Islands of Heritage
Conservation and Transformation in Yemen
Nathalie Peutz



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.1 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.2 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.3 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.


First-time European and American visitors to the UAE, where I live, are often surprised by the prevalence of heritage villages, heritage festivals, and heritage sports in the otherwise hypermodern Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “Heritage” in the Arab Gulf, as elsewhere in the Middle East, is a central and growing industry, attracting the attention of scholars as well as investors and tourists. At the same time, much of the region’s invaluable cultural heritage has been and continues to be obliterated by insurgents and governments alike. Spectacular assaults on historical sites, cultural institutions, and symbols of cultural-religious diversity in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and, more recently, Yemen suggest that the “new wars” of the twenty-first century are being fought on the terrain of cultural heritage as much as they are over other precious resources.4

Yet anthropology, my discipline, continues to have an uneasy relationship with the vast assemblages of objects, places, practices, and phenomena that are presently deemed heritage. On the one hand, many anthropologists—archaeologists especially—have devoted their careers to discovering, researching, preserving, and protecting parts of the world’s cultural legacies and treasures. On the other hand, today’s booming, global heritage industry profits from the homogenization, fossilization, and commodification of “culture”—the very concept that once buttressed North American (cultural) anthropology. Not only have anthropologists yielded one of their foundational concepts to self-critique, only to see it embraced and deployed by forces like the US military.5 They are also witnessing a worldwide surge in the objectification and revaluation of “intangible heritage” by governments and other corporate entities eager to demarcate (and market) their national, cultural, or ethnic distinction while eliding internal differences and inequalities. If historians debunk heritage as a shoddy or sanitized form of history, anthropologists may dismiss heritage as an ossified or oppressive form of culture—another concept to critique or circumlocute were it not that heritage has become more, not less, meaningful in the past few decades to peoples the world over. And because UNESCO’s influential World Heritage program encompasses yet maintains as separate the realms of culture and nature—a dualistic conception that has long plagued Western thought, as well as anthropology6—we can see why heritage might make anthropologists so uncomfortable, despite (if not due to) its common reception as a universal good. Indeed, scholars are right to remain “deeply suspicious of heritage,” notes archaeologist Rodney Harrison, for “heritage is rarely deployed innocently, in the absence of some form of claim toward a self-evident truth that is often divisive or exclusionary, defining the difference it specifies as a function of the past.”7

But, as many scholars in the growing, interdisciplinary field of critical heritage studies also argue, heritage as it concerns us today is less about the preserved past than it is about the emergent future.8 Heritage draws on ostensibly past materials, expressions, and entanglements to assemble and mobilize a more sustainable present in anticipation of growing resource scarcity and other uncertainties. In this sense, heritage making (and unmaking) makes the future. It is a form of political engagement—discursive, material, and affective—with the world’s most critical and imminent concerns: identity, indigeneity, democracy, human rights, justice, reconciliation, globalization, neoliberalism, neoimperialism, sovereignty, religion, language endangerment, sustainability, resource extraction, anthropogenic climate change, and extinction. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attacks on, over, and by means of cultural heritage in the Arab world today.9


Cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has long been a site of struggle against foreign domination and for political and cultural sovereignty.10 In the early nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, European powers used the modern, scientific language of protection and conservation to justify their imperial interventions across the region. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the fledgling governments of the emerging Arab nation-states struggled to wrest control of their museums, archaeological sites, antiquities, and other patrimony from European “protection.” At the same time, in several countries, Arab nationalists debated which one of their legacies—Pharaonic, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, Islamic, Arab, Andalusi—they should draw on to consolidate their national identity. After achieving political independence in the 1940s through 1970s, many Arab states invested in cultural institutions and production as a pathway toward modernization. The professionalized, nationalized, and largely state-controlled practice of protecting cultural heritage and promoting popular folklore (al-turath al-sha‘bi) was part of this. But the strong influence of pan-Arabism during these decades left little room for the recognition of cultural, linguistic, or religious diversity. Most newly drafted constitutions—including the 1978 constitution of the secular Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY)—designated the nation as Arab, its official language as Arabic, and its religion as Islam. This was a clear shift away from colonial policies that had suppressed Arabic language and Islam and, in places like Morocco and Algeria, had favored the indigenous (Berber) populations. Instead, the new Arab states promoted a folkloric heritage as a national unifier or relegated it to the museum, where culture difference could be contained.

Nevertheless, by the early 1970s heritage had become a central concern among Arab intellectuals who debated whether their Arab-Islamic heritage was the source of or solution to the perceived Arab stagnation.11 In contrast to the conservative “traditionalists” who advocated a return to what they considered to be a sacred and incontrovertible Islamic turath, “progressive” intellectuals (both religious and secular) called for a reevaluation of inherited values and traditions to better adapt their Arab-Islamic heritage to the needs of the present. Whereas many scholars involved in these debates embarked on a critical study of turath with the aim of revitalizing it, several idealized the transformative power of heritage to the extent of “wanting to draw a line from turath to revolution.”12 The Syrian Marxist scholar Tayyib Tizini even called for a “heritagial revolution” (al-thawra al-turathiyya)—“meaning not only a revolution in the cognitive understanding of heritage but also a revolution grounded in the progressive elements of heritage”—as one piece of a greater cultural and socialist revolution.13 Having surfaced in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab defeat, these debates gathered steam in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and in the context of the Islamic revival.

