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.