Between 1825 and 1828 an English lady named Anne Katharine Elwood accompanied her husband, a colonel in the British service, to India. On this trip they stopped at Hodeidah and Mocha on the Red Sea coast of Yemen. Her account is quite detailed, including her visits with women in Hodeidah and Mocha. Her full text, published in 1830, is entitled Narrative of a Journey Overland from England by the Continent of Europe, Egypt, and the Red Sea to India, including a Residence There, and Voyage Home, in the Years 1825, 26, 27, and 28. The discussion of Yemen is in Volume 1, which is available at

Here is her description of meeting women in Hodeidah:

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The valley of al-Ahjur, a headwater of Wadi Surdud, in 1985

Bint al-Wadi’i, Al-Ahjur, Yemen (circa 1944-2016), الله يرحمها ويعوض اهلها

Contributed by Najwa Adra

This post is written in memory of a friend whose support was crucial to my understanding of life and etiquette during my ethnographic research in Yemen.

In 1978-79, my husband, Daniel Varisco, and I spent 18 months conducting dissertation fieldwork in the beautiful basin of al-Ahjur, located in Yemen’s Central Highland Plateau. I studied the semiotics of dancing in a project that morphed into the semiotics of tribal identity, while Dan’s work focused on the ecology of irrigation systems. Neither of us hired a paid informant. We spent most days going out into the community, Dan observing and talking with farmers in the fields, while I hung out with women and sometimes women and men together, since village life is not usually gender segregated. Occasionally each of us conducted formal interviews with local specialists, and it seemed that we spent an inordinate amount of time writing diaries and typing field notes.

We were fortunate to rent a room in the house of the respected leader and mediator, Al-Sayyid Abdallah Abd al-Qader. Our lodgings were extraordinarily comfortable by fieldwork standards, but more importantly, being guests of a respected family provided our presence with a legitimacy that opened doors to all of the houses in nearby villages and towns. Sayyid Abdallah and his family were more than gracious hosts. They were mentors, spending time and energy responding to our questions (and I’m sure the questions of others about us.) I spent hours with my hostess, known locally as “al-Sharifa” or “Bint al-Wadi’i,” sometimes helping in the kitchen, other times sitting together chatting. She taught me local dialect and patiently answered my long lists of questions. Village gossip travels fast, and the goings and comings of local anthropologists are prime topics of conversation. She patiently explained local etiquette whenever she heard my faux pas, or I registered surprise at someone’s behavior. We became fast friends.

In 1983, I spent 4 months with them while Daniel was in Cairo. I did not realize until years later that my presence without my husband was troublesome. They had to defend my reputation in several ways, but she never let on. Our friendship continued over the years. I would visit whenever I returned to Yemen, and we talked occasionally by phone, although I often had problems connecting with them from New York. I am grateful that communication was easier when I spent time in Doha.

I never think or write about Yemen without remembering bint al-Wadi’i and her wonderful family. Both Dan and I owe so much to their help. Today, I learned that my friend passed away May 2, 2016 from a heart attack. May she rest in peace, and may God give her family solace.

This post was originally published in the Anthro News column on obituaries.

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I know that there has been a lot of monkey business lately in Yemen, but here are some monkeys that have a longer history in Yemen than anyone else, even the Himyarites. The baboon (Papio hamadryas) came over from East Africa. For those who are interested, there is an open access article on the introduction of baboons (rubah) to Arabia. Here is the abstract of the article:

  • Many species of Arabian mammals are considered to be of Afrotropical origin and for most of them the Red Sea has constituted an obstacle for dispersal since the Miocene–Pliocene transition. There are two possible routes, the ‘northern’ and the ‘southern’, for terrestrial mammals (including humans) to move between Africa and Arabia. The ‘northern route’, crossing the Sinai Peninsula, is confirmed for several taxa by an extensive fossil record, especially from northern Egypt and the Levant, whereas the ‘southern route’, across the Bab-el-Mandab Strait, which links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, is more controversial, although post-Pliocene terrestrial crossings of the Red Sea might have been possible during glacial maxima when sea levels were low.

  • Hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) are the only baboon taxon to disperse out of Africa and still inhabit Arabia. In this study, we investigate the origin of Arabian hamadryas baboons using mitochondrial sequence data from 294 samples collected in Arabia and Northeast Africa. Through the analysis of the geographic distribution of genetic diversity, the timing of population expansions, and divergence time estimates combined with palaeoecological data, we test: (i) if Arabian and African hamadryas baboons are genetically distinct; (ii) if Arabian baboons exhibit population substructure; and (iii) when, and via which route, baboons colonized Arabia.

  • Our results suggest that hamadryas baboons colonized Arabia during the Late Pleistocene (130–12 kya [thousands of years ago]) and also moved back to Africa. We reject the hypothesis that hamadryas baboons were introduced to Arabia by humans, because the initial colonization considerably predates the earliest records of human seafaring in this region. Our results strongly suggest that the ‘southern route’ from Africa to Arabia could have been used by hamadryas baboons during the same time period as proposed for modern humans.

photographs courtesy of Muhammad Gerhoum

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