Around the same time, the now-global heritage industry characterized by the manufacture and marketing of heritage for economic development began to flourish in the Arab world, too. In many nations, the commodification of heritage commenced with the economic liberalization of the 1980s. It then proliferated in the 1990s and 2000s because of, among other factors, the end of the Cold War and the corresponding decrease in foreign funding to the region, an increase in US military and cultural power in the region following the 1990 Gulf War, the end of civil wars in Lebanon and Algeria and the reemergence of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the promotion of cultural tourism. During the past two decades, nearly all the MENA-region governments have extended their cultural policies, introduced legislation to protect cultural and natural heritage, created new bodies responsible for heritage, increased their number of heritage sites, and funded historical restoration projects.14 In the Gulf, the “heritage revival” has manifested itself in the state-funded restoration of old forts; the establishment of heritage villages and festivals; the development of “heritage sports,” such as camel racing and falconry; televised competitions of colloquial poetry; and the proliferation of landmark national museums.15

While this global heritage boom could reflect a deepening, collective sense of cultural, economic, and environmental endangerment, it emerged out of the post–World War II faith in technical progress and international collaboration.16 Indeed, during the very decades that the modernizing Arab regimes were endorsing a nationalist pan-Arab and popular heritage, the concept of a universal “world heritage” was born. It was midwifed, in fact, in the Arab world where in 1959 UNESCO mounted the world’s first collaborative international campaign, to save the ancient Nubian monuments of Egypt and Sudan from being flooded by the Aswan High Dam development. This unprecedented action resulted in the relocation and reconstruction of twenty-three monuments, the displacement of thousands of Nubians, and ultimately UNESCO’s 1972 adoption of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which gave rise to the World Heritage Site and brand.

As initially formulated, World Heritage was embedded in places (monuments, buildings, or sites) classified as “cultural” or “natural” properties of “outstanding universal value.”17 It did not take long, however, for its critics to recognize that this natural/cultural distinction was problematically Eurocentric. Yet, despite the World Heritage Committee’s efforts to accommodate more diverse notions of heritage, this fundamental divide between culture and nature was maintained.18 Similarly, UNESCO’s 2003 adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage—one of the outcomes of the committee’s “global strategy” to create a more representative and balanced list—underscored yet another divide: “tangible” versus “intangible” heritage.19 Notably, this second major UNESCO instrument also has its genesis in the MENA region in a proposal to protect the oral (storytelling) traditions found in Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech, Morocco.20 Where UNESCO’s 2003 convention departs from the 1972 convention and the short-lived Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity program (2001–2005) that preceded it is in its aim for the representativeness of its list as a whole rather than the “outstanding universal value” of any one property (a key concept of the 1972 convention) or its designation as a “masterpiece.”21

This broadening of World Heritage from tangible and outstanding sites to intangible and representative elements (cultural traditions and practices) benefits many nations, such as the Arab Gulf States, marked more by their oral traditions than by their built monuments. This shift could even open the door to a renewed interest in a pan-Arab heritage. For instance, in 2015, the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman jointly nominated “Arabic coffee, symbol of hospitality” for inscription on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (Notably absent as a nominating party is Yemen, the birthplace of Arabian coffee.) Even more significant in light of the current rate of language extinction would be if this new valorization of intangible cultural heritage were to galvanize additional state support for cultural and linguistic diversity. Within the Arab world, Algeria—the world’s first member state to ratify the 2003 convention and the host of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (ISESCO) 2004 session where the Islamic Declaration on Cultural Diversity was adopted—has made strides in recognizing and promoting its country’s Berber heritage. In 2001, the Algerian government constitutionally recognized Amazigh (Berber) as an official state language, alongside Arabic; in 2014, Algeria established the Regional Center for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Africa under the auspices of UNESCO.

Although these and other states’ measures are encouraging, the most significant shifts toward the recognition of long-marginalized peoples, languages, and cultures in the Arab world have occurred as a result of political activism and popular mobilization. Whereas Tunisia and Morocco also took steps toward recognizing Amazigh identity in the 2000s, it was only in response to the “Arab Spring” and the reemergence of Berber activism in 2011—thirty years after the “Berber Spring” in Algeria—that Amazigh was constitutionally recognized as an official language of Morocco (in July 2011). In Yemen, too, the Arab uprisings in 2011 paved the way to the National Dialogue Conference (2013–2014) and a draft constitution giving official recognition to Yemen’s South Semitic languages: Soqotri and Mehri. Despite the prospects for this constitution becoming increasingly unlikely, this draft represented a remarkable step toward the recognition of cultural diversity and minority heritage in a state long defined as “Arab.” One of conference members who fought for this recognition was Fahd Saleem, the Soqotran activist who had rallied the protesters and poets during the revolution. But how did Fahd and other Soqotrans come to view their cultural heritage as a powerful mode of political discourse and action?

Many scholars have been critical (and suspicious) of UNESCO’s still largely Eurocentric notions of intrinsic “universal” value, its Cartesian (natural/cultural and tangible/intangible) taxonomies, and its cultural imperialism.22 Others, influenced by theories of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, have shown how heritage at any level (local, national, world) is a means by which a state exercises control over its population.23 This control can be exerted directly by authoritarian regimes. But it can also be exerted indirectly in advanced liberal democracies through “neoliberal” strategies that “create a distance between the decisions of formal political institutions and other social actors, conceive of these actors in new ways as subjects of responsibility, autonomy and choice, and seek to act upon them through shaping and utilizing their freedom.”24 Heritage is one such way of what Nikolas Rose calls “governing at a distance”—a way of encouraging social actors to become “experts of themselves” and of their pasts.25 Heritage is a particularly effective form of government, for its authority is grounded in liberal notions of expertise, ethical self-understanding, and consumption-based identification. But Rose also draws his readers’ attention to “the ‘reversibility’ of relations of authority” in that “what starts off as a norm to be implanted into citizens can be repossessed as a demand which citizens can make of authorities.”26 In such instances, heritage as a technology of government and subjectification may be redeployed as a platform for self-governance in a political community. For example, anthropologist Chiara de Cesari analyzes how a creative, artistic heritage movement in Palestine “embodies an activist project of resistance to the occupation” while, at the same time, engaging in national institution building in the shadow of the Palestinian “quasi-state.”27 De Cesari’s work offers a provocative example of heritage as a creative form of governance—creative not only in its reliance on art and material culture but also in its capacity to produce new forms of governance and new relations of and demands on authority—in an area long subject to occupation. Still, even in such an embattled site, the heritage nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that she observes are well-established organizations staffed by “cosmopolitan” Palestinian heritage practitioners and financed by international donors.

