Charles Schmitz on AIYS

Charles Schmitz in Sanaa

by Charles Schmitz

I was lucky to arrive in Yemen during the optimistic period that followed unification. By 1993, Ali Salem al-Baydh had already absconded in Aden and the expulsion of Yemeni laborers from Saudi Arabia took a toll on the economy, but there was still a euphoria for the new liberal era.

At the time, AIYS in Safiya Shimaliya hosted a score of prominent researchers headed by Sheila Carapico. Sheila was hard at work on Civil Society composed on a laptop with no screen—as I remember, someone had rigged a big dusty desktop monitor to make do. Iris Glosemeyer meticulously collected newspaper articles on every prominent Yemeni political family and could recite the names of the mothers of the Members of Parliament, as well as their sons and granddaughters, by heart. Anna Wuerth was a regular fixture in family court and the court of AIYS’s mafraj gatherings. Eng Seng Ho appeared occasionally in from the Hadhramawt to boil lobsters (it took a long time in Sanaa’s high altitude) or fix a laptop. Resident Director David Warburton somehow managed to keep the place running. These scholars’ guidance and support were critical to my research in Yemen, and my gratitude to them and to AIYS led me to later serve AIYS in the hopes of providing a new generation of researchers the same supportive experience in Yemen.

I took up residence in al-Hawta, Lahj, to observe the reestablishment of property rights in agricultural land. Though completely rudderless, the Yemeni Socialist Party still controlled the south. Those with foresight in Lahj at the time were the Islahi activists in the rebuilt Ministry of Religious Endowments who were well prepared for their post-war reign of terror in al-Hauta. For comic relief, I would join the resident Abdali clan members whose stories of the socialist years in al-Hawta resembled Garcia Marquez’s surrealism. One of the Sultan’s relatives spent four years locked inside his house before finally emerging to join the socialist experiment in progress. My days in al-Hauta were interrupted by the Seventy Days War of 1994. Though we all had hoped the daily peace demonstrations would prevail, deployment of forces along the former border foreshadowed a different outcome. I flew out of Yemen seated on the rear door of a C-130.

By the time I returned to Yemen in 2001, AIYS had grown significantly thanks to Sheila Carapico and Mac Gibson’s work in the early nineties. AIYS indeed had operated on a shoestring for its early history (see Steve Caton’s t-shirts), but tired of running AIYS with student help from her office at the University of Richmond, Sheila applied for new grants that allowed AIYS to hire professional staff. In 1996 AIYS under Mac Gibson hired its first executive director, Ria Ellis, who ran AIYS from her palatial home office in Ardmore, PA.  Ria and her assistant, Joan Reilly, not only administered an expanded AIYS but also produced a spree of new publications, including much of the translations series by Lucine Taminian and Noha Sadek and Sam Leibhaber’s Diwan of Hajj Dakon.  In the early 2000s under Tom Stevenson’s watch, AIYS landed a Middle East Partnership Initiative grant for a permanent residence. Hired as resident director in 2000, Chris Edens undertook the arduous task of finding a permanent building. Chris not only found a well located and suitable building, but also oversaw its substantial reconstruction and the relocation of AIYS from the Bayt al-Hashem location.

AIYS building under construction in 2007

By the time Mac Gibson asked if I would consider leading AIYS in late 2004, AIYS was set to enjoy its most expansive period. The Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), of which AIYS is a member, ran the Critical Languages Program and assigned AIYS the task of creating a program for Arabic students. In the mid-2000s, AIYS built a successful language program and had plans to expand the footprint of the new building to include additional space for students. The foundation for the new hostel was built and AIYS readied for increasing numbers of new students of Arabic, when al-Qaeda’s attack on the US Embassy in September 2008 abruptly ended AIYS’ expansion plans. In the new era of security restrictions, no students or researchers could come to Yemen on Federal grants; Federal money could be used only outside of the U.S. and Yemen. Though implausible, some AIYS grantees came up with ingenious ways to work on Yemen without setting foot in the country. Nancy Um spent time in Europe looking at colonial archives that addressed trade in Mokha, and Sam Leibhaber set up camp in Salala, Oman to study Yemen’s Mahran language. The new restrictions closed AIYS’ language program and severely reduced the number of researchers arriving in Sanaa.

Stephen Steinbeiser arrived in 2009 to relieve Chris Edens and stabilize AIYS under the new security restrictions. Stephen managed to rework the foundation in the back of AIYS designed for student rooms into a beautiful addition to the main building. Stephen also succeeded in cultivating a vibrant research environment despite the restrictions. He added a series of lectures by Yemeni fellows of AIYS grants and worked with Yemeni officials on the sticks project (translation of Himyaritic inscriptions on wood sticks) as well as plans for rebuilding the tower at Sanaa Military Museum for a new children’s museum.

Stephen was just feeling settled in Sanaa when the protests of the Arab Spring erupted. The AIYS building was close to the battle lines separating Ali Muhsin’s troops from Ali Abdallah Saleh’s, and Stephen had to use a rear exit to stay out of the line of fire. Nevertheless, the Institute remained open and several journalists arrived to cover the historic events. There were even Yemeni scholars who used the library throughout the tumultuous summer of 2010.

Ria Ellis, Ammar, and Abdallah
at the side entrance under construction, 2007

The installation of the Hadi government seemed to open a route to a new renaissance. Yemen’s mediated approach contrasted with the devastating wars in Libya and Syria, so the National Dialogue Conference attracted attention from across the globe. However, by my last visit to Yemen in the summer of 2013, underlying tensions were clear. The security situation deteriorated as well as the economy, and the Hadi government proved incapable of managing any of the new challenges facing Yemen.

Meanwhile, AIYS saw the retirement of Ria Ellis and a quick move for our main office to Boston University before landing in Washington DC under CAORC’s care. Today Heidi Wiederkehr at CAORC patiently negotiates the difficulties of transferring funds to AIYS in Sanaa through sanctions and banking failures, while satisfying the USG’s insistence upon accounting for every fraction of a penny. When Dan Varisco relieved me in 2014, his first task was to find a new resident director who was not a US citizen. AIYS was very fortunate to find Dr. Salwa Dammaj who upon taking up residence at AIYS was immediately forced to deal with incursions of Houthi militias. Dr. Dammaj successfully negotiated a Houthi retreat and today manages to keep AIYS alive in Sanaa in hope of a better day for researchers in the country. AIYS still runs a small grant competition for Yemeni scholars, keeping a window open for future research in Yemen. Over seventy Yemeni researchers completed applications for the 2018 grant cycle. Sadly, only a fraction will receive support, but donations to enhance Yemen’s future research can be made to the Abdulkarim Al-Eryani Scholarship Fund on the AIYS website.

Charles Schmitz is Professor and Graduate Program Director, Department of Geography & Environmental Planning at Towson University

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