Category Archives: Scholars

Burrowes on Dr. Abd al-Karim Al-Eryani

AKI Fragments
by Robert Burrowes


Dr. Abd al-Karim Al-Eryani (AKI) was diminutive—I mean short, really short.  From time to time, a professor in the PhD program in Yale allegedly would come into class and exclaim: “Can’t believe it, but I just saw a driverless car with no one behind the wheel speeding across the campus.” The car he was alluding to was in fact one being driven by AKI who could only look through and not over the wheel.

If it wasn’t Dr. AKI who told me this tale, it was probably Middle East specialist Michael Hudson who did.  He and AKI were PhD students at Yale at the same time, Mike in political science and AKI in biology.  And this reminds me that it was Mike who facilitated my meeting Dr. AKI, and it also lets me illustrate things about the man.  As the following tale suggests, and regardless of his place in government, society or family, Dr. AKI did not tower over people—and this was not a function of his physical size.  He was by nature a welcoming, open and generous man.

At the urging of a political friend in Taiz, I had come  to Sanaa in spring 1976 in order to meet Dr. AKI, head of the Central Planning Organization.  An unemployed American academic and a refugee from Lebanon’s Civil War, I only made it halfway up the stairs to Dr. AKI’s office before I totally lost confidence, stopped and retreated.  Luckily for me, following me down the stairs was my friend Mike Hudson who had just met with his friend, Dr. AKI.  When Mike told me he was going the next day down to the Tihama with Dr. AKI for three days for a ceremony at the Wadi Zabiid Project, I proclaimed my envy.  Mike said:  “No problem. Show up with your bag at the hotel tomorrow morning.  I will introduce you to Dr. AKI and he will invite you to go along.  And that is precisely what happened.

We had a wonderful three days together, going down to and from the Tihama, in Wadi Zabid and for two nights in a modest hotel in al-Hodeidah.  Over these days, I learned more about the politics and recent political history of Yemen than I had over the previous half year in the country.  This proved to be the beginning of my political education—and nearly forty years of friendship.  He welcomed me with open arms dozens of times.  Some three decades later, not long after the Yemeni unification that he had helped engineer, Abd al-Karim invited me and several others for a week’s stay on an extraordinary island, Socotra.  We had a wonderful time, as did the Yemeni politician with the PhD in biology from Yale.  I think Mike Hudson was with us.

Was Dr. AKI politically naïve?  Yes—and no.  I think he was forever a political optimist, and at times I thought he was too much so.  When exasperated colleagues urged that after decades it was time to be rid of Dr. AKI, President Salih is alleged to have said “No, we need him and are going to work and ride him like a donkey until he drops over dead”.

In his second tour as prime minister, Dr. AKI chose as a main task the reform of a greatly inflated, incompetent and costly civil service that had gotten worse over the decades.  After months of effort, he was able to go before President Salih and announce that he had finally achieved agreement on a plan that would eliminate thousands of “shadow” positions, save lots of money and allow the leadership to focus on creating an effective government work force.  In response, the president announced to Dr. AKI that he had just reinforced tribal support for the regime by creating and financing thousands of “shadow” military jobs for tribal militias.  And so it went.

On the other hand, Dr. AKI often revealed a strong sense of political insight and awareness. Introduced to the Arab world in the late 1950s, I was for decades a disciple of Gamal Abdul Nasser, and coming to Yemen in 1975, a year after Ibrahim al-Hamdi seized power, I quickly became something of a disciple to the person many hailed as “the little Nasser”. Early on, I noticed in Dr. AKI a lack of enthusiasm for President al-Hamdi, and at some point I questioned him on this. He answered with a story: “On one of the few times I met alone with Ibrahim he drew close to me, tapped me on my knee, and softly said this:  “‘Abd al-Karim, I have one great weakness—I don’t trust anyone.’  Quickly, Ibrahim’s distrust poisoned his regime and spread to everyone.  And, in the end, his colleagues in the military got him before he got them.”  Clearly, Dr. AKI’s take on al-Hamdi was much better than mine.