In contrast, Islands of Heritage examines the emergence of what may also be designated a creative, activist heritage in a context of extreme immiseration and unexpected upheaval. This context, in itself, is neither more nor less worthy of study, but it does demand inquiry into why seemingly conservative concepts like heritage took hold among presumably inexpert individuals and self-proclaimed revolutionaries. In the case of Soqotra, this means considering how heritage has become entangled with other imperatives of preservation and improvement. It means analyzing the current (primarily external) emphasis on the protection of nature in light of the historical nature of outsiders’ concerns with Soqotra’s protection. And it means exploring how heritage has come to matter—both discursively and materially—as a generative force that is being created, curated, and mobilized from below toward new forms of political empowerment.28 Although I, too, regard heritage as a form of external and internal governance (and often refer to the workings of UNESCO as the world heritage “regime”), this book is less interested in the “reversibility of relations of authority” than it is in their potential unraveling. Drawing on Tayyib Tizini’s notion of a heritagial revolution described previously, it argues that—albeit for a limited period before the war intervened—Soqotrans succeeded in articulating and animating “a revolution grounded in the progressive elements of heritage.” Indeed, far from being a conservative endeavor or merely a governmental technology, their work demonstrates how the mobilization of nature-culture heritage can have profoundly transformative, even revolutionary, effects.


Located 150 miles east of the Horn of Africa and 240 miles south of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen’s Soqotra Island is the second-largest island in the Western Indian Ocean. Along with its neighboring islands, Abd al-Kuri, Samha, and Darsa, it forms the Soqotra Archipelago, one of the most botanically diverse island groups in the world.29 More than one-third of its 825 plant species are endemic, meaning that they cannot be found anywhere else on earth. These include plants like the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), with its ruby red resin (cinnabar) and umbrella-shaped crown; the tubby cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus), the only gourd species to grow in tree form; and the Soqotran frankincense tree (Boswellia socotrana), whose aromatic resin, prized in ancient times, now sells online for USD 20 an ounce. In addition, the archipelago with its soaring Haggeher Mountains (up to five thousand feet above sea level) is home to seven endemic bird species and at least twenty-two species of reptiles, nineteen of them endemic. There is good reason that conservationists have branded it “the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.”

Despite the archipelago’s recent ascendance, Soqotra is still characterized by outsiders as one of the most enigmatic and “forgotten” places in the region. This has less to do with its ostensibly remote location—for many empires, past and present, Soqotra’s geographic position at the entrance to the Red Sea has been its prime value—than with its continuing inaccessibility and seasonal isolation. Lacking natural harbors and directly impacted by the gale-force winds of the southwest monsoon that “close” (tughliq) its surrounding seas, the islands of the Soqotra Archipelago were effectively cut off from the outside world, and one another, every May through September. This seasonal isolation ended only in 1999 with the opening of an all-weather, commercial airport that has enabled travel and transport to and from the mainland year-round. More than simply opening Soqotra Island to foreign researchers and tourists, this and other recent developments consolidated Yemen’s grasp over the island while also invigorating the islanders’ historical and present-day links to the Soqotran diaspora in the Arab Gulf States.

Monsoon winds and rough seas notwithstanding, Soqotra has attracted sailors, settlers, and soldiers since early antiquity.30 Historical accounts suggest that, by the second century BCE, colonies of Arabs, Greeks, and Indians had settled the island, alongside its autochthonous population. Around the mid-fourth century, Soqotra was Christianized and brought under the influence of the Nestorian church of Sassanid Persia. Until the end of the fifteenth century, Soqotra was intermittently ruled or held under tributary subjection by various Omani and South Arabian dynasties. Yet it remained a nominal Christian settlement—in the midst of what had become a predominantly Muslim sea—until well into the sixteenth century. Finally, in approximately 1480 CE, Soqotra became subject to the chieftains of Qishn, a coastal enclave of al-Mahra: the vast, desert territory wedged between the Hadhramawt (Yemen) and Dhofar (Oman). Despite several challenges to its rule, the ‘Afrar family of Qishn established itself as a hereditary and titular dynasty that would rule the Sultanate of Qishn and Soqotra until 1967 (see Appendix).

Throughout much of this period, Soqotra was renowned for its natural bounty: frankincense, myrrh, cinnabar, aloes, ambergris, tortoise shell, pearls, and pearl shell. It also attracted merchants, missionaries, and explorers on account of its notorious inhabitants: its “St. Thomas Christians” (the descendants of those who had ostensibly been converted by the apostle himself); its powerful sorcerers; and its marauding pirates. However, by the time the fleets of the English East India Company began anchoring off its shores, Soqotra’s “natives” were described by their captains as comprising two groups: the coastal-dwelling Arab Muslims and the mountain-dwelling aborigines. Sir Thomas Roe, visiting in 1615, described the latter as “a savage people, poore, leane, naked, with long hayer, eating nothing but rootes, hidinge in bushes, conversing with none, afrayd of all, without howses, and almost as savadge as beasts; and by conjecture the true ancient naturalls of this island.”31 Notwithstanding continued evidence of the island’s diverse population, this stark typology prevailed for centuries; as late as the 1960s, British explorers drew sharp contrasts between the “mixed” Arabs and Africans along the coast and the presumably autochthonous Bedouin, “untouched by the progress of civilization.”32 Soqotrans, too, distinguish between highland, indigenous populations (the so-called real Saqatri) and coastal communities of “Arab” or “African” descent. In recent decades, these distinctions have lost ground as more and more pastoralist families have descended to the coastal towns and new migrants from mainland (and especially northern) Yemen moved to the capital. (In this book, I use the term Soqotran to refer to anyone who originates from the island, differentiating only between the Saqatri and Arab- or Afro-Soqotrans when relevant. In keeping with my interlocutors’ habit, I do distinguish between Soqotrans and mainlander Yemenis—even though Soqotrans are, by way of citizenship, Yemeni as well.)

