Migration and Transformation in the Western Indian Ocean

Travel has always been an important part of life for Nathalie Peutz, assistant professor of NYU Abu Dhabi's Arab Crossroads Studies, and it played a key role in developing her interest and career in cultural anthropology. Following her graduation from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts in Intellectual History, a bicycle trip from Central Europe to South Africa became the pivotal point in shifting her interests from Central Europe, Slavic studies, and history to the Arab world, East Africa, and cultural anthropology.

Peutz started from Prague and made her way through Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Levant, and North Africa before stopping in Tanzania to work in a Rwandan refugee camp.

"That whole journey helped me decide to study cultural anthropology because I was interested in talking about cultural differences, but not as a traveler or tourist. I wanted to understand how to write about cultural difference and human diversity from an academic and theoretical perspective," said Peutz.

Peutz did her Ph.D. at Princeton University and started her graduate research by talking with Somali migrants and refugees living in Yemen, where she had gone to learn Arabic. To get a better sense of where these migrants had come from, Peutz traveled on a cattle boat from Mocha, Yemen, to Berbera, in Somaliland, to further explore the migration histories and trajectories between these countries. Based on interviews and fieldwork conducted during several trips, Peutz published articles in Current Anthropology and International Migration on the stigmatization of Somalis deported from the United States to Mogadishu, either by the US government or by their parents as a pre-emptive return.

Qualitative studies of deportation, now a burgeoning field, were still just taking shape in the mid-2000s. Seeking to contribute to this field, Peutz co-edited The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement, which argues that the practice and threat of deportation manifests and engenders dominant notions of sovereignty, citizenship, national identity, racial purity, and class privilege across borders and space. For her current book project, Peutz has turned to the study of another kind of global regulatory regime: World Heritage sites. She is currently finishing a manuscript on Yemen's Socotra Archipelago — an Indian Ocean island group renowned for its geostrategic location, its relative inaccessibility, and its high percentage of endemic species and biodiversity — that examines the effects of Socotra's World Heritage status on the people who live there.


We can observe the ramifications of the reverberation of the Arab uprisings not just by looking at Cairo, but also by looking at somewhere as ostensibly remote as Socotra and seeing how the Arab uprisings are having a profound impact on people's sense of self.

Nathalie Peutz, NYUAD assistant professor of Arab Crossroads Studies

Peutz only heard about Socotra and the all-weather extension of its airport (permitting flights to and from the main island year round) in 1999, during her first trip to Yemen. Until then, Socotra had been cut off and isolated from the Yemen mainland — and, indeed, the world — for four to five months each year due to the strong monsoon winds that made dhow travel impossible.

With 37 percent endemic species on the island and just over 50,000 Soqotri speakers in the world, Socotra seemed to be a very rich site for research.

"However, I was still interested in doing more on the Somali migration to the coast of Yemen," Peutz admitted. But the start of the Iraq war in 2003 disrupted her plans to conduct research in Yemen, as foreigners were no longer allowed to leave the capital of Sana'a. The one place she was allowed to travel to — Socotra.

This idea of Socotra being a "safe haven" piqued Peutz's interest in looking at the archipelago and Socotrans' relationship to the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Indian Ocean region. "We can observe the ramifications of the reverberation of the Arab uprisings not just by looking at Cairo, but also by looking at somewhere as ostensibly remote as Socotra and seeing how the Arab uprisings are having a profound impact on people's sense of self," Peutz explained.

Historically, Socotra has experienced several forms of colonial and imperial rule. From the Portuguese to the British to the World Heritage regime, "people are constantly trying to transform Socotra and make it lucrative, or just viable," Peutz explained.

In her book, Peutz will show how, throughout the history of colonial interventions, development, and resource extraction, Socotrans have managed to develop techniques to both resist and embrace these regimes. "They [Socotrans] are using the language of heritage to lend weight to their recent calls for cultural, if not political, sovereignty," Peutz said. And recently, as a direct outcome of the revolution in Yemen, Socotrans finally experienced some autonomy again: they have just celebrated their archipelago becoming an independent governorate of Yemen.

Besides teaching and writing, Peutz has also been involved in starting up a major in Arab Crossroads at NYUAD. She and her colleagues are finding ways of rethinking Middle East studies, focusing more directly on the cross-cutting connections between the Arab world and its neighboring regions. Peutz is excited to be involved at the beginning stage of NYUAD's institution building, adding: "It is especially important for the school to have a strong basis in the study of the region where we are located."