Steve Caton on AIYS

Steve Caton (right) and Najwa Adra in al-Ahjur, February, 1979

by Steve Caton

In its early days, AIYS seemed to operate on a shoe-string budget. (Perhaps its officers would maintain that it still does so today.) And so its first resident director Jon Mandaville had to be entrepreneurial to make ends meet, and one of his money-making schemes was to sell t-shirts that had an image and “American Institute for Yemeni Studies” printed on the front. I believe this was sometime in 1980. I bought one. I only could afford to buy one because I too had a hard time making ends meet on my meager fellowship. I imagine my student colleagues in AIYS were not much better off financially, and so I wonder how big a money-maker the t-shirts were in the end.


I’ve kept t-shirts over the years which I associate with different places I’ve been to, and this has amounted to quite a collection. When I rummage through my drawers to retrieve one, I pick a t-shirt that seems to fit my mood on that day. Even after they’ve gotten torn or faded, I continue to wear them, until I reluctantly consign their tatters to the scrap heap, where they have second lives as cleaning rags.

But there are some t-shirts I don’t wear very often, precisely because they are irreplaceable or one of a kind, and my t-shirt from the early days of AIYS fit this description. I wore it while I was still doing fieldwork in Yemen, and afterwards again when I grew nostalgic for those days. But around ten years ago, I decided not to wear it at all, lest it suffer the fate of my other worn-out, thread-bare t-shirts, so I “retired” it to the bottom of the drawer and hardly saw it again. In time, I forgot it was even there.

Until Dan Varisco put out the call for memories of AIYS on the anniversary of its founding. I asked myself whether that t-shirt from so long ago was still in my possession. I was relieved that it was, and not the worse for wear either because of the precautions I had taken with it. It is a Hanes cotton-polyester mix made in the USA, size XL46-48. (Why so large, I wonder?) It’s gray (I don’t recall whether this was the only color it came in or just the one I chose because of its elegance). On its front is the image Jon had chosen to symbolize AIYS, a qamariyyah or stained glass Yemeni window, ringed at the top with a half-inch black line and edged at the bottom with a slightly narrower one. The window design is white, simulating the white-plaster of the original, though the panes of glass are not colored but gray, no doubt to keep the cost low. Underneath the window, on the side where the heart is, is clearly written in Arabic the title that can also be found on the left, American Institute for Yemeni Studies.

The choice of window design leaves me a bit puzzled now. The Star of David is on prominent display in the middle. As we all know, this is not an uncommon sight in Yemeni windows, and yet to be displayed on a t-shirt promoting an American research institute: did this not seem politically provocative? Or were these rhetorically more “innocent” times? The white on the window is also peeling off (it’s an appliqué) which is no doubt another reason I stopped wearing it. Every time I washed it, the appliqué was more degraded until the window looked to be in ruins.

I don’t want to make too much of the metaphor (or perhaps the synecdoche), but that t-shirt stands in for AIYS more than I could have imagined when I first bought it. A little worn. A little faded. Still provocative (perhaps more so than before). Retired to the bottom for safe-keeping until the day when it can function at full-strength again. Certainly not ready for the scrap heap. Its name emblazoned over the heart.

Steven C. Caton is Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University. His first book was “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe (1993) and he has also written Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation (2006).

Note: Charles Schmitz has noted that the star on the AIYS t-shirt is actually 5-sided and not the star of David.

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