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Nathalie Peutz. Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen

Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2018, 346 pages
Laurent Bonnefoy
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Islands of heritage: Conservation and transformation in Yemen / Nathalie Peutz.‑ Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.‑346 p.

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1Monographs in social sciences dealing with Soqotra are few. Their number appears inversely proportional to the fascination that this Yemeni archipelago generates among Yemenis from the mainland, foreign biologists, tourists, and diplomats. One reason for this is obviously the difficulty of carrying out long‑term fieldwork there — not mainly because of security issues like elsewhere in Yemen, but due to the islands’ remoteness and their sparsity. As such, it is one of the true assets of Islands of Heritage to propose a captivating narrative of years of ethnographic work there. Yet, the book is much more than that, fostering convincing reflections for comparison on questions linked to culture, development and so‑called modernization.

2Nathalie Peutz, currently an associate professor in anthropology at NYU Abu Dhabi, started working on and in Soqotra in 2003 in the framework of her PhD. This monograph is an expanded version of her thesis, adding empirical data, including reflections in the conclusion on the effects of the war since 2015 on Soqotran society. It is a most stimulating examination of the way people undergo profound change, and how heritage can play a transformative role through grassroots mobilizations.

3Rather than presupposing that Soqotra is a secluded island, the author rightly suggests the opposite, showing how, despite its cultural and linguistic singularities, it has been at the crossroads of transnational flows for a long time, and often caught in power politics. The book is a convincing analysis of the archipelago’s interconnected history. As such, it gives interesting background on recent debates regarding the intervention of regional powers on the allegedly strategic archipelago, as much as on development projects funded from abroad.

4The introduction to the monograph is eloquent, presenting the significance of the debate on heritage for a variety of disciplines. Concrete examples drawn from the Arab world highlight the fact that the notion of heritage (turāth) has massively been used by states over the last decades as a means to build nations from the top. This process sets the relevance of the volume’s rationale, only to show how a different approach to institutions, identities, culture and development is needed. Such a novel approach should be able to focus on processes that escape from the state, are bottom‑up in essence, and yet interact with a multitude of actors, in particular international institutions but also religious dynamics and migrations. Nathalie Peutz rightly suggests that “heritage is not an isolated enterprise” (p. 22).

5The anthropological approach as developed by the author is deep and yet accessible beyond its disciplinary field of origin. It builds on participant observation and interviews as well as on a vast amount of archives found in colonial records. Anecdotes are given meaning through lively writing. The social and political implications of the dynamics Nathalie Peutz studies, on policies of preservation of heritage implying many institutions and people at different levels, should be considered as meaningful to many — students, researchers and experts. She accounts for the traps and blind spots of many development and cultural projects funded from afar but which claim to be community‑based. This critical focus gives added value to the volume including for readers who have little interest in Soqotra itself.

6The author demonstrates how, far from being a commodified and conservative given, heritage in Soqotra is reinvented by individuals to mobilize new forms of identity and engage in the political sphere. In itself the book is a fascinating account of the ways through which individuals resist encroachment from the state: “this book can be read as an ethnography of the unification and unravelling of the Republic of Yemen as seen through the eyes of a marginalized population” (p. 21). Yet, it also shows how demand for the state remains persistent, be it in the form of a request for infrastructure and services now, or even just food throughout the centuries. This has given way to an ambivalent relationship whose history is explored with great nuance in chapter 2, and whose more recent implications in the form of development projects centered on the “environment” are analyzed in chapters 3 and 4.

7Throughout the rest of the book (chapters 5 and 6), Nathalie Peutz gives a fascinating insight on the creativity of poets (as well as other historians and herbalists), many of whom are keeping Soqotri language alive and generating a specific relationship to their heritage. The reinvention of cultural practices, as studied elsewhere in Yemen by other scholars such as Abdulsalam al‑Rubaidi, Julien Dufour and Elisabeth Kendal, as well as the emphasis put by Soqotrans on the specific richness of their natural environment, are yet other examples of the importance of a mode of popular expression which remains a fascinating point of entry for anthropologists but also for historians, linguists, sociologists and political scientists. The author here also looks into the way the poetic practices at the grassroots level interacted with other processes: “In Soqotra, heritage materialized in the first decade of the twenty‑first century as an effective arena for expansive modes of governance, nascent forms of political activism, and developing conceptions of sovereignty” (p. 201).

8The book is particularly relevant as its global argument challenges usual dichotomies between the local and the regional, the alien and the endogenous, the inside and the outside, the spontaneous and the artificial, as well as between the traditional and the modern. The interventionist Socotra Conservation and Development Programme (SCDP), which served in the 2000s as the main conduit for the so‑called preservation of heritage in the archipelago, funded by the UNESCO as well as the Yemeni state, illustrates the way the above‑mentioned categories are never self‑exclusive but feed one another. Pride in the botanical treasures of the islands was neither an imported notion, nor one that could be seen as strictly local. Consequently, it was ambivalent and also had deep historical roots: “The twenty‑first century (re)discovery of Soqotra’s unique environment was less a discovery of its rich natural resources than of a new market for their commodification and exploitation” (p. 118). Nathalie Peutz asserts that “we should comprehend the emergence of cultural heritage on Soqotra as a dialogical encounter between and among various (local) islanders, (Western and Arab) experts, and (transnational) emigrant communities” (p. 201). Poetry contests, inspired by the success of the Emirati television show Shā‘ir al‑Milyūn, are an interesting example of such interconnected processes.

9The successive chapters show that despite its evident shortcomings, the SCDP, along with multiple integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) as well as the arrival of tourists and international experts have reshaped the relationship between Soqotrans and their environment (be it natural but also political and social, through evolutions in the way hospitality (karam) is practiced for instance). Such an environment has increasingly been projected by all as specific and worthy of being protected — although with different implications. In turn, this has favored new mobilizations that, through cultural practices, question the relationship with the central Yemeni state but also with the regional environment. The questioning of identities and the critique of the domination exercised by the Sanaa‑based government have only become more meaningful since the uprising of 2011 (which is analyzed in detail in chapter 6) and the beginning of the war in 2015. In each of these, interconnections with the Soqotran diaspora in the Gulf monarchies (in particular the United Arab Emirates and Oman) are playing a central role.

10Upon closing Islands of Heritage one can only be impressed by such a piece of interdisciplinary scholarship. Nathalie Peutz brilliantly manages to bring to life and interpret the local dynamics she observed in Soqotra, updating their significance and making them meaningful beyond the archipelago of Soqotra, and that of anthropologists. If one may feel at times overwhelmed by the quantity of details (for instance regarding land and spring water disputes in chapter 4), the sections of the book flow and interconnect with one another in a most relevant way, despite the apparent disparity of the themes each one focuses on. The fact that the line of argument is so convincingly built is yet another asset of a volume which will undeniably rank high in readers’ lists of monographs focusing on Yemeni society before it was devastated by the seemingly never‑ending conflict that started in 2015.

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Laurent Bonnefoy, « Nathalie Peutz. Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 13 | 2020, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2020, consulté le 20 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Bonnefoy

Chargé de recherches au CNRS, SciencesPo‑CERI, Paris

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