Nathalie Peutz, Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen (Stanford University Press, November 2018).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nathalie Peutz (NP): During the build up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, I was unable to secure the necessary travel permit to leave Yemen’s capital Sanaa. One of the few places in Yemen to which I was permitted to travel was Soqotra Island, some 240 miles offshore. During my brief visit there, I became intrigued by how events such as the Iraq war and relatively new political configurations such as the Republic of Yemen were being viewed and experienced by a population at the geographic and cultural margins of the Arabian Peninsula. Often dismissed as remote or romanticized as undiscovered, the Soqotra Archipelago was already gaining global recognition as one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. It was also being shaped by several integrated conservation and development projects, which introduced concepts such as “the environment” and “heritage” to Soqotra’s (self-described) Bedouin population.

A year and a half later, I moved into a newly-designated protected area to research the effects of this environmental governance—what Soqotrans called “the arrival of the Environment”—on its pastoral community. What I found was deep ambivalence toward these conservation and development projects, as well as toward the expanding reach of the Yemeni state and the growing presence of (mainland) Yemeni migrants, Gulf-based Soqotran emigrants, and foreign researchers and tourists. Yet, the increasing international and state focus on Soqotra’s “natural heritage” generated a concerted interest among Soqotran islanders and emigrants in their threatened cultural heritage: a heritage that they could better define, control, and potentially profit from. Ultimately, these Soqotrans’ grassroots efforts to assemble, promote, and mobilize their cultural and linguistic heritage dovetailed with and lent weight to their calls for political and cultural change during the 2011–2012 Yemen revolution.

This example of heritage mobilization in Soqotra is instructive because it disrupts the prevailing critical interpretation of heritage as an expert-driven process that is inherently conservative and nostalgic. Much of the scholarship on the booming heritage industry in Arab-majority societies has focused on the exclusionary and often violent effects of their predominantly top-down, state-funded, and expert-curated heritage projects. Islands of Heritage, by contrast, offers one of the few grounded analyses of the grassroots mobilization of heritage in the region. I wrote this book to explore how this happened—and to show that far from being merely a conservative endeavor, the protection of heritage can have profoundly transformative, even revolutionary effects.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NP: This ethnography examines the implementation, impact, and intersection of environmental conservation, development projects, and heritage protections in a “natural” World Heritage Site. This multi-pronged focus was necessary because heritage is not an isolated enterprise. Indeed, the book argues that because heritage discourses, materials, and practices circulate globally, regionally, and through time, we cannot fully understand their effects without evaluating them in context of other development, conservation, and tutelary projects that have come before and alongside them. Thus, the book contains chapters tracing British colonial and Yemeni state interventions in Soqotra, conservation efforts and environmental orientalism, development projects and land disputes, and competing notions (“islands”) of heritage in the twenty-first century. But it also addresses themes of hospitality and sovereignty, histories of Soqotra-Gulf migration, contemporary concerns of ethnic and linguistic minorities in Arab-majority societies, and the reach of the Yemeni revolution.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NP: Prior to my fieldwork in Soqotra, I had conducted preliminary research on Somali refugees and Yemeni return migrants living in squatter settlements on the outskirts of Aden and Hudaydah. This project was an extension of my earlier work on deportation (see, for example, “The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement”). Islands of Heritage may seem like a significant departure from my research on forced migration. However, I see both projects connected through their ethnographic focus on the mobilities and immobilities generated by modern regulatory regimes, such as migration, conservation, and heritage regimes. I am particularly interested in the effects of these regimes on marginalized communities in the Western Indian Ocean region, including refugees, migrants, and ethnic or linguistic minorities. As my research demonstrates, insights into the lived experiences of deportation in Somaliland or the strategic uses of abjection in Soqotra contribute to our understanding of how these global regimes impact people’s daily lives.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NP: I expect this book will appeal to readers interested in environmental conservation and heritage protections in the Arab world, in general, and in Yemen’s Soqotra Archipelago, in particular. The book can also be read as an ethnography of the unification and unraveling of the Republic of Yemen as seen through the eyes of one of its more peripheral populations. As its readers will discover, however, the book does not limit its scope to Soqotra or even to Yemen, but foregrounds and discusses the significant movements of peoples, objects, and ideas between this Indian Ocean archipelago, mainland Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. For example, it reveals the central influence of the Soqotran Gulf-based diaspora and of Gulf–island transmissions (of materials and other resources) in framing island-wide debates over the nature of Soqotran heritage, history, and identity. It shows how ideas of heritage were not simply introduced to the islanders through UN bodies and their foreign experts, but were also directly based on models imported from Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The book underscores, in other words, how cultural and political transformations in Soqotra—and by extension, in Yemen—cannot be examined in isolation from peoples and projects in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

