Harvard professor discusses Yemen from 1979 to 2006 [Archives:2006/990/Reportage]

October 16 2006

Brock L. Bevan
The Yemen Times interviewed Professor Steven C. Caton, director of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, currently on sabbatical in Yemen since September 2005. Caton, an anthropologist by trade, has written two books on Yemen and is researching water management in Yemen. During the past year, Caton has trained four Yemeni students on modern anthropology enabling them to produce studies on their own for publication in Arabic. He has given lectures at the Water and Environment Center at Sana'a University, at Das Deutsche Haus and at the Yemen Language Center. Caton first came to Yemen in 1979 and plans to come back next year to continue his research as well assisting with the foundation of the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies.

As the current director of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, how would assess interest in Yemen there, and in the U.S. more broadly?

Well, Yemen is still considered to be a marginal country even by scholars who know something about it. I find that there is a hierarchy in Middle Eastern studies about where you should go if you want to really to understand the heart of the Middle East you have to be at the epicenter of the political conversations going on in Middle East. Of course we've all learned)to our cost)that neglecting the margin can be absolutely disastrous because it is precisely at the margins and at the borders these days that some of the most interesting and dangerous that happen. Think of marginal states like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

So, students are advised to go to Egypt because it has a great long civilization and someone else will say, no it is really Syria or Iraq. Forget Iraq now, but that is Mesopotamian, the highpoint of Islamic civilization. That's where you should be because you'll be really at the heart of what is the authentic Middle East.

But when it comes to places like Yemen, people will be almost bemused at the thought of coming to a place like Yemen. And yes, if you want to learn something about a timeless Arab culture stuck in the medieval period then maybe you should come to Yemen and they'll acknowledge its beauty and so on and so forth.

I found that it is rather difficult actually to convince my colleagues and students that Yemen is a place that they could go to learn about the Middle East and Yemen. And that the kind of Arabic that they will learn in Yemen is as useful to them elsewhere as Levantine Arabic or Egyptian Arabic that commands the airwaves and the television channels. This is changing partly because Yemen scholarship is very strong in anthropology. It is very strong in political science.

How would you say Yemen has changed since you first came in 1979?

I have an argument with my Yemeni elite colleagues about this who have traveled to other countries and have often been directly involved in Yemen's development and feel beleaguered understandably and disappointed understandably and frustrated and so on and so forth. Any they say that given the revolution in 1962 and all of our energy and good will at that time to try and develop Yemen, it does not seem like we've accomplished very much and that in fact we've stagnated at the moment. There are all kinds of reasons. I say that look at where you were in 1962 and compare it to what it is now what 26 years later – a quarter of a century.

When I was here if I was sick I had to go to the embassy clinic because there was no sense that there was enough, good enough, trained Yemeni or foreign doctors in the private sector who could help. And now the embassy is the last place I'd go. There is an array of very good physicians in Sana'a. There are some very good labs where you can get basic tests done. They are much cheaper than what you can get in the U.S. And they are reliable. But unreliable is that the machine might break down and it'll take a month to get the part to replace it so that'll work again. It's an infrastructure problem.

You can have dental work done that is quite complicated by competent doctors and they're often by they way better diagnosticians, I find, than doctors in the U.S. because they can't rely on sophisticated tests to make a diagnosis. They have to do a very careful body examination and they have to talk about your symptoms, you talk about your symptoms.

So, what I am saying is that the medical system has expanded and for basic things you can find decent medical treatment. If it is really complicated like brain surgery, no. And heart problems, no. The educational system my god, I mean 25 years ago being able to read and write for instance in a tribal area was a luxury. Now, I am amazed at the number of schools that exist. Okay, the windows are broken. You can't find enough people to staff them. There's not enough materials to go around. But in comparison to what was available 30 years ago, it is remarkable the progress in the educational system and women in particular, more and more, of course the literacy rate is still deplorable, but to go from practically zero to 30 percent or whatever it is in that amount time given the little resources you have. I still think it is still a remarkable achievement.

So, in all kinds of ways the country has changed and I think has got better. And when you think about the way in which African countries have really slipped back in some instances almost into a survivalist subsistence mode by comparison to what they were before with modern fully functioning systems that had some kind of solid economic base that's really tragic.

So, I think there has been real progress in Yemen and that should not be dismissed and should not be discounted. Now, the question really is how long can that be sustained.

Could you tell me about your work in Yemen since 1979 and how has it changed over time?

Well, I came into Yemen in 1979 from Saudi Arabia, where I had been working in the Department of Antiquities, and I had a background in archaeology, but the purpose, my purpose was to learn colloquial Arabic after having studied classical Arabic for two years at the University of Chicago. I happened to get this job because the director of the museum and of the department was a University of Chicago graduate but through the network he was looking for someone who would sort of be a step-and-fetch-it for him and I was glad to step-and-fetch-it just for the chance to be in Riyadh where at that time few people spoke English and really did pick up a lot of Arabic.