Soqotra has also long been imbued with a sacred quality—sacred, in the sense of being intentionally set apart. Time and again, the island’s natural resources and population were placed under varying forms of artificial isolation or “protection.” For example, as early as the first century CE, Soqotra was said to be “subject” to the “king of the frankincense-bearing lands”—a region that covered eastern Yemen and western Oman—who had “leased out the island” to an unnamed sovereign and placed it “under guard.”33 Centuries later, when Oman’s first Ibadi imam seized the island as a strategic base for Oman’s East African slave trade (ca. 750 CE), Soqotra’s Christians were given protected (dhimmi) status in exchange for submitting to a per capita tax.34 When the thirteenth-century traveler Ibn al-Mujawir visited Soqotra, he noted that its Christian sorcerers could make “the protected island” invisible to foreign invaders.35 In 1507, some twenty-five years after the Mahra had taken Soqotra (as a refuge from their neighboring rivals), the Portuguese king Manuel I (r. 1495–1521) dispatched a fleet to “Çocotora” to establish it as a base from which to occupy the Red Sea and, ostensibly, to “guard and protect” its celebrated Christians.”36 This four-year occupation failed miserably. But the allure of Soqotra as a military base and protected site endured.

Thus, in 1834, the Government of British India tried unsuccessfully to first purchase and then occupy Soqotra to use it as a coaling station for British steamships plying their way between Suez and Bombay. Although the British no longer needed Soqotra following their capture of Aden in 1839, they were loath to have any other power acquire this strategically located island, especially following the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal. Therefore, they negotiated a series of treaties with the ‘Afrar sultans in Qishn (in al-Mahra) in 1876, 1886, and 1888, resulting in the Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Soqotra becoming the first British protectorate in southwestern Arabia. Later, in the wake of its second (this time, successful) occupation of Soqotra during World War II, the British government wavered between seeking to strengthen the island’s connections to the mainland and separating it altogether—a schizophrenic engagement that made Soqotra pivotal to their policies while keeping it artificially remote. Indeed, for years, British ministers debated whether to retain the island as a sovereign military base following Britain’s impending withdrawal from South Arabia.

In November 1967, the People’s Republic of South Yemen (later called the PDRY) was established. The formation of this independent Marxist state in South Yemen brought to an end the various sultanates that the British had propped up, including the Sultanate of Qishn and Soqotra. Annexed by South Yemen, Soqotra was governed as a restricted-access military zone. This is the period during which Soqotrans today describe their island as having been most closed off from outside contact, for they needed permission to leave the island and their migrant relatives were prevented from returning. Finally, the unification of North and South Yemen into the Republic of Yemen in 1990 led to Soqotra being “discovered” once again. While the embargo it had suffered was lifted, this former state of exception was soon replaced by the swift transformation of the archipelago into a place of exception: a place whose exceptional nature, literally, required yet another protection regime.

And its protection has been noteworthy: within years of Yemen’s 1990 unification and 1994 civil war, the Government of Yemen declared the Soqotra Archipelago a national protected area (in 1996) and adopted a legislative framework (in 2000) to identify and manage the several categories of protected areas within the archipelago. By the time I began my fieldwork there in 2004, the Soqotra Archipelago had been recognized by BirdLife International as an Endemic Bird Area, by the World Wildlife Fund as a Global 200 ecoregion, by Conservation International as a crucial center of biodiversity within the Horn of Africa biodiversity hotspot, by the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA) as a Marine Protected Area, and by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) as an integrated biosphere reserve. And in 2008, this ostensibly “Hidden Land” was added to the world map of nationally protected, globally recognized, and universally valued World Heritage Sites—to this new “archipelago of enclaves.”37 Far from being obscured, Soqotra was transformed into a tourist site attracting (primarily) European visitors—mainly, for its white sandy beaches but also for the very narratives that have attracted visitors since Thomas Roe’s time: Soqotra’s “weird” flora; its “mysterious” Christian history; its “legendary” Portuguese connections; its “strange” sorcery; and its “forgotten” nature.38

A quick review of these imperial engagements demonstrates that the fluctuations in the island’s connections and closures are as regular as the monsoon gales that close the sea around it and as its transitions between protected area and military zone. In the past decade, it has been rumored repeatedly (but falsely) that the United States or Saudi Arabia had occupied Soqotra or garrisoned a top-secret military base there. When I returned in 2013, my friends informed me that the United States was in negotiation with the Government of Yemen to relocate the remaining Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Soqotra. In February 2016, rumors circulated that Yemen’s President Hadi had leased out Soqotra to the UAE for ninety-nine years in return for its military support.39 Since then, Emirati forces have used Soqotra (closed to tourists since March 2015) as a military training ground. In other words, if Soqotra has been cut off seasonally, it has also been cut off cyclically, from one period and century to another. Although it is this “interplay between isolation and interconnectedness that characterizes the life of every island,”40 in Soqotra this isolation has been more or less imposed by sovereigns seeking to protect the island or to be protected by it. The contours of this protection, from sacred to protectorate to protected area to defense zone, have changed, as has the cast of empires drawn to its shores. But the impulse is familiar. How have Soqotrans responded to the unsolicited arrival of one imperial project after another? And how do they perform their ostensible “remoteness” to each wave of strangers?41


