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.

Tribute to a Friend

The following obituary was published in Anthropology News by Dr. Najwa Adra on June 16.

Bint al-Wadi’i, Al-Ahjur, Yemen (circa 1944-2016), الله يرحمها ويعوض اهلها

Written in memory of a friend whose support was crucial to my understanding of life and etiquette during my ethnographic research in Yemen.

In 1978-79, my husband, Daniel Varisco, and I spent 18 months conducting dissertation fieldwork in the beautiful basin of al-Ahjur, located in Yemen’s Central Highland Plateau. I studied the semiotics of dancing in a project that morphed into the semiotics of tribal identity, while Dan’s work focused on the ecology of irrigation systems. Neither of us hired a paid informant. We spent most days going out into the community, Dan observing and talking with farmers in the fields, while I hung out with women and sometimes women and men together, since village life is not usually gender segregated. Occasionally each of us conducted formal interviews with local specialists, and it seemed that we spent an inordinate amount of time writing diaries and typing field notes.

We were fortunate to rent a room in the house of the respected leader and mediator, Al-Sayyid Abdallah Abd al-Kader. Our lodgings were extraordinarily comfortable by fieldwork standards, but more importantly, being guests of a respected family provided our presence with a legitimacy that opened doors to all of the houses in nearby villages and towns. Sayyid Abdallah and his family were more than gracious hosts. They were mentors, spending time and energy responding to our questions (and I’m sure the questions of others about us.) I spent hours with my hostess, known locally as “al-Sharifa” or “bint al-Wadi’i,” sometimes helping in the kitchen, other times sitting together chatting. She taught me local dialect and patiently answered my long lists of questions. Village gossip travels fast, and the goings and comings of local anthropologists are prime topics of conversation. She patiently explained local etiquette whenever she heard my faux pas, or I registered surprise at someone’s behavior. We became fast friends.

In 1983, I spent 4 months with them while Daniel was in Cairo. I did not realize until years later that my presence without my husband was troublesome. They had to defend my reputation in several ways, but she never let on. Our friendship continued over the years. I would visit whenever I returned to Yemen, and we talked occasionally by phone, although I often had problems connecting with them from New York. I am grateful that communication has been easier from Doha.

I never think or write about Yemen without remembering bint al-Wadi’i and her wonderful family. Both Dan and I owe so much to their help. Today, I learned that my friend passed away May 2 from a heart attack. May she rest in peace, and may God give her family solace.

The AN Column on obituaries is reserved for anthropologists, but many of us also mourn the passing of individuals we knew during and after our fieldwork. The following tribute was written by Najwa Adra,, on May 6.