Category Archives: Sanaa

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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No Longer Terra Incognita

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The war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen has sparked a series of recent publications on the situation there, a situation which seems to change daily and yet remain the same quagmire. Given the relative lack of reporting earlier in the war, the more books on the Yemen crisis the better. In 2017 there was Marieke Brandt’s Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict (London: Hurst), Ginny Hill’s Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Sarah Phillips’ Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis (NY: Routledge), and Helen Lackner and Daniel Martin Varisco’s edited Yemen and the Gulf States: The Making of a Crisis. Berlin: Gerlach. Among the recent entries in 2018 are Helen Lackner’s Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State (London: Saqi Books), Laurent Bonnefoy’s Yemen and the World: Beyond Insecurity (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Isa Blumis’ Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World (Berkeley: University of California Press), and Marie-Christine Heinze’s edited Yemen and the Search for Stability: Power, Politics and Society after the Arab Spring (London: I. B. Tauris).

Marie Christine Heinze’s edited volume has 13 articles in addition to an Introduction by the editor. The articles were originally written for a conference at the University of Bonn in 2014 with a focus on the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Events since the start of the Saudi-led war are not covered, but the volume is important for analysis of this transition period. Among the topics covered are the role of intellectuals in Yemen after the Arab Spring, feminist resistance and gender dynamics, the mobilization of tribes in Mahra, Southern views of the Yemeni state, the governance of the reform process, women’s empowerment in the NDC, the competing roles of the Huthis, Islah and the Salafis, the impact of youth, fashion and theater, the threats to Yemen’s heritage and the future role of federalism.

AIYS members Charles Schmitz and Sheila Carapico have written positive endorsements of the volume on the back cover.

This volume can be ordered here.

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).

McGuire Gibson on AIYS

Some random memories about the founding of AIYS and subsequent times in Yemen.

McGuire Gibson, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

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The American Institute for Yemeni Studies came into being because the late Selma al-Radi had taken a job as an advisor to the Department of Antiquities, as part of Dutch aid.  In 1977, I was in Riyadh, working on some finds from the survey that the Oriental Institute had done in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. All the foreigners I met insisted that, since I was so close, I should go to visit Yemen, which was “marvelous.”  Finishing my work a couple of weeks early, I sent a wire to Selma, asking if it would be possible to visit.  A week later, I arrived at the Sanaa airport, paid $12 for a visa, and was driven into the city by Selma in her Suzuki, Flosi.  Within two hours, we were having lunch at the top of the American ambassador’s house, one of the finest tall houses in the city.  Tom Scotes, the ambassador, and his wife had also invited Dr. Abdul Karim el-Eryani and Marjorie Ransom, the Public Affairs officer of the embassy.   Much of the conversation was an attempt to convince me to start archaeological work in Yemen.  Being already fully engaged in Iraq, with a small remaining commitment to the Saudi project, it looked unrealistic to begin research on a country I knew nothing about, except for the snippets learned in Arabian Seminar meetings in Britain.  (Although there were serious academic talks based on inscriptions, real archaeology had barely begun at that time, and the presentations were more often than not: “When I was leading the X rifles in Aden, we chanced on a dam and some buildings in Y valley.”)

Dr. Abdul Karim stated that he had previously been the Minister of Planning, but had decided that you could not plan anything without basic data, and therefore he had become Minister of Education and had pushed for the admission of foreign researchers to help in the gathering of information on which to develop the country. I had already been told by Selma about the dozens of American researchers in Yemen, studying development projects, doing medical research, and carrying out dissertation projects in anthropology.  I told the group at the table that what was really needed was an American Institute, similar to the one in Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan, which would foster more research, make it easier for scholars to find cheaper housing and a library, and would become a center for the exchange of ideas.  By the time we got up from the table, the ambassador, Dr. Abdul Karim, and I had signed a note of intent to form an institute, and the ambassador promised $40,000 as a seed grant while Dr. Abdul Karim promised either a house or land at the new University of Sana’a, on which to build.  And I promised that I would try to mount an archaeological project, even if I did not carry it out myself.

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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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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.

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.

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Yemen’s Akhdam

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Luca Nevola has just published an article on the so-called Akhdam in Yemen at Open Democracy. Here is the first paragraph, but click here for the full article.

In 2013, Nu‘man al-Hudheyfi – a man of akhdam origin – participated at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) held in Sanaa as part of the crisis reconciliation efforts following the 2011 Yemeni Arab Spring. At the time, Hudheyfi was the President of the National Union for the Marginalised and a member of the General People’s Congress, the majority party in the country. In the past, he has defined the ‘marginalised’ as all “those people excluded from property and instruction, forced to live at the margins of society”. But during the conference, his focus was mainly his fellow people, the akhdam, as he condemned the NDC’s racism (‘unsuriyya) by pointing out that Yemen’s three million ‘black people’ had only one representative at the NDC.

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Pomegranate seller, Yemen. Rod Waddington/flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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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