Difficulties Impeding Yemeni Historians [Archives:1998/13/Focus]

March 30 1998

Dr. Ahmed Al-Sirri*
Finding the right references is the first obstacle that faces a researcher historian in Yemen. In view of the hard economic conditions, one starts to think: is it really worth it to spend hours upon hours in study and research then cannot afford a decent living?
There are also technical difficulties. A historian needs to use a computer. So he or she has either to buy or hire one, In both cases, a lot of money is needed, which an academic cannot usually afford.
Reference books are available in public libraries such as the Sanaa University Library and the Grand Mosque Library. However, there are many references and manuscripts owned by families and private people, who deny researchers access to them. They treat these manuscripts as valuable heirlooms. The strange thing is that what is denied to Yemen historians is readily provided for foreign researchers.
Sanaa University professors are allowed one-year sabbaticals every 4 years, They are paid their full salaries, and are provided with tickets for the wife and 3 children. However, with a monthly salary not more than $300, a university professor cannot afford to live abroad. So some professors use their personal connections to obtain scholarships abroad. Otherwise, they spend the sabbatical year in Yemen doing various jobs that may not necessarily be related to their specialty or general field of knowledge, but just to earn extra money. This is quite justified, in view of the difficult living conditions in Yemen.
Foreign Languages
Foreign languages such as English, French, and German are very important for a historian since they help open entirely new worlds. The Department of History requires that every post-graduate student should know English as a basic condition for admission. Some people argue, however, that there is the need for English in studying Islamic history, for which most references are in Arabic. This is a rather shortsighted opinion. People who research Islamic history are not only Arab and Muslim, but are also from Europe, Japan, China, Africa, etc. So a historian doing research on an Islamic or Arabic subject may need to refer to references written in a language other than Arabic.

Knowledge of a foreign language is also very important to avoid repeating a piece of work that was already done by another researcher in a different language. But this actually happens sometimes when proposed topics of research are endorsed, while, more advanced ones on the same topic exist in another language. There are not many Yemeni and Arab historians who know a second language, but they are increasing. This attests to the importance of learning a foreign language in whatever field of research.
All researchers agree on adopting a suitable method of research. History is quite a wide field with many methods to do research. The important thing is not to adhere to a very strict set of procedures. Every subject would dictate its own method of research. So it is not possible to talk about a specific research method of analysis and conclusions. The subjective point of view can also influence a researcher’s reading of history.

Some people tend to think of the Islamic history as an exact copy of the teachings of Islam. So when some Muslim researchers find a divergence from what they expect or believe that should be the case, they often blame it on the influence of orientalists with their Western point of view.
This idea is rather general to the extent of including laymen as well as historians. Many people talk about Islamic history as if they lived through it. This subjective view greatly influences the relationship between the researcher, the topic of research, and the references he or she is going to consult.
To be really objective in studying, one has to remove the hallow of sacredness from Islamic history. This sacredness must only be reserved for Islam as a religion. History was more glorious when its events were compatible with the teachings of Islam, but was dark when its events diverged from Islam.
Printing & Publishing
Many researchers do their work in the knowledge that they will not necessarily be able to publish their research, unless the work is to be incorporated in the university curricula.
Private publishers, as everywhere else in the world, only publish what they think will sell well. The Ministry of Culture, however, is currently publishing one book a month not only for historians, but also for other creative researchers and writers, irrespective of whether the book will be a commercial success or not. Two books have already been published under this scheme.
Taking part in international conferences is an important window through which a researcher can have an insight into what is going on in the world of scientific studies and research. Despite the relatively large number of seminars and symposia taking place around the world, Yemeni researchers cannot always take part due to the chronic lack of resources, whether in Sanaa University or in other universities around the country.
The trend is now towards holding national conferences and seminars, and inviting international experts and researchers.
Yemeni Historians Society
The Yemeni Historians Society is an umbrella organization that tries to gather Yemen’s historians in order to able to organize and channel their efforts. However, due to the present economic situation, such societies are either impeded or are doomed to failure and decline. Thus, they eventually become meeting places to exchange gossip or chew qat.
So many researchers try work through their own individual efforts and personal contacts. Some donor countries and organizations finance conferences and seminars, which help a lot in advancing scientific research in this country.
Specialized Publications
There are some attempts to publish a Yemeni magazine to deal exclusively with historical topics and research. During the last 7 years, only two issues of this magazine were published. The third issue is now being prepared. The problem here also lie in lack of funds. The magazine is self-financed and relies on meager subscription fees.
Research Centers
There are no specialized research centers in Yemen. Some of them work during national occasions. The recent 50th anniversary of the 1948 Revolution against the Imam was commemorated with lectures in Al-Afif Cultural Foundation. There is also the Literature Club and the weekly discussion sessions organized by Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh, which cover culture, history and even science.
The most dangerous problem that is threatening the impartiality of historical research is sectarianism. This is true in Yemen and in other parts of the world. Some narrow-minded historians refrain from referring to certain books because they are written by people belonging to the “wrong” sect. Such a trend, if allowed to take root, will make history negate itself. Every team will deny the credibility of the other team, contravening the essential objectivity of scientific research. All references can be subjected to scientific examination and their impartiality can be verified.
Freedom of Research & Expression
Freedom of doing research is guaranteed in Sanaa University. A lecturer or a professor is free to choose the books and references to be used by the students and implement the appropriate teaching method. There is no intellectual authoritarianism. Freedom of expression is one of the most important prerequisites for objective scientific research.
* Dr. Ahmed Al-Sirri has Ph.D. degree in Islamic history from Germany. He is an assistant professor at the Department of History, Sanaa University.
[This article was translated from Arabic by Yemen Times]