Thus, I hope this book will help to bridge the common academic division between Yemen studies and Gulf studies. I also hope it will convince its readers that Soqotra is not an “untouched” island paradise just waiting for outside guidance and assistance. In fact, Soqotra has a long and lingering history of dubious foreign interventions. It has also generated a tremendous body of archaeological, biological, botanical, historical, and linguistic scholarship, research findings that should not be ignored by new, incoming project teams. These academic concerns notwithstanding, I wrote this book largely with my Soqotran interlocutors and a general readership in mind. With so much scholarship and media focused on Soqotra’s “alien” landscape, I hope my readers will come to care about Soqotra’s remarkable people through the individuals they encounter in its pages. Finally, I would be most gratified if this book were to one day serve as a meaningful testament, for a new generation of Soqotrans, to some of the many challenges their elders once weathered.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

NP: I am currently writing my second monograph, tentatively titled Gate of Tears: Migration and Impasse in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. This project builds on my earlier work on forced migration across and around the Red Sea. Yemen’s devastating war has resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, including widespread hunger and massive internal displacement. It has also led to thousands of African refugees and Yemeni nationals fleeing Yemen for the Horn of Africa, even as thousands of African refugees and migrants continue to enter war-torn Yemen on their way to Saudi Arabia, where they hope to find work. Having followed the plight of Somali refugees in Yemen in the 2000s, I was especially struck by the fact that Yemeni nationals were now seeking refuge in Somalia, among other countries.

Consequently, in 2016, I began conducting ethnographic research on Yemeni refugees in the Horn of Africa with a focus on the households living in Djibouti’s Markazi camp. I wondered to what degree the 2015 flight of refugees from Yemen had been set in motion by their family histories of mobility, mixed marriages, and forced migration. How have their prior transnational connections—and displacements—facilitated or constrained their ability to escape Yemen, and the camp? The resulting book analyzes this complex set of displacements in a geopolitically-sensitive region where encamped Yemeni refugees come into direct daily contact with Ethiopian migrants walking toward Yemen.

J: What about the United Arab Emirates’ reported takeover of Soqotra? Does your book address the UAE’s current military and political presence there? 

NP: Islands of Heritage focuses on the period of 2003–2013, on the years just before and after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed the Soqotra Archipelago as a World Heritage Site (in 2008). It discusses the United Arab Emirates’ humanitarian aid to Soqotra which was ramped up following the outbreak of Yemen’s war (especially after Soqotra suffered two back-to-back cyclones in the fall of 2015). But the book was already in press when the United Arab Emirates deployed troops to Soqotra in April 2018. What this book does provide is archival, historical, and ethnographically-grounded context for the United Arab Emirates’ current interventions, ones that are both contested and welcomed by different groups of Soqotrans. At this time, in the midst of Yemen’s ongoing war in which several of the Arab Gulf states are deeply implicated, it is more important than ever to understand these regional connections.


Excerpt from the book


The poets were waiting. It was a morning in late 2011—nearly a year into Yemen’s revolution—and nine Soqotran poet contestants from across the island had gathered in a derelict courtyard to prepare for the opening night of the annual Festival of Soqotri Poetry. Up to that point, poetry had been a valued register through which to express local cultural ideals and political frustrations. But this was to be a turning point: emboldened by the Arab uprisings, the recitations would for the first time openly challenge the history of intrusive governance “from [across] the sea” (Soq.: min rinhem). I sat with the nervous poets, many of them semiliterate pastoralists, as they awaited the arrival of local teacher and activist Fahd Saleem, one of the competition’s key organizers.

Meanwhile, Fahd was at the other end of town leading a protest against the national airline, Yemenia, which had relinquished its Soqotra routes to a more expensive competitor. Earlier that morning I had driven past the demonstration outside Yemenia’s local office, parked my car, and got out to observe the crowd of self-proclaimed revolutionaries assembled: dozens of men and several women who were demonstrating regularly against the Saleh regime and for revolution in Yemen. Fahd was delivering an impassioned speech, bullhorn in hand, arguing that Yemenia’s presumably pragmatic financial decision was a grave atrocity—all the more so because it was government sanctioned. On a distant island lacking even basic medical equipment, he declared, the absence of regular, price-controlled flights to the mainland had added a high premium to the cost of Soqotran life.

When Fahd arrived at the courtyard of poets, he gave another rousing speech, this time about the significance of the festival. Fahd described having lived through a period in which “the system” convinced Soqotrans that the use of their own language was shameful. He applauded the poets for their role in preserving Soqotran cultural heritage—especially the Soqotri language, which had been losing ground to the hegemonic spread of Arabic on the island. He decried the partisan divisions that had recently emerged among Soqotrans as they debated Yemen’s uncertain future. And through concern that the competition itself would become another site of tension, he pronounced the festival a unifying event of which “the ultimate winner is Soqotra.” After the address, I commended him for having organized the protest in the morning and a poetry festival that same day. “It’s all part of the same work,” he replied.

