It was during my first summer in Yemen as a novice Arabic student at the Yemen Language Center (YLC) in 1999 that I discovered the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and all that it had to offer. Conversations with prominent scholars based at or passing through YLC and a fortuitous meeting with AIYS resident director Marta Colburn led to my applying for a NMERTA/AIYS language fellowship for the following summer and, over time, to a fulfilling career that I owe entirely to Yemen and the repeated forms of AIYS support that helped launch it. Looking back, it is difficult for me to imagine how I would have navigated my anthropological research in Yemen or my academic career without the financial, material, logistical, and social support in addition to the physical base that AIYS provided.
In 2000, this AIYS support enabled me to return to Yemen for further Arabic study. Living in the delightful home on al-Bawniya street, my partner Justin Stearns and I enjoyed numerous lively discussions with other resident scholars in its charming mafraj and kitchen spaces. It was here, in 2000 and the years following, that we first met several of our current and former institutional colleagues: Marion Katz (New York University), Maurice Pomerantz (NYU Abu Dhabi), and Samuel Liebhaber (Middlebury College). It was also through the AIYS that I met Nancy Um, who kindly invited me along on a research trip to al-Hudaydah and al-Mokha. This experience, and a subsequent cattle boat crossing from al-Mokha to Berbere and from Djibouti back to Mokha, deepened my interests in Yemen’s Horn of Africa connections and motivated my initial research on Somali refugees and deported migrants in al-Hudaydah (January 2002, spring 2003) and in Somaliland (summer 2002, fall 2003). Little could I have guessed then that I would end up returning to Somaliland and Djibouti in 2016, this time to begin research with Yemeni refugees in the Horn of Africa (see link), instead of with Somali refugees in Yemen.
In 2003, an AIYS grant for preliminary research afforded me a good six months in Yemen to pursue potential dissertation topics. Whether it is because this was to be the longest period I have spent in Sanaa, or because of the tense build-up to the Iraq War, my memories of this period are particularly entwined with memories of the AIYS hostel. A week before our departure to Yemen, Justin Stearns and I were in New York City protesting the imminent invasion. A few weeks later, in Sanaa, foreign researchers were warned to stay away from protests and to avoid traveling around Yemen. What I remember most, apart from working in the AIYS’s extraordinary library, is the many hours we spent watching media coverage of the invasion, often with Selma al-Radi. Eventually, Justin and I “escaped” to Soqotra, from where we continued to watch the invasion and, then, the Fall of Baghdad. One day, however, we splurged on a half-day car rental and driver who took us to a protected area called Homhil. Again, little did I know then that I would end up living in Homhil just over a year later (2004–2005) and that I would continue to research and write about conservation, development, and heritage in Soqotra for over a decade to come. Generously funded by Fulbright-Hayes and a follow-up research grant from the AIYS (2007), and greatly facilitated by the AIYS’s resident director Chris Edens, this research resulted in my dissertation and my forthcoming book, Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen (Stanford University Press, 2018).
Justin Stearns outside my solar-powered house in Homhil,
Taking fieldnotes inside my house in Homhil
(photograph by J. Stearns, 2004)
After having shifted my research focus to Soqotra, I began spending less time in Sanaa and, consequently, less time at the AIYS hostel. Nevertheless, Chris and his successor, Steven Steinbeiser, continued to facilitate my research as well as to offer valuable guidance and advice. And, each time I visited Sanaa, the AIYS hostel—a vital sanctuary from the rigors of fieldwork—felt like home. It was here that I also benefitted from conversations with David Buchman, Steve Caton, Joy McCorriston, Miranda Morris, Carolyn Han, Lamya Khalidi, Michelle Lamprakos, Stacey Philbrick-Yadav, Sarah Phillips, Marjorie Ransom, Dan Varisco—to name just a few of the scholars I first met on its grounds—many of whom I have had the great privilege of working with in later years. The social connections forged in and through the AIYS hostel have been as indispensable as have been these academic networks. When I received the shocking news one night in Sanaa that my father had passed away, I immediately headed over to the AIYS hostel; this is where I knew to find logistical and emotional support.
Returning to Soqotra with my son (2007, AIYS fellowship)
Due to the ongoing tragedy of the war in Yemen, I now conduct research in the Horn of Africa instead. Many of the Yemeni refugees I interview these days in the Markazi camp in Djibouti tell me that they have decided against ever returning to Yemen, that Yemen is “khalas.” I sincerely hope that this is not the case—that there will be a welcome return for them someday in a Yemen that is peaceful, and healing. Until then, I take some small comfort in knowing that the AIYS is far from “khalas”—that it continues to open its doors to Yemeni scholars and to support essential research in and on Yemen. The AIYS has provided many invaluable services for so many scholars. I am deeply grateful to the institution and all of its hardworking directors, presidents, and staff for all the opportunities the AIYS has given me.
Nathalie Peutz is Program Head of Arab Crossroads Studies and Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Arab Crossroads Studies Program at New York University Abu Dhabi
This post is part of the anniversary of AIYS at 40. Click here for other reflections.