This book is the product of longitudinal and multisited fieldwork in Soqotra and my ongoing friendship with several Soqotrans I met through this research. Given Soqotra’s cyclical closures, it is worth noting that it was, in part, the island’s imputed apartness that both drew and steered me there initially. When I first visited and traveled through much of Yemen in 1999, Soqotra still seemed virtually out of reach: “the last great sidetrack,” as Tim Mackintosh-Smith was to depict it in his erudite travel narrative.42 Yemeni friends in Sanaa had never heard of the place or did not know its location. (Soqotran friends recall a visiting mainlander asking for directions to al-Mukalla in a stolen car; having flown to Soqotra, he did not realize it was an island from which he could not drive away.)43 However, just five years later, the archipelago was minted, quite literally, into the national consciousness: In 2004, a new twenty-riyal (YER) coin with Soqotra’s metonymic dragon’s blood tree emblazoned on its face was released into circulation. Images of these iconic trees began sprouting up on the painted metal doors and signs of apothecaries and honey shops along Zubairy and other crowded streets in Sanaa. And documentaries extoling Soqotra’s biodiversity aired frequently on national television. In the interim, during the buildup to the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, foreigners were prohibited from traveling outside Sanaa—with the exception of the supposedly secluded Soqotra, to where I then flew. At the time, I had limited knowledge of the island and, as a graduate student, limited funds. Finding its “capital,” Hadibo, oppressively hot and expensive, my partner and I spent much of those two weeks seeking respite in our poorly air-conditioned hotel room, watching Operation Iraqi Freedom unfold. One day, we splurged on a half-day car rental and asked our driver to take us to the mountains. He took us to the arborous Homhil plateau, a newly established nature sanctuary. Unbeknown to me then was that I would eventually end up living among its Saqatri pastoralist community for more than a year and thinking and writing about Homhil for over a decade to come.44

During my field research in Soqotra, I relied on conventional anthropological methods, such as carrying out participant observation, conducting unstructured interviews, and eliciting life histories. I also studied the conservation and development project documents, collected Soqotri poetry and oral histories, and (later) researched colonial archives. I conducted these interviews and conversations primarily in Arabic and English but also learned and used some basic Soqotri. I had not intended to study or even collect Soqotri-language poetry, until I realized the extent to which people’s concerns were expressed primarily through this medium.45 In the following chapters, I provide a sense of daily life in a pastoralist community at the margins of the Arab world—not because this was the subject of my research but because livelihoods like these are increasingly marginalized even as they, too, are affected by the uprisings, revolutions, and armed conflicts that have rocked this region. However, because I refrain there from describing my own activities in the protected area, here I briefly summarize what this entailed.

In Hadibo, where I had also rented a house, I spent most mornings interacting with project staff of the Socotra Conservation and Development Programme (SCDP) and the Environment Protection Authority and attending their meetings whenever possible. My partner, who accompanied me during this period, worked part-time for the SCDP drafting the initial nomination document for Soqotra’s World Heritage recognition; he, too, spent his mornings at the SCDP headquarters. In the afternoons and evenings, I tried to meet, socialize with, and interview persons of varying backgrounds and occupations, such as the Hadibo-based rural-urban migrants; Afro-Soqotran fishermen and state employees; mainland Yemeni shopkeepers, teachers, and government representatives; visiting Soqotrans from the Gulf; and European researchers, NGO administrators, and tourists. I also spent considerable time with persons from Homhil who frequented the capital to obtain day labor, pick up welfare monies or state salaries, purchase food staples, sell livestock, petition the court, visit the hospital, and catch up on recent events. (In most cases, it was the men performing these tasks; women traveled to Hadibo, too, but mainly for medical treatment or to visit relatives.) Usually, we teamed up to find transportation between Hadibo and Homhil—a four- to five-hour drive during the rainy season; a mere two hours by the end of 2005, when a good stretch of roads had been paved—until I finally purchased a used car, after which the residents of Homhil would seek me out for rides. If I was not moving physically between the local center (Hadibo) and its hinterland (Homhil) with my rural neighbors, or following in their paths as they circulated back and forth, then I was party to their engagements, both physical and imaginary, with communities and goods located farther afield. Truly—if this still needs repeating—even ethnography at the “margins” is necessarily multisited and transnational.

In Homhil, I resided in one of the hamlets I will call Qayher (“houses” in Soqotri), where I rented a one-room house. There, I spent less time interviewing and more time observing, while struggling to participate in some productive way. For part of the school year, I taught English to seventh-graders; I also helped organize and run the newly functioning campground at a time when the very concept of tourism was unfamiliar to the pastoralists whose job it had just become. Whenever my partner visited from Hadibo, he participated in the men’s daily activities and communal labor, such as hauling stones to build a house. Such communal labor is customarily recompensed through a meat-rich meal, but we considered it, as we did my volunteer efforts, one small (symbolic) way to return my hosts’ generosity. For although I lived alone, each of the Qayher households—all of them patrilineal kin—took turns inviting me to every meal. One household in particular became my Qayher home. Umm Yaqub, my next-door neighbor who was only a few years older than I, enfolded me into her family with a brusqueness I found endearing. When my partner returned to the United States and Umm Yaqub’s eldest daughter’s husband returned to the mainland for work, she recited mournful poetry in dedication to her “daughters” whose husbands’ absence they “pined.”

In Middle Eastern anthropology, it has been common for anthropologists to talk about their social incorporation as fictive kin. A book, after all, is testament to the anthropologist’s ability to gain entry (often through privilege) to a different social universe and to have convinced other people to confide in her. How better to measure and demonstrate one’s success than by articulating one’s forged or bestowed kinship with one’s interlocutors? Indeed, despite longstanding critiques of the theoretical naïveté and material asymmetries that undergird not just the classic fiction of rapport but even its later (re)imaginings as “collaboration” or “engagement,” and despite disputes over the advantages of being a relative insider or outsider, many ethnographies give the impression that a genuine relationship, no matter how tenuous its beginnings, has been achieved.46

This was not my experience; or rather, mine was not a linear experience from distant outsider to increasingly kindred relative. Rather, my relationships with various Soqotrans were alternately close and estranged—as many relationships are. Moreover, they were often strained due to the already hostile political climate. The following examples merit mentioning as they illustrate some of challenges of conducting fieldwork in a place and time dominated by US military interventions and rising global economic inequality. My arrival in what anthropologists call “the field” was more or less typical: My hosts were exceptional hosts and I was an eager, if unusual, guest. However, during the first six weeks, a life-threatening medical condition necessitated an operation on Umm Yaqub’s infant granddaughter in Sanaa, which my partner and I felt compelled to facilitate. When I returned to Qayher after the successful operation, Umm Yaqub and others pronounced that we should live there forever; that they would give us a house and some livestock with which to settle down. For months, similar exhortations followed. Meanwhile, people in Homhil began referring to me as the infant’s milk-mother (Soq.: méme), a form of fostered kinship that in Soqotra still carries much of the same implications (such as marriage prohibitions, obviation of veiling, and socioeconomic obligations) as do affinal and consanguineal relationships.47 The women of Qayher even entreated me to return someday while lactating so that I could literally nurse my “milk-daughter” (or her new siblings) and her biological mother might nurse my infant in return, transforming our fictive milk-relationship into actual kinship.

