Category Archives: Culture

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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Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

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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.

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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)

Delores Walters on AIYS

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Delores Walters in Wadi Dhabab, 1994

Delores M. Walters, Ph.D.

I first went to Yemen in the summer of 1981 on a FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) Fellowship to study spoken Arabic, having minored in Modern Standard Newspaper Arabic at NYU. My Arabic language study was in preparation for a doctoral dissertation fellowship in cultural anthropology funded by SSRC and Fulbright between 1982-84. Steven Caton, who was director of the Peace Corps in Sanaa, headed the language-training program, which included several Yemeni teachers. Peace Corps residents in Sanaa that year included American, Dutch, British and German volunteers.  Steve introduced me to Leigh Douglas who was resident director of AIYS at the time.

It was quite a shock to learn later that Leigh Douglas was one of three men, including two British citizens killed in Beirut in 1986 in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Libya.  Leigh had taken genuine interest in my research and was particularly helpful in insuring that Lee Maher, my partner at the time, would be able to accompany me when I returned to Yemen in 1982 to begin my field research. He had made the introductions at the Yemen Center for Research & Studies (YCRS) to begin the process of obtaining residency and research clearance.  AIYS and the resident directors were chiefly responsible for connecting Americans to the Yemeni research center and were especially helpful in that regard. Once introduced, the staff and director of YCRS, Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Maqalih, (also a literary scholar and poet) were remarkably helpful, kind and attentive. Lealan Swanson became resident director of AIYS early during our stay. Occasionally, Lee filled in for Lealan when the latter was away for short periods.

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Delores and Lee Maher, 1982

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Abdullah Al-Mojahid: Genius Painter and Master of Caricature

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Abdullah Mohammed Al-Mojahid is one of the most influential cartoonists and creative painters in Yemen. Al-Mojahid distinguished himself as a pioneering cartoonist and a professional painter. His original talent and professional training had significantly helped him to make his way in the caricature profession in Yemen. “Al-Mojahid had been one of the most important Yemeni cartoonists”, said the Yemeni Minister of Information, Mua’mar Al-Iryani, in a statement issued on his death.

The much-respected artist Abdullah Ahmed Al-Mojahid was born in Taiz in 1950 and  died on September 1, 2017, in the capital Sanaa.

He has been a prolific artist, effectively contributing toward promoting the fine arts and caricature in Yemen. He produced dozens of artistic works through his professional career which spanned more than three decades. Due to his originality and ingenuity as a painter, Al-Mojahid established himself as a famous name both in Yemen and other parts of the Arab world. As a result, in 2013 he participated as a representative of Arab Painters in the International Exhibition for Paintings, organized by the Chinese Ministry of Culture for the Painters. His artistic works and paintings were displayed in various artistic and cultural venues and exhibitions. For example, he organized two exhibitions in Damascus, Syria, in 1980 and 1982.

Al-Mojahid studied Fine Arts in Damascus and started his artistic career as a professional cartoonist in Left-oriented Yemeni newspapers.  He was well known in the caricature profession as Abu Suhail. His artistic works included dozens of paintings, drawings and portraits described as of the finest quality. His most famous caricature is entitled Qurūd Abū Suhayl (Abū Suhayl’s Monkeys), published in 1994 by Al-Thawri Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).

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Abdullah Al-Mojahid: Genius Painter and Famous Cartoonist

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Abdullah Mohammed Al-Mojahed is one of the most influential cartoonists and creative painters in Yemen. Al-Mojahid distinguished himself as a pioneering cartoonist and a professional painter. His original talent and professional training had significantly helped him to make his way in the caricature profession in Yemen. “Al-Mojahid had been one of the most important Yemeni cartoonists”, said the Yemeni Minister of Information, Moa’mar Al-Iryani, in statement issued on his death.

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The much-respected artist Abdullah AhmedAl-Mojahed was born in Taiz in 1950 and died on September 1, 2017, in the capital Sanaa.

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