Socotra Comes to Light

Vitaly Naumkin
Island of the Phoenix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra
Translated by Valerie A. Epstein. Reading, Ithaca Press, 1993, xi, 421 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 34(1994):40-41

Dioscorida . . . is very large but desert and marshy, having rivers in it and crocodiles and many snakes and great lizards of which the flesh is eaten and the fat melted and used instead of olive oil. The island yields no fruit, neither vine nor grain. The inhabitants are few and they live on the coast towards the north, which from this side faces the continent. They are foreigners, a mixture of Arabs and Indians and Greeks, who have emigrated to carry on trade there. The island produces the true sea-tortoise, and the land-tortoise and the white tortoise, which is very numerous and preferred for its large shells, and the mountain tortoise . . . there is also produced in this island cinnabar, that called Indian, which is collected in drops from the trees . . . This island is subject to the king of the Frankincense country. Trade is also carried on there by those who chance to call there on the voyage from Damirica and Barygaza; they bring in rice and wheat and Indian cloth, and a few female slaves, and they take for their exchange cargoes a great quantity of tortoise shell. (Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, 1st century A.D.)

Of the many parts of Yemen yet little studied the major example is no doubt the island of Socotra, located some 500 miles east of Aden. Apart from a few 19th century travel accounts and a sparse traveler or two in this century, the island of Socotra has been a well-kept secret, virtually isolated from the rest of the world by a tough climate and a paranoid regime in the former South Yemen.

When the PDRY was closely allied with the Soviet Union, an ethnographer named Vitaly Naumkin came to Yemen in the 1970s and later in the mid-1980s. Having published two previous books in Russian on his research (Where the Phoenix Rose from the Ashes, 1977; and Essays in the Ethno linguistics of Socotra, 1981 with V. Y. Porchomovsky), Naumkin now provides a highly informative ethnography (in the old style) entitled Island of the Phoenix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (1993, Reading, Ithaca Press, xi, 421 pp.); this is translated by Valerie A. Epstein. The text has a number of black-and-white photographs (most of which are poorly reproduced) and line drawings. It is interesting to note that this edition is actually printed in Lebanon, which certainly belies the hefty price tag for the text. Would that it were in paperback for even half the price!

I noted above that this is an ethnography in the old style, where kinship and material culture occupy center stage &emdash; no postmodernist stains anywhere. It is in a word old-fashioned (in the best sense of the word) documentation. While it cannot cover every aspect of life on Socotra, it provides a welcome introduction to much one finds of interest about this terraincognita. A glance at the table of contents certainly establishes that.

A few words about Socotra are in order. The island is 250 kilometers from the closest landfall in Somalia. A surface area of about 3,650 sq. km ranges over an east-west distance of 135 km and the widest point at only 42 km. One must not forget this is hardly a featureless island. The jagged mountains of the Haggier Range rise up to 1,525 meters above sea level. The climate of the island is indelibly connected with the monsoon system; in June through August gale force winds often rip around Socotra and in spring and summer high seas keep most ships at bay. The flora is, not surprisingly, a mix of African and Arabian types, the most famous local plant being the Dragon's Blood tree (Dracaena draco and D.serrulata). Although there are several endemic animal species&emdash; especially birds, reptiles and insects &emdash; the overall diversity of fauna is quite limited. There is also a short chapter in the book on the nearby island of Abd al-Kuri.

Naumkin provides an interesting summary of what are called in the text "glimpses of history," including classical writers such as Pliny and the author of the Periplus(quoted above) on the legendary "phoenix," from which the title of the book evolves. The history of Socotra is linked to the two nearby mainlands, especially Mahra on the southern Yemeni coast. There was for a long time a Christian population here, as recorded by Marco Polo among others, and the Portuguese made their mark, albeit briefly.

The primary value of the book is the rich documentation of the material culture. The remarks on the "physical characteristics" of the population are, unfortunately, way off the mark, since the author is apparently unaware of recent anthropological assessments of "race." To say that Socotrans (and other southern Yemenis) may be "the missing intermediate link in the race-genetic 'west-east' gradient for which anthropologists search in order to fill the gap between the African Negroids (!) and the Australo-Veddo-Melanesian types in the equatorial race area" (p. 67)illustrates only that the Soviets are still mired in 19th-centuryracial thinking. It is slightly unnerving that such outmoded ideas, devoid of genetic reality, should be published without correction in1993, even though some of the physical measurements (such as on teeth) could be of use.

Archaeologists will be quite pleased at the new information, merged to a certain extent with previous work by Brian Doe, including technical information in the appendices. The strength of the author, however, is clearly toward the cultural domain, well supplemented by his linguistic bent. One learns many of the Socotran words for various objects and ideas. A detailed kinship diagram (p.281) gives 49 degrees of kinship links (from ego) by the Socotran terminology. When Naumkin suggests that there are traces of a "matrilineal clan organisation" on Socotra, one has the uncomfortable feeling that he is not aware that Robertson Smith’s argument in this regard for ancient Arabia is over a century old by now and has some need of revision, to put it mildly. A number of customs are described &emdash; almost Westermarckian &emdash; but nevertheless of great value given the dearth of such folklore in the published literature. The folk tale of the "faithful woman and the three liars" is especially charming, worthy of publication in a future issue of Yemen Update.

While the cost of this book is quite high, not unlike the hardback version of Dresch's important work on Yemeni tribes for Oxford University Press, this is certainly a book worth having for anyone with a keen interest in Socotra. It not only fills a void, but provides a wealth of information that will be of value for some time to come. If you cannot afford the price yourself, try your library. If they balk, tell them that it covers a subject no other book in print does (no lie here). If they buy that, they just might buy this book. And then you can read it with peace of mind, such as comes from a fuller wallet .

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