When I was there, I was reading a lot of travel literature of Arabia and I was fascinated by the number of times and the number of people who experienced Arab tribal society and commented on poetry on being so important to tribal life. So, I decided I wanted to work on this in Saudi Arabia where they have a very famous tradition called nabati poetry. But as I started to look into the poetry, I found that much of it had died out. It wasn't still as vibrant and lively a form as I had expected it to be. Much of was left in manuscript collection.

The other problem was that I couldn't get permission to do this study. So, a friend of mine said, “Why don't you take a vacation and when you take your vacation go to Yemen and check Yemen out because Yemen is supposed to be a very interesting place. It has just sort of opened up since the end of the civil war around 1974.” So, I did. And as soon I landed in fog, the dawn, I was so taken by the place. On an official level and on an everyday public level, people were so much more open of me doing research in the country. And the preliminary survey that I did suggested that the tribal poetic system was much livelier and much more politically active than the one in Saudi Arabia. So, I switched. And I was glad that I did. It was one of the most important decisions that I've ever made. And it worked out very, very well.

I arrived on January 1, 1979 and almost immediately and there was a war or tensions were building between North and South. Ali Abdullah Saleh was just new in his presidency and perceived as a very weak president and therefore very vulnerable to those internal coups and external attacks all of which he has, by hindsight, survived quite brilliantly. And the South provoked a war and I was confined to Sana'a and there was a period of time when I thought that I might have to leave Sana'a. But I stayed and I asked people where I should I go to study poetry, tribal poetry, and they all told me Khawlan Al-Tiyal.

Luckily, I managed to get out there in April and I found a place where I could stay. Once it was safe enough to go, I relocated to Khawlan Al-Tiyal in November 1979 and I stayed there until November 1980. That's when I concentrated on understanding the different genres of poetry that are produced, the occasions they are produced for, the kind of political work that the poetry does, particularly in tribal disputes and how important a rhetorical this whole system is all of which I explore in the two books that I have written on the subject one of which is a more academic book)Peaks of Yemen I Summon: Poetry as a Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe)and the other one the Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation, which is more of a memoir ethnography and more accessible to the non-specialized public.

I left Khawlan at the end of 1980, but I felt like I still needed time to go over the poetry. I needed another year to go over all this material that I collected to transcribe it phonetically, to translate it, and to understand it. But I had run out of money, so I worked for the Peace Corps to build up their Arabic training program which is where I met Sabri Saleem)who was in charge of the Yemeni teachers. So, I spent roughly a year working in the Peace Corps and then going over my materials to make sure I had what I needed to write this book.

Then I came back [to the U.S.] after almost three years in Yemen and wrote my dissertation, which I completed in 1984. I was quite burned out after two years in Saudi Arabia and three years in Yemen. And the three years in Yemen was straight, I never left the country. I felt like if I left the country I might not be able to get back in again because of internal problems.

Finally, it was not until 2001, just before September, in July 2001 that I decided that I would come back. I came back with the attention of finishing my third book, Yemen Chronicle, to revisit Khawlan and talk to the people about this war that broke out there and that that would be my swan song on Yemen and is where I would get Yemen out of my system. And it didn't work out that way. I fell in love with the country all over again. Remembered why it was such a compelling, stunning place to me and it remained so even though there had been a lot of changes. But I could not see myself going back and working on poetry again and I wanted to work on something that was very different and very urgent and that seemed to be the water crisis.

For the sake of going back to Yemen, I decided I'd work on that issue but it meant retooling myself working more on environmental issues, working more on political economy, working more in the area of science studies, all of which are very fascinating to me but I had no knowledge of or very little knowledge of and background in. It meant reading a lot of new literature in new fields much of it very exciting to me and coming back a different kind of anthropologist to Yemen 25 years later.

So, now I've been here for one year. I decided I didn't want to come back and just work on my own as I had done before. I had the chance [through a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation] of maybe bringing graduate students from America to work in Yemen with me as part of a team. So, Abdo Ali Othman, professor of sociology at Sana'a University, and I decided to take a chance and do this collaborative project and train Yemeni students to do field work on water issues. And it has been a very interesting experiment. It's been for me and for him and for them very much up and down up and down, up and down.

I think the students had expectations that were very different from what they were given and there was a long period of confusion. Then, they pulled out of that and choose some very interesting topics to work on. Two of them have come through I think, the two others will pull through and come up with some interesting work and I think we'll end up with an interesting book at the end of this. I am hoping to be able to sustain this by finding some kind of empirical work for them to do to over the long term on water issues so that they can apply what they've learned now but in anthropological way, and to convince the academic system here in Yemen, and to convince also the development organizations and the donors who hire people like them that anthropology has something important to offer. It did, in the 1970s and 80s when development was very important in Yemen and at the forefront were foreign anthropologists.

