The American Institute for Yemeni Studies
I visited the American Institute for Yemeni Studies this week, and was extremely impressed by their collection and the staff, notably their director Stephen Steinbeiser and their librarian, Faraj al-Arami.
The American Institute for Yemeni Studies was founded in 1978 by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, and is the 11th such institution in the Middle East, among the 25 American Research centers worldwide. It’s goal is to facilitate research by foreign scholars doing work on Yemen in all disciplines, in addition to aiding Yemeni scholars in research on their own country. They offer fellowships for the study of Arabic at the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies, and have housing available for scholars-in-residence.
The most distinctive and notable aspect of the institute is their 5000-volume research library, covering all aspects of Yemeni studies. It is open to the public by appointment, and is highly beneficial to anyone doing research on Yemen’s history, politics, and culture. From their website:
It contains most of the serious scholarly works by Yemenis and non-Yemenis, as well as many books produced throughout and about Yemen, including a collection of Yemeni schoolbooks. There are also government reports, statistics, and laws from pre-unification North and South Yemen and from the unified state since 1990, as well as maps related to both North and South Yemen. The library also has a significant collection of development studies on topics such as urban and regional planning, agricultural production, health and family, etc. AIYS’ collection of more than 170 dissertations dealing with Yemen gathers in one place an extensive body of research on Yemen not otherwise accessible.
AIYS recently underwent a major move, and after a few months of limbo, is now settling into its new location, near the Jumhuri Hospital, in the neighborhood of al-Ga’a. The process of moving a library from one location to another can be a traumatic one, bibliographically speaking. As such, the librarians at AIYS are still working out a few of the kinks in getting completely operational, but the library is present in its entirety and can be browsed to ones heart’s content.
In addition to a new location, AIYS recently received a new director, Mr Stephen J. Steinbeiser, JD, formerly of Pittsburgh, PA. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr Steinbeiser about some of the issues facing both him and AIYS.
All photographs by Rachael Strecher.
What changes has AIYS undergone in the past two years?
Over the past two years at the American Institute of Yemeni Studies there have been many positive changes at the Institute which has moved from its previous location off of Al Bawniya Street to its current and permanent site in the Al Qa’a neighborhood, close to Tawfiq Street.
In the process of moving, the Institute has expanded. The building which AIYS previously inhabited was an old house in the typical Sana’ani style. The new building is more modern but no less historic, as it is the former house of a famous Yemeni poet, Ahmad Mohammad Al Shami. Also, the AIYS property is large and plans are underway for an additional building on the premises.
In addition to the location and building changes, the long-serving director of the Institute, Dr. Chris Edens, left his position in the beginning of this year. I arrived in January to become the new director and began several medium-term projects at the Institute, including preparation for more construction, full library cataloging project, and a public lecture series, as well as projects with local partners.
What are your main goals as director, and how do you plan on executing those goals?
My main goals as director are to raise the profile of AIYS within the Yemeni academic community while continuing the Institute’s commitment to supporting serious academic research in and about Yemen.
AIYS has been in Sana’a since the late 1970’s and many Yemeni researchers know of our fellowship program. Moreover, many local partner organizations have worked with AIYS on several important cultural heritage projects, such as the restoration of the Amiriya Mosque in Rada’.
Because of the recent move and expansion, though, the Institute has not had as much of a public presence as in the past. As a result, while foreign researchers continue to come to the Institute, not as many Yemeni researchers have been browsing our library. I would like to raise awareness of AIYS’s resources for all of those interested in researching Yemen, and above all to maintain the atmosphere of honest intellectual exchange between foreigners and Yemenis which has always existed at AIYS’s previous locations.
What are the major challenges facing AIYS as an institution?
The challenges facing AIYS are similar to those facing many institutions in Yemen at the moment, especially those which rely on foreign resources, whether publicity, persons, or perception. Media reporting abroad about the security situation in Yemen does not serve the country well, and many first-time foreign researchers in Yemen postpone or cancel trips to the country.
