Delores Walters on AIYS

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.

Delores and Lee Maher, 1982

AIYS provided a wonderful venue for meeting and networking with other researchers, Americans — early “pioneers” in Yemen, including, Najwa Adra and Dan Varisco, Sheila Carapico, Jon Swanson, Shelagh Weir, Cynthia Myntti, Huda Seif, and Barbara Croken. Some of these fellow researchers helped prior to our arrival in the country or afterwards during our transition. Among the other foreign nationals I met were Ursula Dreibholz, Fr. Etienne Renaud and the French researchers such as Jean Lambert, all of whom were especially warm and welcoming.

Barbara Croken, Lee Maher and Delores Walters, 1982

One of those supportive pioneers was Tomas Gerholm, a Swedish anthropologist who wrote one of the earliest analyses of Yemeni hierarchical society in the modern era — Market, Mosque and Mafraj.  His untimely death in 1995 was also a sad memory. As my work would similarly focus on social hierarchy, particularly at the bottom of Yemen’s intricate ranking system, Tomas and I spent many hours in the early days of my field research in discussion that proved extremely beneficial to my understanding of social relations. Yemeni sociologists we met initially — Hamud al Oudi and particularly Abdo Ali Othman provided an invaluable understanding of Yemen’s social hierarchy from an essential and indispensable Yemeni perspective.

Tomas Gerholm and Lee Maher, 1982

When I finally found a place to carry out my 18 month-long research, I remember the young lads who I encountered in the Suq ad Dhabab, just south of Taizz, being highly amused upon reading in my research permission letter that my work would focus on the akhdam, an outcaste, African-identified group who lived in separate enclaves in the region.  I had already concluded that while I could have arranged daily visits to the akhdam shantytown in Sanaa without venturing farther afield, it was not the setting with multiple group interactions that I had envisioned.  The shantytown had invariably been described as a heap of garbage making, resident participant-observation nearly impossible.

In Yemen, I was almost never taken for an American. Invariably, Yemenis wherever we traveled in the country presumed that because I must be of African descent and spoke Arabic that precluded my being a citizen of the United States.  They also perceived an appropriate age difference between my partner Lee and myself therefore presumed that she was my mother despite the fact that Lee was fair skinned and I, especially in the sunny environs of Yemen, was very brown.  Another assumption was that I was the sister of the boxer Muhammad Ali as Yemeni experience of African Americans was limited to such notables as the internationally renowned boxer.  Thus Yemenis constructed our identities on their own cultural terms and according to their exposure to others via television most often powered by village generators.

We were a known and protected entity in the village of Wadi Dhabab, and that continued after we relocated in the town of ‘Abs in the northern Tihama to complete our research agenda.  The town, unlike the village, was more open and accessible to both ‘Absi and non-‘Absi residents. We attached ourselves to the clinic (mustashfa), which during the 1980s was operated by an international team of doctors and nurses, notably from Ethiopia and England. In that environment, we again achieved the status of protected and highly regarded guests among our Yemeni neighbors.

AIYS was a major support financially and logistically through several subsequent research trips to Yemen, between 1994-1998.  In the1990s, the clinic facility in ‘Abs, now the Maternal & Child Health Center, was run by the murshidat (literally health guides) who had been trained as midwives and as the primary care givers for mothers and children. Sudanese midwives were their teachers.  My video, Murshidat: Female Primary Health Care Workers Transforming Society in Yemen (1999) focuses on these women. In addition to delivering babies and treating illnesses such as malaria, many of them routinely conducted home health visits in the market area (suq) where the social outcastes lived.  These murshidat activists were thereby breaking down social barriers that would have rendered African-identified akhdam and formerly enslaved ‘abid outside the delivery of health services, despite the official abolition of such stigmatized and marginalized status.

Screening of Murshidat at AIYS, 1998

Among those who lent their expertise and support in the production of the video were Najwa Adra, Raja’a al Musabi, Marina deRegt, Noha Sadek, AIYS resident director, and Amat al Alim as Suswa, then deputy secretary to the Minister of Information who facilitated my obtaining archival footage of the 1962 revolution in what was then North Yemen that I used in the video. Other productive encounters at AIYS during my postdoctoral research were Janine Clark, Lucine Taminian, Ria Ellis (executive director of AIYS), Barbara Michael and Husnia al Qadri.

The screening debut of Murshidat took place in the AIYS mufraj in December 1998 with an audience that included AIYS hostel residents who were members of an ICD (International Cooperation for Development) team from London, Namibia, Somalia and Zimbabwe. Others such as Basma al Qubayti, director of a non-profit training facility for girls in Sana’a, had assisted in research pertaining to the murshidat. Similarly, the murshidat, and their clients — mothers and some fathers – also viewed the completed video in the ‘Abs clinic in December 1998. Ra’ufa Hassan, one of the first female journalists in Yemen, showed it to her Women’s Studies class at Sanaa University. It was also presented to the American Embassy in Yemen’s capital. The Murshidat video was well received and can be seen on YouTube. Steven Caton, professor and former director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard, facilitated the acquisition of the video for one of the university’s libraries.

AIYS has promoted the work of researchers in Yemen, providing financial, logistical and residential support (through its hostel) for four decades.  In my experience, visiting scholars form a community thereby creating an invaluable resource for scholarly endeavors.  It is crucial that AIYS continues to provide such a haven for researchers as their work will especially matter in the recovering environment beyond the current crisis.

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