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AIYS after 40

Reflections on the History of AIYS

The American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS) celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018. Founded in 1977, the first office in Ṣan‘ā' was opened in 1978 under the directorship of Dr. Jon Mandaville. During its 40 years AIYS has supported American, other foreign and Yemeni researchers with fellowships and assistance for research permission through its Yemeni counterpart, the Center for Research and Studies.

This page contains reflections and photographs from former AIYS officers, resident directors and fellows. We encourage anyone who has used the facilities of AIYS or benefited from assistance to send their reflections and photographs for inclusion, as AIYS goes forward to assist our colleagues in Yemen.

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

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.


Editor’s Note: Dr. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University.  Her main research interests lie in the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages and modern Arabic dialects, with particular focus on theoretical phonological and morphological approaches to language varieties spoken within the south-western Arabian Peninsula. Since 2006, she has been documenting dialects of Mehri, one of six endangered Modern South Arabian languages spoken in the far south of the Arabian Peninsula. She has written three books on Ṣan‘ānī dialect.

I was at AIYS between November 1985 and February 1987. The resident director at the time was Paul Martin, who lived in the AIYS building near the hospital with his wife Laila. Later he was replaced by Jeff Meissner. I tried to get AIYS sponsorship in 2008 when I began to work on the Mehri spoken in al-Mahra, but research sponsorship was becoming difficult to obtain at that time.

I remember taking a taxi from the airport with the Hungarian Ambassador. I had flown with Aeroflot. The building was clean and traditional, and everything I needed was supplied. Once the AIYS building moved to a more traditional building near al-Gā’, I remember wishing I had arrived later to Yemen. I loved that building.

I remember thinking years before I went to Yemen that I had travelled widely, but that what I would really like to do would be travel into the past. For me, going to Yemen in the 1980s was like travelling into the past. Working in Raymah at a time when there was no electricity and water had to be fetched, I remember looking up into the sky at night and seeing stars ripe for picking, like apples. I will never forget that sense of awe, and will always hope that the sight of a black, black sky with sharp, huge stars may return.

I remember meeting Jean Lambert and talking about music in Yemen. I had recorded women singing in the mountains by al-Jabin in Raymah and he was interested in the material. I went to the YCRS with Noha Sadek, who was also staying at AIYS. I visited her at the mosque in Taizz several months later. Tim Mackintosh-Smith first introduced me to AIYS when I wrote to him from SOAS in London. He was instrumental in my research then and continued to be for all the time I worked on Yemeni Arabic, and later on Yemeni Mehri. Selma al-Radi I met in 1986.





Janet Watson at a book launch in Yemen in July, 2002

It is essential to show our Yemeni colleagues, both academic and non-academic, that we care and that we have not forgotten them or the country that helped our careers. I have colleagues in al-Mahrah and Ibb now who have not received salaries for almost 2 years. I receive whatsapp messages saying they have had to sell their gold, or their wife’s gold, in order to buy food. The world and its media have erected an iron shield between it and what is happening in Yemen. We cannot do the same.

Ali al-Mahri and Janet in Doha, 2016

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