Fieldwork is an improvisational thing. I never expected that I would end up working in Holland or Germany on top of Yemen before I started this project, and now it seems like it maybe increasingly necessary.

How does this study about water management in Yemen differ from your previous work on poetry practically?

In fact, there have been some ideas floated around using poetry to increase awareness among tribal groups about water issues and the need for water conservation. And I think there has been some tentative attempts in Saada using a group of poets up there to produce poetry on this subject. The German expert Gerhard Lichtenthaler in his book the Political Ecology and the Role of Water he cites my work as an example of where poetry could be used to some beneficial effect because what I showed in the book [Peaks of Yemen I Summon] was that poetry is used rhetorically for all kind of issues that concern sheikhs and local people and water now is one of them.

I could have come back to Yemen and studied the poetry of water, but I wanted to completely change intellectual directions of research. My second major work has been on film [Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology]. And on the side, I've been doing an ethnography of the film A New Day in Old Sana'a. I could have done something, let's say, on media more generally as these are used on television, posters, advertisements, materials that are distributed in schools and public events. How visual media are used in the public sphere to increase awareness about water issues. And this is an important topic actually. From time to time I've thought about doing it. But I really have changed intellectual trajectories. I'm more concerned about environmental issues, I've become more concerned with matter than symbols)I'm saying that somewhat facetiously)than I have in the past.

What is your opinion about qat, especially as it relates to water management?

Well, there's no doubt that 40 percent of the water used in the agricultural sector overall goes to qat and therefore, it uses a huge amount of water in a country that has to conserve water. No question about it. That said, if you are going to reduce qat cultivation you have to then also provide people who now have created a significant income for themselves and built a whole livelihood on it, you have to give them viable economic alternatives. And that is the real challenge.

How do you find alternative employment, and how do you train people for that? It is both a economic question)can the economy diversify and grow in these different directions and what might they be so you can offer significant long-term employment for people and income might drop somewhat but it's not going to plummet so that they move from one class to anther from one set of socio-economic circumstances to another.

And then it is also a manpower issue. Can you retrain them for these new sectors to takeover in these new sectors and really make those sectors work? What are they? Tourism. But tourism is very vulnerable. Every time there is a kidnapping, or something happens in the Middle East tourism plummets. The fishing industry. But, is just going to be hauling fish, transporting them to Sana'a and then selling them in the souq? Or, are you going to set up canneries where people can actually work 9-5 and make a decent wage.

Now personally, I like to chew qat. My body and mind can't take it on an everyday basis: I'm too wired and I go nuts. So, I can only do it at the tail end of the week. And I like it not really because it is a stimulant, but because of the social [aspect] very rarely if ever chew by myself. I only chew with others, sometimes one on one, more often in a group. But I really, really like the sociability of the qat chew. And that's where I get something out of it. And that is partly connected to why I really like, I really enjoy Yemen and come back to Yemen again, and again and again: the sociability of the place.

And it's not only because they're so hospitable and welcoming. Of course, that's true. When you can talk to people one on one or in a group outside of the office, outside of the work space, the conversation is really, really wonderful. It's mutli-layered. It's witty. It's funny. It's serious. Politically: often very critical. Some of the best conversations I've ever had anywhere I've had in Yemen in the context of a qat chew.

So, when I decided to work on water, I decided deliberately not to work on the qat issue. You know over and over again I hear officials say, “Well, there's no silver bullet to solving Yemen's problems.” But those same people will act as though the silver bullet is getting rid of qat and then you've solved Yemen's water problems. Well, in some sense you have solved the water problem, but you've also created an economic disaster. So, is it a solution? I don't think so.

What about your involvement in the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies?

I'm offering my services as dean pro bono, I want that to be clear, I'm not being paid to do this. And there is a real important reason for this. I don't want this to be perceived as a Harvard ell, I am doing this because I believe in the invention not because I'm being paid to produce a product. And I am doing this not because I am Harvard professor and that will lend prestige to the program. I am doing this because I am Middle East specialist who happens to be at Harvard. What I have brought to the program, is first of all, a focus on contemporary studies because I believe this is sorely lacking in programs in the US and Europe.

Second of all, I am bringing to the design of the curriculum an interdisciplinary approach that I hope will be interesting to a wide variety of students. We're focusing on topics within those disciplines that I think are really cutting edge topics. So, I hope that it'll be contemporary in two senses: It'll be contemporary in terms of the time frame that we're working on post-World War I so that we can get a modern historical perspective in there. But also contemporary in the sense that I would like the college to tackle what are certain kinds of key debates in contemporary research on the Middle East today.