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.

Sam Liebhaber, 2004, doing some shopping in Suq al-Qaa’.

The introductions that Marta Colburn and Christopher Edens provided put me in good stead for my future research in Yemen.  For one, my affiliation with the AIYS opened doors for me at the Yemen Center for Studies and Research (YCSR) where Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih presided as its director.  Thanks to the friendly relations maintained between the AIYS and YCSR, American scholars were welcome to the extraordinary resources of the YCSR – including visa sponsorship – and this perhaps at the lowest point for the US reputation in the Arab world due to the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib prison by Americans in Iraq.  Thanks to the public lectures held at the AIYS, its support for Yemeni scholars, and the open doors of its library, the AIYS has rendered a tremendous service to the image of Americans living in Yemen.

Having determined to focus my research on the oral poetic traditions of the Mahra in Eastern Yemen, I was able to spend 2003-2004 in Yemen thanks to an AIYS research fellowship and once again, the AIYS once again played a crucial role in providing logistical, academic, and personal support (in addition to the aforementioned financial support).  I was a frequent guest of the AIYS hostel – now located in the beautiful, historic Bayt al-Hashim in Bir al-‘Azab – where I profited immensely from interacting with fellow Yemeni and foreign scholars who made use of the AIYS library facilities or resided there.  While I was based in Aden or al-Ghaydha for much of the time, I looked forward to week-long vacations at the AIYS in Sana’a where Christopher Edens provided a space for friendly conversations and scholarly discussions between AIYS residents, friends, and staff.  The work that I completed during this year formed the basis of my dissertation, “Bedouins Without Arabic: The Oral Poetry of the Mahra of Southeast Yemen”, which in turn yielded a number of articles about orature in the Mahri language.

The AIYS was always willing to help advance the cause of public scholarship about al-Mahra in Yemen.  For instance, the AIYS provided support to the Mahri poet, Hajj bir Ali bir Dakon, towards the composition of the first written collection of poetry in the Mahri language – The Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākon (AIYS, 2011) – and funded its publication. This collection – bearing the imprint of the AIYS – marked the first publication of literary-aesthetic texts in the Mahri language, and thanks to its publication in Yemen, it was likewise available to a Yemeni and Mahri readership.  Getting this publication to press – with texts in type-set and handwritten Mahri and facing Arabic translation, plus an English translation and transcription for each poem – would have been impossible without the herculean labors of Maria de Ellis, the non-resident director of the AIYS, who along with Joan Reilly, the assistant director of the AIYS, took charge of editing, proofreading, and formatting Hajj Dakon’s poetic collection.

I was able to return to Yemen in 2008 to continue recording and translating Mahri poetry, thanks again to the support provided by an AIYS research grant.  In addition to spending time in al-Ghaydha, I was hosted at the AIYS’ extraordinary new facilities: a walled villa near al-Qaa’.  Under the supervision of the resident director Stephen Steinbeiser, the AIYS’ undertook to build this facility using tradition Yemeni techniques and materials, yielding a spacious and self-sufficient hostel, library, and meeting space.  It was a pleasure to stay at the new facility and reacquaint myself with staff whom I hadn’t seen for a number of years – especially Amir and Mulk – who continued to enliven the AIYS’ hostel with their conversation and song.

In 2008, it was clear that Yemen as a unified republic was beginning to unravel and the AIYS facility in Sana’a subtly transformed in my mind from being a comfortable and hospitable residency to a safe and secure one, and thanks to the foresight of Stephen Steinbeiser, the officers of the AIYS, and the AIYS’ current resident director, Salwa al-Dammaj in crafting a plan for electric and water self-sufficiency, I understand that the AIYS facility in Sana’a continues to be one of the few functioning academic facilities in Sana’a at the present time.

In 2011, I hoped to return to Yemen to continue my research in al-Mahra.  However, the situation in Yemen had deteriorated to the point that it was impossible to do.  Instead, the AIYS offered me the possibility of using a research grant to visit Salalah where I could work with Mahri speakers living in Dhofar or visiting from Yemen.  With the support of the AIYS, I started work on a curated digital exhibit of Mahri poetry in 2011-2012 based on materials I collected in Salalah as well as earlier work from al-Mahra.  The resulting online exhibit of Mahri poetry – When Melodies Gather –  will be published by Stanford University Press in Spring 2018 under its newly inaugurated digital publications unit.  Even though travel to Yemen has become prohibitively dangerous since 2014, the AIYS has continued to demonstrate its utility and support for research.  Working though social media, the AIYS current resident director, Salwa al-Dammaj, put me in contact with a number of participants in the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference.  Thanks to these remote introductions, I was able to prepare an analysis of Mahri and Soqotri language recognition in the various committees tasked by the National Dialogue to study this issue, as well as the language that ultimately made it into the draft Yemeni constitution of 2014.  I presented my analysis at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in 2015 on a panel, “Tolerance and Turmoil: Unpacking the Current Crisis in Yemen”, sponsored by the AIYS.  I am very grateful to Daniel Varisco, President of the AIYS, for organizing this panel.

Finally, I have had the honor serving on the Yemeni fellowship committee of the AIYS where I have read and evaluated grant proposals from Yemeni scholars annually since 2009.  Over the eight years that I have served on this committee, I have seen the number of applicants increase from five in 2009 to forty-seven highly qualified individuals in 2017.  Few components of my professional career have been as satisfying as following this development, although this feeling is tempered by the fact that Yemeni scholars must now turn to foreign agencies to support their work at a time when Yemeni academic institution are in disarray.  However, the caliber of research engaged in by Yemeni scholars and activists over the range of the humanities, social sciences, and sciences is a testament to the persistent intellectual ambition of our Yemeni colleagues in the face of heart-wrenching circumstances.  While the funds available for this program are extremely limited, I suspect that the Yemeni research grants provided by the AIYS are one of the few instances in Yemen right now in which the word “American” evokes positive associations.

In conclusion, I am profoundly grateful to the AIYS for all of its support over the years I’ve studied in Yemen and carried out research there.  The two – the Yemen and the AIYS – are intertwined in my mind to the degree that I can’t conceive of the former without the latter.  The AIYS provides a critical service to scholarship about and from Yemen and is one of the few unarguably positive links in the relationship between Yemen and the United States.

Sam Liebhaber is Chair of the Arabic Department, Director of Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Arabic at Middlebury College

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