Sanaa Welcomes New Cultural Diplomats A Computer-Oriented Arabist at USIS [Archives:1998/41/Culture]

October 12 1998

Dr. Chris Eccel is the new Press and Cultural Information Attach at the US Embassy in Sanaa. He has extensive experience in Arab affairs, and speaks the language fluently.
Q: What are your first impressions of Yemen?
A: I like Yemen very much. I am an Arabist. I began studying Arabic long ago. So, as a student of Arabic, I know about Yemen and its history in the Arabic language. In a sense, therefore, everybody who studies Arabic wants to come to Yemen.
In addition, from a tourism point of view, Yemen is well-known all over the world. Travelers know it is one of the places one must visit.
So you can see that my impressions of the country are shaped both from a tourism point of view and a linguistic history point of view. I was very excited about coming to Yemen.
I had met Yemenis and worked with them before. I was very comfortable with them so I thought it would be a good country to work in.
Q: What academic/career background do you come from?
A: Well, that is a bit of a strange and complicated personal history. I started out in languages, but at some point I got into social sciences. Then, I discovered later on that I actually like studying languages more. So, I combined social science with languages/history of the Middle East. Given that background, I’ve written a book about Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and its modernization during the last century.
My own personal research these days deals with the historical relationships between the different languages of the region. One reason I like Yemen is that it is linguistically rich. It has Arabic, it has inscriptions from the ancient languages (Saba’ai, Ma’aini, Himyari, Qatabani, etc). Also, it has three semantic languages live: Soqatri, Mahri, and Saheli. They are quite distinct from Arabic. I’m happy to be here to become exposed to these languages and to learn more about them.
Q: Do you plan to document your research about Yemen in a book?
A: That is very far in the future. I am currently involved in another project which I hope to finish. Certainly what I’ll write in the future will be touching on the linguistic heritage of Yemen.
Q: What about your previous professional experience?
A: In the Middle East, I was in Bahrain before I came here. As a professor, I taught at the American University of Beirut. Also, I was a researcher and I taught at the American University in Cairo. So I’ve been in the Middle East as a student, a professor, and now as a diplomat.
Q: How do you get along with Yemenis?
A: Yemenis are very friendly. It is easy to work here. I must say that the only other country I’ve worked in and which was equally easy is Australia.
Q: What kind of activities are you involved in now?
A: We have our own programs – USIS programs, academic and cultural exchanges, working with the local press and the various programs of the embassy. We hope to be able to improve the relationship between Yemen and the US, maintaining the high level it has reached.
The Yemen-America Language Institute (YALI) also works under my office. It has undertaken many projects including a new computer center. When I was in Washington, I acquired those computers for YALI.
I might mention that in Washington, I established the Internet in the Arab world from my agency. My agency is a web-site for the Arab world and was the web master for an English site. So, I’m very interested in the new computer center at YALI and I think it will make a great contribution to English studies at that institution.