Another story told to me by Dr. AKI or someone else in the Al-Eryani family relates to the above.  When the rare military member of the family, the one who had previously advised President Abd al-Rahman al-Eryani on military affairs, returned to Yemen from exile, he told members of the family that the distribution of troops around Sanaa could only mean that the military was positioned to overthrow al-Hamdi.  When he asked family leaders whether he should warn al-Hamdi of the danger, he was told by Dr. AKI that the president, long suspicious and distrustful of the al-Eryani family, would reject the warning, accuse the family of sowing discord, and punish the al-Eryanis.

To donate to the Memorial Fellowship Fund for Yemeni Scholars in honor of Dr. Al-Eryani, click here.



Ahmed Qasim Dammaj: Obituary

The poet Ahmed Qasim Dammaj (center) with Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqaleh (right)

Obituary : Ahmed Qasim Dammaj

by Salwa Dammaj, his daughter

The genius poet and much respected activist Ahmed Qasim Dammaj died aged 77. He passed way Tuesday morning January 4, 2017 in the Military Hospital in the capital Sana’a. His body was laid down in his final rest in the graveyard of the “Friday Dignity Martyrs” in Sana’a. In a huge funeral held Wednesday hundreds of  mourners paid tribute. The mourners included high rank Yemeni officials, writers, authors, journalists, academics, politicians, activists, social dignitaries and ordinary people.

Yemen’s great poet and intellectual Dr Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh took part in the funeral. Dr Al-Maqaleh was Dammaj’s intimate friend and long standing fellow. He described Dammaj’s death as “a grave lose for creativity during these circumstances”. He had been a veteran freedom fighter who participated in the revolution of the 26 of September and 14 of October”, said Dr Al-Maqaleh.‬

Official authorities, political parties and trade unions all paid tributes to the late Ahmed Qasim Dammaj. Both the incumbent president Abd Rabu Hadi and the former president Ali Saleh mourned him in cables of condolences in which they highly praised the role Dammaj played in building up the political and trade union organizations in the country. Hadi’s statement read: “Ahmed Qasim Dammaj was a great patriotic figure, with noble values, virtues and very good track record. Our thoughts with his family”.‬ For his part, the former president Saleh considered Dammaj a man of principles. “Few Yemeni intellectuals, like Ahmed Qasim Dammaj, had really held unalterable national convictions and principles. Dammaj had already set a good example as a patriotic activist and NGO leader. Our sympathy with his family”, Saleh said in his  statement.‬

‬The Union of Yemeni Writers and Authors gave high praise to the departed Dammaj.  A mourning statement issued by the union read:  “With the death of the great poet and veteran freedom fighter, Ahmed Qasim Dammaj, Yemen has missed one of the most influential patriotic persons who had actively and effectively contributed toward establishing the NGO’s, on top of all the Union of the Yemeni Writers and Authors. The Union’s mourning statement went on saying: “Dammaj was one of the founders who played a key role in promoting Civil Society organizations and he had  heralded the notion of the country’s reunion. The statement added: “It is a grave lose to miss the wisdom of this great man and it is saddening to miss his patriotic voice at this critical moment.”
Continue reading Ahmed Qasim Dammaj: Obituary


AIYS held two well-attended panels at MESA in Boston last week.  Here are some of the photos from the panel organized by Dan Mahoney on the destruction of Yemen’s cultural heritage:

Dr. Lamya Khalidi, Dr. Krista Lewis and Dr. Dan Mahoney at MESA

Dr. McGuire Gibson at the heritage panel.  Dr. Gibson was the founder of AIYS in 1978.

Dr. Lamya Khalidi, who also provided a video of Dr. al-Sayani, the current Director of the General Organization of Antiquities  and Museums in Yemen.

