Yemen’s historic architecture (Part 4 of 4)Scientists explore the Tarimi Palaces [Archives:2003/691/Culture]

December 4 2003

By James Conlon,
Pamela Jerome
and Selma Al-Radi*

The al-Kafs helped us develop as strategy for securing these houses through purchase or long-term lease. They also introduced us to several Tarimi mater masons as all of our previous relationships were with individuals from Shibam and other cities in the Hadhramawt Valley.
Our frank discussions with the al-Kafs were facilitated by the Historical Society and by the end of the field season, the three of us had agreed to an open working environment with full sharing of all materials produced by current and future research. We also decided on the common objective of conserving and reusing as many of the households as possible, by no project before this year's work. During the 2002-2003 field season we also conducted many informal meetings with German Technical Aid (GTZ).
These discussions should not go unmentioned. GTZ has been working on a similar restoration and adaptive reuse program occurring on historic houses in Shibam, a World Heritage Site, as part of a larger development project in the city. While we have no formal partnership with GTZ, this dialogue was essential in finding local estimates, and for airing general concerns related to the project. After the end of the field season, Al-Radi presented our work to the Yemen Social Fund for Development, a non-governmental organization supported by the World Bank, and the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY), in order to garner additional support for the project.
As a result of this meeting, the Social Fund has given 1 million YR for the consolidation of the western facade of al-'Ishshah. Discussions with the Social Fund over a partnership in a full-scale conservation project continue, but its funding of the emergency stabilization of Qasr al-'Ishshah has already proved to be an essential contribution to the project. Without this repair, further collapse was imminent. Dr. Al-Radi also brought several government of officials to review informally the site and the long-term implications of historic district designation for Tarim.
We had little success in opening dialogue with architectural or structural engineering departments at the regional universities in Yemen. The faculty and, in many cases, the facilities themselves simply do not exist in the Hadhramawt, and we were too focused on completing the immediate fieldwork to explore similar possibilities in the universities of Sana'a or Mukallah.
Educational development in Yemen itself is essential to the success of this and other conservation projects. Al-Radi's work in Rada'a has already demonstrated the social and economic value of informal educational programs (Al-Radi 1997). Architectural and engineering curricula in Yemen generally teach students to build with reinforced concrete skeletons and concrete block or brick infill, along with exterior cladding of stone in some regional contexts.
The use of traditional mud brick technology, the most appropriate construction material for this specific geographical region, is often disregarded, while historic preservation and adaptive reuse are perceived as costly and unnecessary. Our earlier study of traditional construction methods demonstrated the efficacy of mud brick constructed when adapted to contemporary lifestyles and conveniences.
We also found several examples of successful and sympathetic upgrading of historic buildings (Jerome, Chiari, and Borelli 1999). Both points have failed to affect the training of local architects or engineers (Jerome 2002:29). To address this problem, our project plans to organize an adaptive reuse workshop under the auspices of Deputy Governor al-Ulfi for students as well as architects, engineers, and other professionals.
This dialogue may lead to approaches that incorporate local knowledge with our own experiences and expectations, in turn producing a hybrid conservation strategy appropriate to the unique conditions in Tarim. Based on the successful use of video as a documentation and community outreach tool (Borelli 2001), we anticipate that media will serve a vital role in our efforts.
Visual perception is not a passive recof information, but an active element of conceptualization that exercise selective, abstract and creative acts of intellectual formation (Arnheim 1969). In Yemen it has also proved to be a vital tool in opening dialogue between diverse groups of stakeholders. As the work of Shehyeb and Abdel-Hafiz in the Tablita Market of Cairo and Borelli and Jerome in the Hadhramawt have demonstrated, multi-media presentation and visual models function as integral tools by which non-designers may express their ideas (Shehaybe and Abdel-Hafiz 2001; Borelli and Jerome 1999).
Another significant model for this approach is the idea of participatory design as expressed by the Presence Project supported by the European Commission's Intelligent Information Interfaces group (Netherlands Design Institute 1997). John Thackara, chair of the Presence Steering Group, has expressed participatory design as follows: we're beginning to understand what it means to design with people rather than for people.
I know it sounds like a minor semantic distinction, but it's had a major impact on all of our expedition's members: rather than setting off on a project with a preconceived idea about what we're going to do, now we're all committed to working with real people in the real world and starting there, rather than starting with technology and imposing it on a given situation. There is no way to put aside one's preconceptions when entering a project, nor as a group of professionals should we erase our opinions and expectations.
But participatory design places our professional assumptions into lived situations from the inception of the project. It is our objective to engage the potential of this process within the social context of Yemeni society while also introducing a relevant, cost effective set of computer-aided design, geographic information systems, and visualization resources to our Yemeni partners.
The intention is not to replace local professionals and their vital knowledge – an act that would go against the very principles of conservation – but to provide better options for documenting and representing our work. While the potential of these resources is exciting to a Western audience, we must balance this outlook with data on the average Yemeni's access to information technology.
The World Bank statistics on Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) for Yemen are not encouraging. Based on statistics from 2000, personal computing and Internet use is rare and expensive in Yemen. Out of Yemen's population of 18 million, there are only 1.9 people per every 1,000 who have a personal computer.
Yemen has only 15,000 Internet users, and the average monthly off-peak service charge for access to the World Wide is $ 44.50. These averages are well below the rest of the Middle East and North Africa with the exception of the service charge statistic, which is $ 26.50. (World Bank 2003). Few if any of these statistics predate 2000, so it is impossible to chart the growth of ICT which is generally more promising.
Whereas the ICT infrastructure is experiencing rapid growth in a country like Egypt, and it make sense to engage the potential of these technologies, there is simply no evidence for a parallel in Yemen. Also, there is no information on the distribution of ICT within Yemen. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that these resources are concentrated in Sana'a and Aden as opposed to the Hadhramawt, but this cannot be supported by statistics.
Furthermore, we have no anthropological information on the way Yemenis use computers or even consume media. We cannot take it for granted that there is a pedagogical culture connected to personal computers and the internet, as there is in many other countries. While there are many reasons to be cautions in regard to the use of ICT, there are also the specific needs of our project to consider. During the field season, our photographs and drawings numbered in the thousands. Our first step was organizing and storing these materials in a database scheme.
Also, with the number of Yemenis living abroad – in particular, members of the Tarim community – a presence on the World Wide Web is necessary. In fact we have received encouragement from Yemeni students and professionals living in the United States and Saudi Arabia who learned of the project through the web site (
Many of them will return to the Hadhramawt with a better impression of the architectural heritage of the region. The second stage of media production will focus on developing our raw materials into web-based resources for the study of Tarimi architectural heritage. To this end we are building an integrated, multi-level system that includes digital image collection and delivery and the development of a multi-media pedagogical environment.
In regard to delivering these resources within Yemen, we have to provide both the hardware and the appropriate social spaces within which to distribute them. Again, we can find parallels in Borelli and Jerome's screening of their film in location throughout the Valley (Borelli 2001). This process will begin with demonstrations at our own events, such as the upcoming adaptive reuse workshop, and develop into a set of site- specific resources to be used in educational institutions and museums.
We can work closely with organizations such as the Preservation Society, GTZ, GOAM, and GOPHCY to put together a network of resources that will reach a broader user group. In addition, at this point in time, we can run our resources directly off the hard drive of individual machines so that we do not depend on slow connection speeds.

* Reproduced with permission from Yemen Update Bulletin of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies – Issue No. 45/2003.