Moreover, research permission will only be granted for a geographical area if that region is deemed to be safe and stable for foreigners. Currently, this limits the number of areas for research in the country, thereby, limiting the potential topics and scope of research for some foreign scholars.
Finally, independently funded fellowships and grants, ones which originate through foreign research or philanthropic institutes, have been hurt by the lingering global economic crisis. This has resulted in more caution from donors before awarding grants and scholarships for Yemeni studies. This area of regional interest studies has not traditionally been considered a unique academic focus, so it already must compete with areas of other regional interests to receive money.
In the library, are there any particular volumes or collections you are especially proud of, and would like to make others aware of?
I am proud of the library generally, as it has about 15,000 books, Approximately 60%-70% are in Arabic while the remainder are in English and a smattering of other languages. It also has about 2,000 articles and 200 journals.
Of particular importance in my opinion are a complete compilation of the British laws and chronicles of that government’s time in Aden, books about the time of the Yemeni Imamate and subsequent revolutions, and the Institute’s own publications, whose topics range from agricultural calendars to translations of the poetry Dr. Abd Al Aziz Al Maqalih.
I have heard from many Yemenis that in their opinion, the most important section of our library is the ever-expanding American Studies section. Many Yemeni researchers want current information about the United States, as well as a better understanding of American democratic concepts and culture generally.
We spoke earlier about trying to engage the Yemeni academic community to a greater degree. Does the institute have any active projects designed to engage that community?
AIYS works on several levels to support, engage, and strengthen the Yemeni academic community. In that vein, the Institute works with its primary local partner, the Yemen Center for Studies and Research, to avail itself of opportunities which Yemeni researchers envision already, as well as to create new ones to fulfill research needs in Yemen.
Our public lecture series is a direct attempt to bring Yemeni researchers to the Institute to meet foreign scholars who are currently in Yemen researching. Lectures also serve the purpose of introducing research-oriented Arabic language to foreign scholars who may not be acquainted with some specialized vocabulary, as well as allowing Yemeni researchers to practice their English language skills. Both Yemeni and non-Yemeni researches benefit from this exchange of knowledge about the current body of research on a wide-range of issues affecting Yemen.
Additionally, the Institute currently manages projects (such as the compilation of a Soqotri-Arabic dictionary) that to preserve tangible and intangible cultural heritage in Yemen.
AIYS continues to offer its annual fellowships for Yemeni researchers who wish to pursue independent research in the country.
There are also a few other projects, some of which have been put on hold because of the security situation, and others which are still in the planning stages and which will involve more concrete efforts, specifically restoration of flood-damaged tombs in Hadramout, and manuscript preservation in the north of the country.
You mentioned that the institute is still settling from the move, and getting organized. What is your timeline until everything is fully operational? What are the steps along the way?
AIYS is fully operational now. The library is open to the public from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday, and the scholars’ residence regularly welcomes foreign researchers and AIYS fellows.
Ongoing expansion work continues, though, which means that visitors and members will notice some construction on AIYS property.
Many people do not realize that the Institute is a relatively modest operation with only four full time employees, each of whom is kept very busy on a daily basis, especially as AIYS receives a steady stream of enquiries, researchers, and members-in-residence. In the future, I would like to expand our staff appropriately, to be able to accommodate even more requests and to move more quickly on research-based project ideas.
In closing, anything else you’d like to add to our readers about the institute?
Yes; I encourage all of those who are interested in our library to visit us. More information about the Institute, can be found on our website at http://www.aiys.org.
The AIYS can be reached at 01278816 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get to the AIYS, go to Tahrir Square. With your back to Bab al-Sabah, walk down Gamal abd al-Nassar St, past the Military Museum and continue walking straight, which will take you to the neighborhood of al-Ga3. Look for the Saidalia al-Tawfiq (in Arabic صيدلية التوفيق) with the English word AMOL written at the bottom. Turn left down the alley, walk to the end, and turn left again. The AIYS is the second gate. Buzz the intercom and a guard will let you in. If you get lost, ask someone for Bayt al-Shami. Be sure to take down their phone number to call if you get lost.