And here are photos from the panel organized by Dr. Marieke Brandt:

Continue reading AIYS at MESA

Brandt on al-Ḥamdānī

Marieke Brandt

Heroic History, Disruptive Genealogy: al-Ḥasan al-Hamdānī and the Historical Formation of the Shākir Tribe (Wāʿilah and Dahm) in al-Jawf, Yemen

Medieval Worlds 3:116 – 145, 2016.

A pdf is available here.

Genealogies are emic forms of social representation among many tribes in the Arab world. The formability of these genealogies for the purposes of politics and alliances is a common phenomenon. It becomes particularly obvious if one looks at the case of the Shākir tribe and its main divisions Wāilah and Dahm in the region of al-Jawf in northernmost Yemen. A comparison of their tribal genealogies and settlement areas in the tenth century CE, as described by the Yemeni scholar and historian al-Ḥasan al-Hamdānī, with their tribal structures and territories in the twenty-first century shows the enormous extent of change to which the Shākir, especially Dahm, have been subject in the past millennium. These changes seem to reflect in part the continuous immigration of external tribal groups to which the fringes of the Rubʿ al-Khālī desert have historically been exposed, and their inclusion into the local societies and thus the evolving genealogy of Shākir. These elements of residential discontinuity and mobility contrast with the more general pattern of territorial continuity and stasis prevailing in the central areas of Yemen. Yet the genealogy of Shākir proved to be more open towards these intrusive groups than towards the original inhabitants of the area itself: in contemporary al-Jawf remain descendants of ancient groups who are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of the area and who were neither given equal status to Shākir nor included into the Shākir genealogy. Seen in this light, the genealogies and semi-legendary traditions of al-Hamdānī’s al-Iklīl also served to evoke a vision of community and of common identities among the heterogeneous societies of South Arabia and to legitimize them as heirs of a country and its history, which in parts was not inherently their own.

Jean Lambert on Yemeni Music


La musique traditionnelle yéménite menacée par les bombardements

Un chef-d’œuvre du patrimoine oral de l’humanité

Depuis trente ans, Jean Lambert mène des recherches sur les sociétés et les musiques de tradition orale dans plusieurs pays du monde arabe. Mais c’est sans nul doute au Yémen que ce travail a été le plus marquant, avec des années passées sur le terrain. C’est dans ce berceau originel de la civilisation arabe, à la richesse culturelle sans égal chez ses voisins de la péninsule Arabique, qu’il est passé de l’anthropologie et de la musicologie à l’ethnomusicologie. «  J’y ai trouvé une chaleur, une sensualité et une sagesse qui, certainement, m’avaient manqué. Sans doute est-ce la raison pour laquelle j’ai fait le choix de la fidélité et d’une certaine persévérance dans mes objets de recherches qui, en retour, n’ont cessé de m’enrichir  ». Chaleur, sensualité, sagesse, autant de mots étonnants pour définir un pays trop souvent connu à travers les seules images réductrices que véhicule une actualité politique déformée par des médias avides de sensationnel et de clichés surfant sur les peurs.

Continue reading Jean Lambert on Yemeni Music

Muhammad ʿAbd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil Biography


Muhammad ʿAbd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil: A Political Biography

Jens Heibach
META, Middle East Topics and Arguments, Vol 4, 2015
PDF available here.



Muhammad ʿAbd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil (1942-2014), professor of political science at Sanaa University, deputy secretary-general of the Union of Popular Forces, and pioneer of the human rights movement in South Arabia, was one of the few home de lettres in Yemen whose intellectual clout extended far into the Arab world. As an outstanding figure of political and scholarly life in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, his vita exemplifies the ups and downs of Yemeni politics in the post-imamic, republican era up to the fall of ʿAli ʿAbdallah Salih, just as his writings are an enlightening guide to the understanding of the latter and the Yemeni social fabric as a whole. This article seeks to provide a political biography of a man whose calm and sensible voice many will find missing in these times of turmoil.


al-Mutawakkil; Yemen; Intellectual; Opposition; Human Rights; Joint Meeting Parties

Full Text:



Jens Heibach is a research associate in the department of Middle Eastern Politics at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Marburg University. He holds a diploma in political science from the Freie Universität Berlin. His research interests include political opposition, conflict resolution, political Islam as well as politics and society of the Arabian Peninsula.



