Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen

Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen (Stanford University Press, November 2018) is the first ethnographic study to examine the imbrication, implementation, and impact of conservation, development, and heritage projects in an Arab-majority state. It traces the intersections of these projects in Soqotra, the largest island of Yemen’s eponymous Soqotra Archipelago, which was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a natural World Heritage Site in 2008.

Drawing on extensive fieldwork in a pilot protected area shortly after the island’s opening to economic liberalization and environmental regulation, the book examines how concepts such as “the environment” and “heritage” were introduced to and taken up by a people on the geographical and cultural margins. It argues that, despite Soqotrans’ skepticism toward these conservationist interventions, many appropriated the language of heritage as a bulwark against external control.

High school students in Soqotra receive environmental awareness lessons. Nathalie Peutz
High school students in Soqotra receive environmental awareness lessons. Nathalie Peutz

Through a close examination of the diverse notions of heritage in contention in Soqotra and among its diasporic population in the Arab Gulf, the book details how everyday Soqotrans came to assemble, defend, and promote what they determined to be their cultural and linguistic heritage. Initially conservative, these efforts eventually dovetailed with and lent weight to Soqotrans’ calls for political and cultural revolution. Islands of Heritage posits that far from being merely a conservative endeavor, the protection of heritage can have profoundly transformative, even revolutionary, effects.

Gate of Tears: War, Famine, and Migration Across the Red Sea

The world’s gravest humanitarian crisis since 1945 is the famine impacting more than 20 million people across four countries: Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Largely ignored in the press, this famine has been exacerbated by political conflict, extremist violence, and climate change — and, in the case of Yemen, where the crisis is the most acute, by nearly three years of warfare.

Taking its name from Bab el-Mandeb (“Gate of Tears”) — the Arabic name for the Mandeb Strait that separates the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa — this book project seeks to advance our understanding of famine, war, and displacement in the Horn and of the rippling effects of the Yemen crisis, in particular, in two ways. First, it demonstrates how the mixed, two-way migration of Yemenis to the Horn of Africa and of Somalis, Eritreans, and Ethiopians to Yemen is a product of both current regional conflicts and of the century-long migrations of Yemenis and Africans across the Red Sea. Second, it addresses why — despite the raging cholera epidemic, widespread famine, and millions of internally displaced persons within Yemen — there have been “only” 100,000 registered arrivals of Yemeni citizens and foreign nationals in the Horn of Africa since the start of the war. Meanwhile, the number of Ethiopians who have entered Yemen during this period is more than double.

UN agencies and relief organizations are well placed to document the quantitative data. But it is the long-term, ethnographic engagement with individual migrants and refugees and historical analysis of the region’s previous migration flows that will enable us to better comprehend why these particular individuals have “chosen” to migrate out of or into conflict situations.

Based on ethnographic research among Yemeni refugees and migrants in Djibouti and Somaliland in fall 2016 to summer 2018, this research considers the degree to which the 2015–18 flight of refugees from Yemen was set in motion by their family histories of mobility, mixed marriages, and forced migration. How have these refugees’ prior transnational connections facilitated or constrained their ability to escape Yemen? What happens when Yemeni refugees in the Horn of Africa traverse paths, literally, with African migrants fleeing into Yemen’s civil war? And what impact does this have on the ways that these individuals contest, embrace, or exploit the categories of their displacement (refugee, asylum-seeker, returnee, migrant), especially if their displacement has been circular (between Yemen and the Horn of Africa) and cyclical (across generations)?