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.
Dan Varisco in al-Ahjur, 1978
In early 1978 I arrived in Yemen to conduct ethnographic fieldwork on water allocation and springfed irrigation in the Yemen Arab Republic. Najwa Adra, my wife, would also be carrying out her dissertation research on the semiotics of Yemeni dance. I had a Fulbright-Hayes dissertation grant and Najwa had a National Science Foundation grant, so between the two of us we managed to support ourselves for a year and a half in the field. On the way to Yemen we had an unintended stop over in Egypt when our connecting Yemenia flight decided to leave three hours early from Cairo. When we finally arrived in Sanaa, we were met at the airport by a family friend who had an apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. Soon we found a temporary place to stay with a Yemeni family, while waiting for clearance and looking for an appropriate field site.
Najwa and Dan in al-Ahjur
This was before AIYS had officially started, but the U.S. Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer Marjorie Ransom helped us through the process of getting permission to do our research and we were put under the umbrella of the Yemen Center for Studies and Research. On the way to Yemen we had stopped over in London and had a chance to visit Prof. R. B. Serjeant at Cambridge, where we also saw Martha Mundy at work on her thesis about irrigation in Wadi Dhahr. In Sanaa we were privileged to meet Qadi Ismail al-Akwa‘, one of Yemen’s most prolific modern scholars. One of our dearest friends was Père Etienne Renaud, who had a great love for Yemen and contributed to the study of Zaydi law.
Dan and Etienne Renaud in Rome in 1983
In a couple of months we found our site, the breathtakingly beautiful valley of al-Ahjur, a headwater of Wadi Surdud. This had a spring line with allocation from cisterns into an extensive terrace network of agricultural plots. We settled in a room in the country house of our host, Abdullah ‘Abd al-Qadir, and were within easy walking distance of several villages. I spent many afternoons in Abdullah’s afternoon qat chew, where local matters were discussed, an anthropologist dream time. Najwa and I can never repay the kindness of the people we met in al-Ahjur; they treated us as guests and were very patient with our questions.
We met Jon Mandaville and his family when he started as the first resident director of AIYS in Sanaa. Jon invited Najwa and myself on a vacation trip to the Tihāma, where I have vivid memories of a night spent on the beach under the palms, hearing the gently lapping waves, at Khawkha. In the 1980s I returned to Yemen many times as a development consultant and to do manuscript research in the Western Library of the Great Mosque. The small library room (the manuscripts were kept elsewhere) was run by two elderly gentleman, one of whom was almost deaf. His conversations on the telephone were at times quite hilarious. It was here that I first met the Yemeni historian Muhammad Jazm and we soon became close friends.
Dan and Muhammad Jazm
On my trips to Yemen I always stopped by AIYS, which changed buildings regularly, and was pleased to meet each new director and wave of researchers. In 1983, while I was starting an ARCE Fellowship in Cairo, I came to Yemen to write up the final draft of the USAID Social and Institutional Profile of Yemen. The AIYS President at the time, Manfred “Kurt” Wenner, had solicited articles from a number of scholars, but these had to be merged and edited into the kind of document that USAID needed. The anthropologist Barbara Pillsbury joined me for a marathon writing session and the result was a thorough analysis of the development context of Yemen as of 1983.
AIYS director Jeff Meissner and Dan in 1987
Even after I started full-time teaching in 1992, I would return at times for consulting. In 1990 I took over the newsletter of AIYS and created a bulletin called Yemen Update, with some of its articles and book reviews archived online. With funding assistance from Hunt Oil we were able to distribute hard copies. In 2014 I became President of AIYS, having served in the past as a secretary and board member. I created a Yemen Expert Guide to list the names and contacts of individuals with expertise in Yemeni Studies. I also have promoted a Scholar-to-Scholar Program to put Yemeni and foreign scholars into contact with each other for joint research and mentoring. I encourage colleagues to send in material for our AIYS Facebook Page, where news items on the current conflict, etc are posted.
As I write these reflections, Yemen remains in a precarious humanitarian crisis with little end in sight. All of us who have worked in Yemen desire a peaceful settlement so that Yemen’s people can build up their own lives with freedom and security. America’s political choices have greatly angered many of Yemen’s people, but as an educational institute AIYS remains committed to promoting knowledge of all aspects of Yemen’s rich heritage and cultural diversity.
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.
Please send your reflections to firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Schmitz in Sanaa
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