But all of this mutual goodwill could not transcend the local, regional, and global politics in which I was or was thought to be complicit, however unwittingly or abstractly. Over time, I came to learn that some people from Homhil distrusted my reasons for being there. On the one hand, my presence and (limited) advocacy were viewed as external resources that had been unequally distributed: my naïve desire to “give back” to my hosts in Qayher came across to others as biased or discriminatory. On the other hand, I was accused of meddling in the protected area’s affairs and threatened with removal from Homhil, and even Soqotra. Underlying much of these misgivings was the suspicion that I was a spy. I have mentioned that my first visit to Soqotra—and, consequently, my research there—was sparked by the difficulties of traveling elsewhere in Yemen during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Prior to this, in the wake of the USS Cole bombing in Aden in 2000 and the attacks on US soil a year later, FBI agents had been dispatched to Aden; in 2002, a CIA-operated drone had killed six alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Marib; and Yemen was attracting increasing media coverage as the reported ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.48 As a result, Soqotrans were already worried that the United States would command their island as a military base for its regional counterterrorism operations. Even after the US Marine Corps established its base in Djibouti in 2003, rumors of US military interests in Soqotra continued to circulate and were fueled by, among other things, dubious media reports to this effect that continue to emerge every few years; Senator John McCain’s visit to Yemen and, according to a trusted friend, to the island in 2009; and my own uncertain presence there. Thus, when the British ambassador sat next to me during a dinner in Hadibo; when other foreign diplomats peeked curiously into my house in Qayher; and when my page proofs for an article were discovered on a hotel computer (one of the few places in Hadibo that had a dial-up Internet connection in the mid-2000s), these incidents were seen as evidence of my government ties. For example, the northern Yemeni hotel employee who found my article informed me that he had turned it over to local intelligence officers for containing “everything there is to know about Soqotra.” Even one of my closest friends suspected that my funded academic research must have been directed by US intelligence until I was prohibited from embarking on my scheduled flight to New York due to my lack of exit visa. “Now I know you are not a VIP person,” he jested, but only in part.

If any of these accounts seems amusing now, this may be because the distress they caused me, and my interlocutors, has long subsided. The Soqotrans I came to know were neither narrow-minded nor misinformed. On the contrary, they were and remain aware of just how much influence a temporary visitor could have on their abilities to access external resources. I would like to believe that the bonds between my former hosts and I have grown despite these many challenges; indeed, my return to the island with my son in 2007 and in 2012 (and with photographs of my daughters in 2013) seems to have quelled any lingering suspicions about me. Moreover, my unexpected relocation to Abu Dhabi in 2011 deepened my relationships with my former hosts, many of whom have relatives living in the Arab Gulf. In fact, my new location and locatability in the UAE has made me more intelligible to my former hosts than I ever was during my actual fieldwork. It has also, I believe, changed our mutual expectations. But this does not make us kin. When I did return to Soqotra with my six-month-old son—when the possibility for real kinship had become more than a fictive trope—my friends in Qayher, clearly remembering their former “longing” to nurse and foster my future children, proffered excuses instead. “I am sorry—I have no milk,” Umm Yaqub’s daughter said, moments before turning to nurse her second child. Nor did I insist on nursing my supposed milk-child’s new sibling. Whether fictive or real, kinship comes with real and interminable responsibilities. Sometimes, even an “engaged” anthropology is not up to the task.


Beyond its focus on the entanglements of development, conservation, and heritage projects in Soqotra, this book can be read as an ethnography of the unification and unraveling of the Republic of Yemen as seen through the eyes of a marginalized population. Whereas the bulk of its material draws on events that occurred between 2000 and 2011, many of the conversations I participated in and followed revolved around the radical changes Soqotrans experienced starting in the early 1990s and, again, as a result of the 2015–present war. Moreover, my interlocutors seemed more comfortable speaking about the past than they did about the political present—until the 2011 uprisings bestowed them with the confidence to voice their dissent. Despite Soqotrans’ eagerness to delve into their history, the heritage projects that permeate the island—and the Arabian Peninsula as a whole—tend to elide historical events, conflicts, confrontations, and analyses in favor of an empty, homogeneous past: a time before oil, before statehood, or before unity.49 My consideration of the British colonial interventions in Soqotra (1876–1967) and my attentiveness to historical transformations more broadly come from an attempt to speak to my interlocutors’ interests while documenting the history of their heritage.

Although each of the following chapters forwards an independent argument, they have been conceived as three interlocking pairs, each bound by a common theme. The first two chapters interrogate Soqotra’s ostensible remoteness in light of the islanders’ long history of hosting foreign visitors and regimes. Chapter 1 describes how the unprecedented “opening” of the island gave rise to a crisis of hospitality (karam), a long-held cultural value. Soqotrans’ discourse of hospitality in crisis reveals significant mutations in the island’s political economy and social structures, precipitated by its 1990 absorption into the newly unified Yemeni state and its transformation from a militarized enclave to a national protected area. Chapter 2 demonstrates how, the 1990–opening notwithstanding, Soqotrans have “hosted” various states, each of which has governed the island through fear and food. I argue that Soqotrans’ experiences of these visiting (and “eating”) states determined their expectations when they were called on to host another (de facto) state: the ICDPs.