Passing of Mutahhar al-Iryani


The much-respected historian, linguistic and poet Mutahhar bin Ali Al-Iryani passed away at 83 years. The Ministry of Culture announced his death on Tuesday, 9 February, 2016. On this sad occasion the American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS) extends its heartfelt condolences to his family members.

The late scholar was one of the most celebrated historians and intellectuals in Yemen. He was really a man of great intellect and ingenuity. He had distinguished himself as a pioneer researcher and accomplished historian by his creative work on Yemen’s ancient inscriptions. He had made great efforts to decipher dozens of ancient inscriptions about Yemen’s history and civilization.
He also made substantial contribution to Yemen’s literature. He had authored several books most important of all: “Musnad Inscriptions and Comments”, in which he decoded old inscriptions written in Yemen’s old alphabetical letters known as Al-Musnad. His second significant book is: “The Yemeni Linguistic Lexicon”, which included thousands of vocabulary of different Yemeni dialects that can’t be found in other Arab dictionaries.

Al-Iryani also contributed along with the two professional historians Dr Yusif Mohammed Abdullah and Dr Husayn Al-Amri to verifying two famous Yemeni books. ” Shams Al-‘Ulum” by Nashwan ibn Sa’id Al-Himyari and “Feature of Yemen throughout ages, from 7th B.C. to 19th A.D”.

The late, Mutahar Al-Irayni has been very famous as a creative poet as well as a historian. He had composed dozens of poems and lyrics considered to be of first-class Yemeni modern poetry. A number of his patriotic and emotional lyrics were put into music by Yemen’s most popular singers. These include” Love and Coffee”, “Al-Balah” and ” He Stood up and Bid Farewell “.

Contributed by Dr. Salwa Dammaj

Help Preserve Yemen’s Architectural Heritage


The initiative to represent Yemen in Venice

How it started

Back in the Netherlands – after having worked in Yemen for years – Lidwien Scheepers was looking for an opportunity to present Yemen in a positive way on the world stage as Yemen is a misrepresented country from various perspectives. She has found this opportunity in the form of the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice in 2016.

In November 2014 Lidwien Scheepers visited the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. She noted the presence of some Arab countries and the absence of Yemen. During this visit she managed to contact the responsible person of the Visual Arts and Architecture Department of the Biennale who explained to her the procedure to follow in order to have Yemen invited as a national participant by the President of the Biennale.

Seen the rich and fascinating architectural heritage of Yemen Lidwien DSCF1397Scheepers is eager to have this beautiful country for the first time shining on this leading international platform for architecture in Venice in 2016.

The first step to be taken in order to represent Yemen in Venice was the participation request “by the competent Governmental Authority through which the Country normally performs activities of the same type”. Therefore, Yemeni supporters of the initiative approached the Yemeni Deputy Minister of Culture, H.E. Huda Ablan. She welcomed the idea to represent Yemen in the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. Thereafter, the required correspondence with the Biennale was drafted in close cooperation with the Deputy Minister of Culture and the Undersecretary for Cultural Relations, Mr. Ayed Ali Al-Shawafy. On 9 September 2015 Yemen received the official invitation from the President of the Biennale as a national participant.

Where we stand right now

The challenge ahead is the nomination of the commissioner and the curator as well as the development of an idea/concept and a design of the Yemeni participation in collaboration with Yemenis and other experts that worked on Yemen heritage. Subsequently, a detailed proposal for the exhibition project has to be developed. It goes without saying that funds are needed for implementation.

Burrowes on Al-Eryani


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