Yemen. We cannot do the same.

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


The Digital Bab al-Yemen


This is an excellent introduction to The Digital Bab al-Yemen project hosted at the Freie Universität Berlin. It is well worth browsing for the information on Yemeni manuscripts and the superb photographs by Dr. Jan Thiele.

Here is how the site begins:

“More than 50,000 manuscripts make up Yemen’s written heritage. Very few of them have been studied. The overwhelming majority still await (re)discovery, offering the possibility of rare and surprising insight into Islamic intellectual history. This exhibition tells the history of these manuscripts, from the scribes who created them to the modern-day scholars who study them. Learn more about the importance of Yemeni manuscripts and their variety, discover where they are preserved today, and trace the history of one representative manuscript, written in 1214, as it travels from Sanaa to Berlin and, via digitization, to virtually everywhere.

Today, experts sound the alarm because many manuscript collections are threatened either by poor storage conditions or by opponents of a multi-faceted history of ideas in Islamic scholarship. At the same time, researchers increasingly focus on analysing Yemeni manuscripts as unique original sources. These documents point back to times when manuscripts played a central role in knowledge transmission from teacher to student, not only in Yemen but all over the Islamic world.”

Mehri Center for Research and Studies

Launch of the Mehri Center for Research and Studies


The Center was officially launched on 02 October 2017 in al-Ghaydhah, Yemen.

This event was the first occasion for people from outside the Center’s committee to learn about plans for the Center. Over 100 people from Yemen and Oman attended the launch. The event included several examples of the performance of the Mehri language and its culture, such as folklore and different types of poems, and examples of material culture.

Professor Janet Watson in Mehri, provided a talk. Prof. Janet advised al Mehri speakers to talk to their children in Mehri, to write to each other in Mehri, and to preserve their language from extinction. The recorded talk was disseminated after the launch event to several groups via WhatsApp within Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Continue reading Mehri Center for Research and Studies

September 26 Archive


A trove of books in Arabic on Yemeni politics, especially about the 1962 revolution, is available for download online at

Here are the books available on the site:


كنت طبيبة في اليمن
كلودي فايان. تعريب وتقديم: محسن أحمد العيني

الجمهوريه بين السلطنة والقبيلة في اليمن الشمالي
أبو بكر السقاف

زيد مطيع دماج

الطريق إلى الحرية مذكرات
العزي صالح السنيدار

اليمن الجمهوري
عبدالله البردوني

اليمن الجنوبي الحياة السياسية من الاستعمار إلى الوحدة
علي الصراف

اليمن الجنوبي سياسيًا واقتصاديًا واجتماعيًا منذ 1937م وحتى قيام جمهورية اليمن الديمقراطية
محمد عمر الحبشي

اليمن الثورة والحرب حتى عام
إدجار أوبلانس / ترجمة عبدالخالق ﻻشيد

اليمن تحت حكم الإمام أحمد 1948 –
أحمد عبيد بن دغر

مذكرات أحمد محمد نعمان
علي محمد زيد

مذكرات الرئيس القاضي عبد الرحمن بن يحي الإرياني الجزء الثاني
عبد الرحمن بن يحي الإرياني

مغامرات مصري في مجاهل اليمن
مصطفى الشكعة

نظرة في بعض قضايا الثورة اليمنية
محمد علي الشهاري

ثورة اليمن الدستورية
مجموعة من ضباط ثورة

تاريخ اليمن المعاصر
مجموعة من المؤلفون السوفيت. الترجمة: محمد علي البحر

طائر الخراب
حبيب عبدالرب سروري

أيام وذكريات
حسن محمد مكي

يوم ولد اليمن مجده ذكريات عن ثورة 26 سبتمبر 1962
عبد الغني مطهر



Yemeni Manuscript Source


For anyone looking to find a list of Yemeni manuscripts in several European libraries, the International Treasury of Islamic Manuscripts is a good place to start.  As their website notes, “The International Treasury of Islamic Manuscripts provides a free online manuscript catalogue hosting service in Arabic and English. It guarantees hosting, security and sustainability. ” The library collections include:

A search with “Yemen” finds 243 objects. Details are provided on the provenance of each manuscript. Other relevant resources regarding manuscript collections are linked.

AIYS Yemeni Fellowships 2017

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

Solomon and Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan


Solomon Legends in Sīrat Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan

 Sīrat Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan (“The Adventures of Sayf b. Dhī Yazan”) is a late-medieval Egyptian popular epic that recounts the story of the life and adventures of King Sayf b. Dhī Yazan, son of the Yemenite king Dhū Yazan.1 Set against the background of a war with the king of Ḥabash,2 Sayf Arʿad, it tells the story of how Sayf b. Dhī Yazan (henceforth “Sayf”) leads his people into Egypt, diverts the Nile to its current course, and then goes on to conquer the realms of men and jinn in the name of Islam. Set in legendary pre-Islamic time, it rewrites history to present Egypt as born out of a “reverse exodus” led by a proto-Islamic, Yemeni king.3 As is common in Arabic popular literature, Sīrat Sayf draws much of its material from a pool of popular and folkloric story patterns, motifs, and tropes, which are pieced together in a unique way so as to tell its story. It also makes intertextual reference to stories, legends, and other narratives in ways that enrich the thematic subtext and convey meaning. From this perspective, references to the Islamic qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ (“tales of the prophets”) play a significant role in the text. Not only do they anchor the proto-Islamic world of Sīrat Sayf in Islamic legendary world history, but the associations they bring into the text also nuance the characterization of Sīrat Sayf’s main protagonists and help to create subtextual and thematic complexity.

This article investigates a number of direct references made to legends about the prophet Solomon within Sīrat Sayf in order to explore how this particular sīrah uses the “Solomon” intertext and to what end.4 It focuses primarily on two particular episodes in the sīrah, during both of which stories about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are recounted by characters within the text. After introducing these stories in the first section of this article, the second section assesses the intertextual relevance of the Islamic Solomon legend to Sīrat Sayf. It analyses how these stories, and the episodes in which they are embedded, relate to the Solomon legends as found in premodern qiṣaṣ sources, and how Sīrat Sayf uses intertextual reference to Solomon legends to express its own thematic agenda. In a previous study, I have argued that Sayf is, at its core, a discussion of kingship, fitness to rule, and the importance to society of keeping the forces of order and chaos in balance, and that it expresses this struggle largely through the literary use of gender (according to which, broadly speaking, the female embodies the forces of chaos, and the male the forces of order).5 The use of intertextual reference to other narratives is a key element of this discussion. The final section explores the intertextual relevance of the Ethiopian story of Solomon, Bilqīs, and their son Menelik found in the Kǝbrä Nägäst to the Sayf text.

For the full article, click here.