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Tribute to a Yemeni Friend

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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