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Review: The Global Yemen Project

A review of The Global Yemen Project, a digital collection of oral poetry by Yemeni women, directed by Gokh Amin Alshaif

Published onFeb 26, 2024
Review: The Global Yemen Project

The Global Yemen Project 

Project Director
Gokh Amin Alshaif, University of California, Santa Barbara

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Sam Liebhaber, Middlebury College

Project Overview

Gokh Amin Alshaif

The Global Yemen Project (TGYP) is an ongoing and multi-stage digital humanities project that aims to reintroduce visitors to a multiplicity of Yemens that exists beyond the war-torn Yemen of newspaper headlines. To do this, TGYP narrates Yemen’s rich oceanic and global histories to highlight the Yemeni historical agents of change often missing from Yemen’s more familiar story. This includes the rural women of Yemen’s highlands, Black Yemenis, religious minorities, as well as other marginalized communities. The project asks what histories become legible when we place Yemen in its rich oceanic and global context instead of its territorial one? When we place Yemen amongst the countries of East Africa and South Asia instead of the Levant and the Gulf, which Yemenis become newly included in the category of the Yemeni citizen? How does this challenge who “belongs” to Yemen? TGYP is a collaborative project. Though the current materials were collected and recorded by me, TGYP invites collaborators to expand current collections or curate new ones. 

Each stage of TGYP narrates a different facet of Yemen’s oceanic histories. TGYP currently does so through two components: The Oceanic Yemen Syllabus and The Songs of Yearning Collection. The former is an ever-evolving and continually-expanding syllabus to aid students and educators’ engagement with a multiplicity of Yemens. It includes monographs, articles, novels, short stories, and movies. The latter is a collection of folk songs sung and composed by the rural women of Yemen’s northern highlands. Growing up surrounded by multiple generations of Yemeni women, I learned early on that songs are an important and intimate way for Yemeni women to make sense of their social and material realities. Though the original focus was on those composed in Yemen while women’s husbands and family were in the ghurba,1 it soon became clear that the ghurba and the “global” shaped these women’s expressive culture and transformed the “local.” They sang of the lemon trees of “Merikan” [America], the streets of London, and places across oceans they have never visited. These places and these women’s lives were intimately woven even as their feet remained firmly planted in Yemen’s valleys. What the songs in this collection teach us, just as The Oceanic Yemen syllabus does, is that Yemen’s globality goes beyond its territorial imageries. Because even when Yemenis do not traverse oceans, the world comes to them. 

TGYP was launched in mid-May 2022. Currently, the project is a static webpage hosted on GitHub with a tab for different facets of Yemen’s oceanic histories. More songs and resources will continue to be added to current tabs. Additional tabs for the social histories of other marginalized communities, such as Muhamasheen and African Yemenis, will also be added. While folk songs were the best medium to narrate the histories of rural northern women, another form might be better suited for other communities. As such, future TGYP components might include collections of oral histories, artwork, and dances, depending on the expressive culture of the community featured. 

Project Review

Sam Liebhaber

The Global Yemen Project provides a curated encounter with a Yemen whose folk are, on one hand, rooted in its mountainous highlands and on the other, imbricated in oceanic networks of labor migration, commerce, and sentiment. Refreshingly, the Global Yemen Project foregrounds the Indian Ocean and its coastlines as the site of these networks, asking what histories and narratives become visible when Yemen is “read” as a constituent member of an Indian Oceanic cultural circuit. This challenges the prevailing view of Yemen in the Euro-American imaginary, which defaults to a circum-Mediterranean orientation for all things relating to the Arab world.  

The Global Yemen Project contains three primary divisions, accessible through drop-down tabs. The first is “Songs of Yearning,” an exhibit of orature featuring three different guises of sung poetry by Yemeni women from the Southern Highlands of Yemen: songs meant to echo off valley walls, couplets of personal verse, and multi-line odes. Scholarship on Arabic folk poetry too frequently privileges the public-facing, heroic poetics of the tribal ode. In contrast, “Songs of Yearning” brings to the fore women’s sung poetry, which is the warp and woof of life as it is lived in Yemen, not as it is imagined through the tribal ode. In this way, “Songs of Yearning” are grounded in a material reality that acknowledges the centrality of social reproduction: these poetic lines are crafted by the mothers of future Yemeni emigrants whose sense of social relationships will be shaped by the tender and melancholic songs sung to them by their mothers, sisters, and other female kin.

The second division is a syllabus and detailed annotated bibliography titled “Oceanic Yemen.” The scholarly, literary, and cinematic sources provided in the syllabus complicate any simplistic notions of the colonial legacy on Yemen, the consequences and causes of emigration, and reductive understandings of Yemen’s current turmoil. For instance, the literary works of Muhammad Abdul Wali offer narratives of South-South migration and scholarly works by Boxberger, Ho, and Freitag and Clarence-Smith offer an agentive perspective on the Hadramis who built the colonial-era commercial and cultural networks that spanned the Indian Ocean. The documentary, “In the Middle” (2019) by Yemeni-Russian director Mariam al-Dhubhani provides a meditative and intimate view of Yemen’s current turmoil through the eyes of an Adeni soldier.        

The third division turns out not to be a separate pathway but a number of evocative images of Yemeni women created by Yemeni-American artist Noor Qwfan, which are interspersed throughout the site. The artwork is a keen visual counterpart to the sentiments and mood of “Songs of Yearning” and the artist’s diasporic identity resonates with the contra-reductionist theme of this exhibit.  

The Global Yemen Project offers a great deal of promise as a resource for scholars and non-scholars alike who wish to encounter aspects of Yemen and Yemeni identity rarely found elsewhere. This exhibit is still in a state of development but the sung poems presented here, accompanied by compelling and lucid commentary, lay the foundation for the addition of future poetry and narratives. Likewise, the chief divisions of the exhibit, “Songs of Yearning” and “Oceanic Yemen,” suggest rather than state their interrelationship; however, the premise that undergirds this exhibit, “[even] when Yemenis do not traverse oceans, the world comes to them,” offers a clear way forward.  

The presentation of the exhibit is straightforward: a static webpage hosted by Github, with drop down tabs and accompanying text. One looks forward to seeing how the creators of this exhibit will exploit the digital medium to uncover new meanings behind the intersection of the Yemeni sung poetry and oceanic scholarship.

In terms of future development, the website for the Global Yemen Project should draw out the relationship between the three main divisions more clearly so that they do not remain in their current side-by-side arrangement, visually and conceptually. The throughlines between the melancholic “Songs of Yearning,” the Oceanic Yemen syllabus, and the art are briefly touched upon on the welcome page but merit greater exploration through scholarly text and braiding together their presentation. Songs, images, and commentary can be linked together in novel and provocative ways in a digital exhibit. Finally, the website needs more content, especially poems and their translation. A proper introductory framework has been built but it currently feels incomplete without a more generous offering of the signature poetic genres presented in this digital exhibit.

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