The middle two chapters examine the arrival of the ICDPs at the turn of the twenty-first century and, with them, the very concepts of “the environment,” “conservation,” and “heritage.” Chapter 3 reviews how these projects were preceded by the decades-long arrivals of foreign researchers and the continued dissemination of their ideas about Soqotra’s environmental exceptionality. Soqotrans habitually refer to these ICDPs as “the Environment,” betraying the ways in which they have constructed the environment as an abstraction and its conservation as the Soqotrans’ (pastoral) heritage and (development) future. Chapter 4 considers the material, social, and political effects of several conservation and development initiatives in a pilot protected area (Homhil) during the height of its economic development. Although these projects were meant to improve the pastoralists’ material well-being, they wound up pitting tribes, villages, and men and women within the community against one another. Together, these chapters illustrate why, in my interlocutors’ view, “the Environment” failed—despite its strong influence in and on the island.

The final chapters explore the ways in which, as a response to “the Environment,” Soqotrans appropriated and mobilized the language of heritage to claim a place for their language and culture that could withstand external control. Chapter 5 focuses on the influence of the Soqotran diaspora in island politics in the decade preceding the revolution. It shows how the diaspora sought to denature and reorient Soqotran heritage by shifting the focus from nature to culture, from Soqotran autochthony to Arab descent, from Indian Ocean hybridity to genealogical purity, and from the Yemeni nation to the transnational Gulf. Chapter 6 discusses how the islanders mobilized heritage in the years bracketing the Yemeni revolution, when several positioned themselves as “para-experts” alongside foreigners working for the environmental projects. It maintains that Soqotrans’ preoccupation with their cultural heritage was not a provincial, insular, or even conservative concern. Rather, their turn to heritage reflects a distinctly twenty-first-century realization that vernacular languages and endemic species are on the verge of extinction and require concerted care.

Collectively, these chapters make evident that heritage is not an isolated enterprise. One of this book’s central claims is that because heritage discourses, examples, and practices circulate globally (through institutions like UNESCO), regionally (through, in this case, diasporic networks), and through time (for instance, through evolving notions of protection), we cannot fully understand their impacts without evaluating them in context of other development, conservation, and tutelary projects that have come before and alongside them. Yet what this case study also illustrates is the persistent—and, in some cases, productive—nature of heritage distinctions on the ground. In this spirit, this book takes its title from anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’s renowned Islands of History, a series of essays that argue against the notional (and largely Western) oppositions between structure and event, history and culture, past and present.50 Sahlins’s islands—Hawaii, Fiji, and New Zealand—are neither insular nor historyless. Rather, in his view, it is the insularity of Western thought that has created and maintains an archipelago of antitheses between stability and change.51 Building on Sahlins’s primary assertions, this book is, prima facie, an ethnography of the diverse and dichotomous notions of heritage that buoy its regime: global and local, universal and particular, natural and cultural, in-carceral and revolutionary. But it is not just divergent visions of heritage that are in contention here. As the following chapters show, the various producers of Soqotra’s heritage(s)—international experts, state bureaucrats, Soqotran para-experts, Soqotran emigrants, Bedouin Soqotrans, and Afro-Soqotrans—remained isolated in their efforts by their own circumscribed notions of what heritage is and does. Despite scholars’ critical efforts, heritage as it is constituted in practice continues to separate nature from culture, tangible from intangible, and expert from inexpert. Moreover, these same scholarly commitments to bridge the nature-culture and human-animal-thing divides may, in fact, isolate scholars from the work of heritage(s) in practice. For while the academic impulse to transcend the nature-culture dualism is compelling, it could undermine Soqotrans’ and other indigenous actors’ desire to maintain such divisions—these conceptual “islands”—as a bulwark against the neogreen imperialism of the global environmental movement. This explains why Fahd was less interested in overcoming the UNESCO distinction between nature and culture than he was in drawing a line from cultural heritage to revolution. And why we should continue to interrogate our own work and conceits from the vantage of other “islands,” geopolitical, conceptual, and cultural.

FIGURE 2. Hospitality in the countryside, Soqotra, 2013. Broth and bone marrow (Soq.: karhem) are traditional appetizers.


A portion of the Introduction was published in “Heritage in (the) Ruins,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49, no. 4 (2017): 721–728.

1. WFP 2014.

2. Yemen’s average annual rainfall varies from 50 to 100 mm in its hyperarid coastal areas to 400 to 1,000 mm in the semiarid highlands (Almas and Scholz 2006). In Soqotra, the average annual rainfall (between 2002 and 2006) was 216 mm (Scholte and De Geest 2010). Yemen’s mainland suffers from a growing water deficit due mainly to agriculture, which uses more than 90 percent of Yemen’s water supply (Ward 2015: 81).

3. Khalidi 2017. On the conservation of old Sanaa, see Lamprakos 2015.

4. UNESCO 2017.

5. For critiques of “culture,” see Abu Lughod 1991; and Brumann 1999. For the military’s turn to culture, see K. Brown 2008; Gusterson 2010; and R. Ferguson 2013.

6. See Descola 2013.

7. Harrison 2015: 38.

8. See, for example, Harrison 2013: 228–229; D. Harvey 2001; Holtorf and Högsberg 2013; and Meskell 2012: 2.

9. See Bsheer 2017.

10. See Peutz 2017 and the collection of essays in this roundtable.

11. This was not the first time that Arab intellectuals conceived of Arab-Islamic heritage as a filter against the influences of a seemingly superior Western modernity (hadatha). The relationship between turath and hadatha had been a central question of the nineteenth-century Arab renaissance. What distinguishes the intellectuals’ preoccupation with the “problematic of al-turath” in the 1970s and 1980s is their reconceptualization of heritage in dynamic, progressive terms rather than mere passive, imitative traditions (taqalid) (Wardeh 2008: 13; see also Boullatta 1990; and Salvatore 1995).

