Head of institute in Moscow Vitaly Naumkin: Portrait of Soqotra’s first ethnographer (Part 3 of 3) [Archives:2003/08/Reportage]

February 24 2003

The fourth issue was on his insistence on the primacy of pastoralism as the defining livelihood activity of Soqotrans from the very beginning of their presence on the island. He rejected the hypothesis that Soqotra had gone through a transition from an agricultural mode of production to a pastoralist one.
His rejection is based on the theory that the Soqotrans were originally pastoralist bedouins living a nomadic life on the margins of the ancient civilizations of South Yemen. When they migrated to Soqotra they took their pastoralist livelihood practices with them.
Whatever the evidence of agricultural activities in the past, these were always supplementary to pastoralism. Moreover, he suggested that these “agricultural” activities were not really agricultural in the proper sense of the term but more like gathering and collecting activities, such as resins from Dragon Blood and Frankincense trees and the aloes plants. All of which were found already planted in great numbers in parts of the island. Only the aloe plants might have required some agricultural husbandry.
Moreover, through his emphasis on pastoralism, Naumkin wanted to undermine the view that pastoralism could not support an organized social formation either under a state or some lower level of collective administration.
In the case of Soqotra, pastoralism was the basis of a relatively organized and stable social formation, although, in the form of a Sultanate, similar to a tribal sheikhdom, administering pre-state social groups.
Answering Critics
Prof. Naumkin’s book on Soqotra did raise some eyebrows among critics about the use of certain approaches and the inclusion of certain types of information in the book. I sought his reactions to the main aspects of the book considered objectionable, namely: racial theorizing and archaeology.
Concerning racial theorizing, critics noted that the book deployed 19th century racialist evolutionary thinking, as evidenced in concepts like “race-genetic gradient”, “racial crossing,” which were used to formulate a racial typology of Soqotra’s inhabitants.
This was the kind of formulation that betrayed the speculative excesses associated with the evolutionism of early anthropology. Prof. Naumkin stated, “It was unfair to say this was rubbish driven by racialist evolutionary thinking. The main question we sought to answer was, what was the origin of the Soqotrans?”
He felt satisfied that the conclusion reached was the main origin of the people of Soqotra was from the South Arabian mainland, and not as some have supposed from Europe or India. In retrospect, Prof Naumkin confessed a certain discomfort – indeed, embarrassment – with the theoretical underpinnings and methodological approach of the two physical anthropologists in the team. He said that if the book were to be republished he would take out the objectionable chapters.
He was belatedly reacting to the fact that such theoretical underpinnings as well as method were discredited early in the 20th century. He was recanting a conception of anthropology as the study of material culture, prehistory and diffusion processes and underpinned by evolutionist assumptions.
Concerning the charge that it was inappropriate to include archaeological details in an ethnography, Prof. Naumkin countered that it was essential to demonstrate that there was the existence of a long history of Soqotran culture that was authentic to the island and which preceded the 12th century; the period prior to which some have argued there was a promiscuity of people and cultures which were not indigenous to the island.
He also addressed the reservation expressed by some critics who noted the absence of any long residence in a village in which to capture the requisite ethnographic minutiae. He offered an apologetic response. He said he was leading a multidisciplinary mission with multiple research foci; there was no time for this type of resident observation.
He mentioned the sheer logistical difficulties as well as having to assuage the islanders’ suspicions about the “gharab” (strangers) roaming in their territories asking equally strange questions. Indeed, he confessed that if he had more time he would have done so. He expressed the wish to pursue this approach in his future research activities on the island.
There were also the critiques by Soqotrans, who have heard about the book from third parties and did not read it themselves, since the book was not translated into Arabic. It seemed that what they heard, however, was mostly negative rumors namely: Soqotrans must pay their wives if they do not have sexual relations with them as expected on Thursdays; that the book focused on the Soqotrans’s obsession with magic; that Naumkin relied solely on one informant who was not an authentic Soqotran; that the cultural traditions of people of African descent on the island received greater coverage at the expense of other groups etc.
This was perhaps the unavoidable fate of written documents in a society where “orality” is the sole means of acquiring and sharing information about local realities. This was news to Naumkin, as there was no basis in his ethnography to substantiate these rumors.
He attributed these misunderstandings perhaps to a book of his entitled Where the Phoenix Rose from Ashes, published in Russian that was based on library research done prior to his fieldwork in Soqotra, and badly and partially translated into Arabic by a Yemeni from Yafa. He confirmed that he did rely on one informant, but that was for his ethno-linguistic research and not for collecting socio-cultural information.
Given the regional variations in the use of the Soqotri language, he felt it was best to focus on a single dialectal version in order to trace its evolution, instead of doing research on all of them simultaneously.
In concluding our conversation I inquired about his concerns over the future of the island. He noted two such concerns. The first was about the double edge nature of the cultural identity of Soqotrans -that is, of being Soqotri and Yemeni simultaneously: It was both a privilege and a problem.
It was a privilege in the sense of being endowed with multiple cultural assets, and a problem because it presents a challenge on how best to ensure their full politico-cultural integration, as a linguistic minority, into the larger Yemeni family to which they historically belong. This situation made it imperative that consideration be given to the formal recognition of the distinctive cultural identity of the Soqotrans, as that would ensure the constitution of a balanced cultural subjectivity and a strong political identity with the nation state. Cultural amalgamation would only complicate an organic process of political and cultural integration into the national community.
The other concern was the need for greater awareness of, and sensitivity to, the pastoralist economy’s high susceptibility to alternative economic incentives. Hence there was a need to avoid any “thoughtless transformation” of the herding economy by thinking of a culturally appropriate development strategy that would either facilitate a gradual and organic transition to alternative livelihood activities, or that would offer complementary economic opportunities.
Finally, in terms of research focus, he felt that one of the most interesting, if not important, research topic would be to investigate the nature of the transformation taking place in the tribal system in Soqotra and of the corollary changes in its social organization, as it is incorporated into new authority structures, such as the recently introduced Local Council system of governance.
* He is a Doctoral Researcher in Social Anthropology at Sussex University in the UK.