Hundreds of plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth demonstrate the geographical isolation of Socotra, an island group that belongs to Yemen but lies 236 miles offshore, in the Arabian Sea.
But it’s Socotra’s historical and cultural connections that make it a prime subject for Nathalie Peutz, anthropologist and assistant professor of Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her book, Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen, will be published in 2018 by Stanford University Press.
Peutz had completed her site research before Yemen’s civil war started in 2015. That’s just as well, because while the fighting has not touched Socotra, it has curtailed access to the island. She’s keeping in touch via Whatsapp.
The book deals with some of the paradoxes of heritage and conservation. By 2004, when Peutz began her fieldwork, numerous global organizations had recognized the Socotran biosphere, with its dragon’s blood trees and other unique flora and fauna, as deserving special protection. In 2008 the archipelago was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
That new status was ushered in through the work of several integrated conservation and development projects, lavishly funded by local standards and collectively known to the 50,000 Socotrans as “the Environment”.
“I first went there to see how the projects were shaping people’s notions about environment,” Peutz said. But she soon turned her attention to cultural heritage. “International experts were eager to brand Socotra as a world heritage site, and that’s not very different from … a new imperialism: when Socotra’s environment becomes the world’s ‘heritage’ it’s as if anyone could come in and tell Socotrans how to take care of it.” The outside world, she writes in the book’s introduction, was “commandeering” the Socotran ecosystem.
As pastoralists, she noted, Socotrans “have always cared about the rains, their goats, the trees … but as the projects introduced ecotourism, people learned the word ‘environment’ ” – and found it profitable.
“Before, of course, the people didn’t know which of their island’s birds were endemic” (unique to their island) but now you have Socotrans who know the name of every bird, in Socotri, in English, Italian, Latin" and other languages.
"It's not just our plants that matter"
But while environmental conservation was, incongruously, changing the society, Socotrans began to realize that their cultural heritage, too, was worth preserving, Peutz learned. They “became interested in (that) heritage,” and realized they could shape the way it was presented. One Socotran even opened a Socotra Folk Museum. “The people were saying ‘It’s not just our plants that matter. We have poetry and culture’ …”
A festival of Socotri-language poetry, organized by local people, ran for five years. The Socotri language, an unwritten South Arabian language, is distinct from Arabic. Many Socotrans had grown up, Peutz found, “ashamed of their language, because they’d been told it was a mere dialect spoken only by illiterate people.” But as that changed, she recounted, one of the festival’s organizers even became a delegate to Yemen’s 2013 National Dialogue Conference, a 10-month effort to reconcile competing factions. Ultimately, he and other delegates managed to have Socotri and Mehri (another South Arabian language) recognized in the draft of a new national constitution.
Peutz’s book, examining Socotrans’ changing perceptions of their natural and cultural heritage, comes at a time when heritage worldwide is being threatened or being used to threaten others. She pointed to recent US debates over Confederate flags and monuments to demonstrate how tendentious the concept can be.
The lesson of Socotra, Peutz said, is that while the preservation of heritage “is generally a conservative, top-down, state-driven process … it can in certain circumstances make people feel empowered. Heritage is what you make it, and if it’s your language, your poetry, your ideas, your history, it can really mobilize people.”