What is this “work” that connects a poetry festival in the name of heritage (turath) to a demonstration against a national airline in the name of revolution (thawra)? And how can we reconcile the seeming incongruity between heritage cultivation to reduce the effects of change by preserving cultural artifacts and traditions, and popular revolution to achieve significant change in political and socioeconomic conditions? Heritage, after all, is widely regarded as inherently conservative (conservationist) and nostalgic. Moreover, scholarship on the heritage industry in Arab-majority societies has focused primarily on the exclusionary and violent effects of top-down heritage projects or on their nationalist displays of political and cultural unity. This is especially the case in the Arabian Peninsula, where the engineering of heritage functions foremost as a form of nation branding by governments to kindle nationalism and cultivate tourism and, crucially, where heritage is principally a state-funded and expert-curated endeavor. In light of these conventional critiques and presentations of heritage, what can this example of grassroots mobilization at the margins of Arabia tell us about the power of heritage in the context of the Arab uprisings—and at a time when heritage sites in Yemen and other Arab-majority nations are being destroyed by dynamite and dropped bombs?


The Republic of Yemen is one of the poorest, hungriest, and least-developed countries in the world. Even prior to the start of the war in March 2015, Yemen was struggling. Over half of its population lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than two dollars per day. More than 40 percent of its population was malnourished, and more than 60 percent required humanitarian assistance to meet their daily basic needs. In 2018, as this book goes to press, Yemen’s civilians are suffering critical shortages of food, water, fuel, and medicines; a recurrent cholera epidemic; and large-scale internal displacement—in addition to the untold deaths and injuries from three years of warfare.

Yemen is also one of the world’s driest countries. If not for its protracted war and spreading famine, Yemen’s pressing environmental problems could in themselves constitute a humanitarian crisis. The most acute of these challenges include the country’s extraordinary rates of land degradation, deforestation, pollution, and, above all, groundwater depletion. Hydrologists have long predicted that Sanaa will run out of economically viable water supplies by 2020. Another way of saying this is that Sanaa, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, may be the world’s first capital to become uninhabitable for lack of water. When this happens, Yemen’s environmentally displaced persons (environmental refugees) may eclipse its already unprecedented number of persons displaced by conflict.

In addition to this human suffering, Yemen’s rich cultural heritage has been hit hard. Since the start of the war, some twenty-five archaeological sites and monuments have been damaged or destroyed by aerial bombardments, including the ancient dam of Marib, a museum holding more than ten thousand artifacts, mountaintop citadels, and a historic neighborhood in the Old City of Sanaa. In July 2015, UNESCO placed two of Yemen’s three “cultural” World Heritage Sites—the Old City of Sanaa and the Old Walled City of Shibam—onto its List of World Heritage in Danger. (Yemen’s third “cultural” site, the Historic Town of Zabid, had been moved to this list a decade and half earlier due to its deterioration.) Yemen has a fourth, “natural” World Heritage Site that is not officially endangered: its biologically diverse Soqotra Archipelago. Protected as much as imperiled by its distance from the Arabian Peninsula, the archipelago is the one governorate of Yemen that has not seen armed conflict. Nevertheless, Soqotra’s natural and cultural environments have been profoundly affected by Yemen’s 2011 revolution and its current war.

This book examines the impact of development, conservation, and heritage projects in prewar Yemen by tracing the intersections of these projects in Soqotra, the largest island of the eponymous archipelago. Soqotra has long been imagined by outsiders as a “protected” island, a natural enclosure for safeguarding plants and peoples. Situated at the maritime crossroads between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa yet inaccessible by sea during the southwest monsoon season, it has a history of being conceived as both central to foreign interests and isolated from external events. But over the span of a decade, this relatively remote Western Indian Ocean island—one of the most marginalized places in Yemen—was transformed into an internationally recognized protected area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and (until recently) a prime destination for ecotourism. During this period, Soqotra’s rural pastoralists accommodated and sustained a series of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) as a de facto state. They also responded to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention’s problematic nature-culture divide—and what had effectively become the commandeering of their environment as a global commons—by appropriating the language of heritage to claim a place for themselves that could withstand hegemonic cultural influences. Despite its recognition as a natural World Heritage Site—one of only a handful of such natural sites in the Arab world—Soqotra stands out not only for its unique biotic species but also for its indigenous inhabitants’ endangered language (Soqotri) and distinctive culture. This book investigates how the archipelago’s recent ascendance has motivated everyday Soqotrans to actively create, curate, and mobilize their cultural heritage in a period of political upheaval to negotiate increased autonomy from the embattled Yemeni state.