12. Wardeh 2008: 63.

13. Boullatta 1990: 34, citing Tizini 1978: 271.

14. Culture Resource, European Cultural Foundation, and Boekmanstudies 2010.

15. See Cooke 2014; Exell 2016; Exell and Rico 2014; Khalaf 2000, 2002; and Limbert 2010.

16. International concern for cultural heritage protections goes back well over a century to a series of treaties that prohibit the pillaging of historical monuments. But the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of Armed Conflict was the first treaty to equate “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever” with “damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind,” thereby laying the groundwork for the idea of world heritage (UNESCO 1954; see Toman 1996: 3–36).

17. UNESCO 1972.

18. In 1985, the World Heritage Committee created new guidelines to accommodate “mixed” properties that contain elements of cultural and natural significance; in 1992, in response to further criticism, it adopted the concept of a “cultural landscape” to recognize “the combined works of nature and humankind.” Nevertheless, properties remain classified as “cultural” or “natural”—or “mixed,” if they fulfill both sets of criteria—but cannot fall in between, or bridge, this elemental divide (Harrison 2013: 125).

19. In 1994, the committee promoted its global strategy to encourage nominations from underrepresented regions and to consider a more inclusive (less European, Christian, historical, and “monumental”) view of cultural heritage.

20. T. Schmitt 2008; and Nas 2002.

21. When the 2003 convention came into force in 2006, the Masterpieces program was discontinued and its list of ninety masterpieces, including Jemaa el Fna, was incorporated into and superseded by two new lists: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

22. In her influential book Uses of Heritage, archaeologist Laurajane Smith maintains that UNESCO and its advisory bodies have institutionalized a Eurocentric “authorized heritage discourse” (2006: 11–12), which constructs heritage through expert pronouncements that define what is innately valuable, privileges elite social values, and excludes competing (non-expert) discourses.

23. In this view, heritage is not just one of the many “things” that are governed; rather, heritage—concerned as it is with what Foucault calls the “right disposition of things,” including “men in their relation to that other kind of things, customs, habits, ways of acting, thinking, etc.” (1991: 93)—is especially suited as a technology of governing. See Bendix, Eggert, and Peselmann 2012; Coombe 2012; Coombe and Weiss 2015; and De Cesari 2010.

24. Rose 2006: 155.

25. Ibid., 159.

26. Ibid.

27. De Cesari 2010: 627; see also De Cesari 2017.

28. In light of the material and ontological turns in the social sciences, several scholars argue that the linguistic/social constructivist approaches mentioned previously obscure the “vital materiality” of heritage: its constituent things and the capacity of these things “to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (J. Bennett 2010: viii; see also Pétursdóttir 2013). Likewise, recent scholarship on heritage endeavors to underscore the agency of nonhuman others (animals, nature) in a renewed effort to bridge the culture-nature and human-animal-thing divides (see Byrne and Ween 2015; Fredengren 2015; and Harrison 2015).

29. Miller and Morris 2004: 8. Soqotra (area: 3,796 km2), the largest and most populated of this eponymous archipelago, has an estimated population of 60,000 (45,000 according to the 2004 census). The archipelago’s other islands are Abd al-Kuri (area: 133km2; est. population: 400); Samha (area: 41 km2; est. population: 150) and Darsa (area 5.41 km2; unpopulated), known as “the brothers”; and the two rock outcrops, Sabuniyah and Ka‘l Fir‘awn.

30. Molecular genetic studies and recent archaeological findings provide evidence of much earlier human and ancient hominid settlements on Soqotra (Černý et al. 2009; Zhukov 2014).

31. Roe (1926) 1990: 23.

32. See Boxhall 1967: 549.

33. Casson 1989: 67–69 (Periplus § 27, 30–31). For discussion, see Bukharin (2012), who suggests that Diodorus’s description of Hiera (meaning “Sacred”) and Philostratus’s description of the “sacred island” of Selera may have actually referred to Soqotra and its “sacred,” embargoed nature.

34. Wilkinson 1981: 280.

35. G. Smith 1985: 86. As Roxani Margariti brilliantly posits, “Religious polemics and literary roots aside, Ibn al-Mujāwir’s motif of the disappearing island hints at Socotra’s disconnection from Yemen, and thereby at the fact that Socotra formed part of different networks at different times in its history . . . : an insular form both connected and separated from the rest of the region by the Indian Ocean” (2013: 218).

36. Albuquerque 2010: 1:45.

37. Socotra: The Hidden Land is the title of a 2015 Spanish documentary. The phrase “archipelago of enclaves” comes from Ong 2006: 104.

38. These adjectives come from the titles used in the following media coverage: Mel White, “Socotra: Yemen’s Legendary Island (tagline: Where the Weird Things Are),” National Geographic Magazine, June 2012; Catherine Monnet, “Océan indien: L’Île mystérieuse de Socotra,” GEO (France), 24 May 2012; Elizabeth Eaves, “Strange, Strange Socotra,” Islands, January/February 2005; and Mike Carter, “The Land That Time Forgot,” The Observer: The Observer Escape, 16 April 2006. Even the renowned US urban theorist and political scholar Mike Davis (2004) has drawn inspiration from the island’s legendary nature, making it the setting of the second volume of his young adult trilogy, Islands Mysterious: Where Science Rediscovers Nature.

39. See “Ex-Yemen President” 2016. Many Soqotrans who are aware of the history of outside powers envisioning their island as a prison or base believed these rumors.

40. Margariti 2013: 200.

41. On the paradox of visitors flocking to “remote areas,” see Ardener 1987.

42. Mackintosh-Smith 2000: 206.

43. See Naumkin and Kogan 2015: 234–239. Naumkin and Kogan confirm that this is a “true story”—“as far as our informants are concerned” (6).

44. Between October 2004 and December 2005, I spent approximately two-thirds of the time in Homhil and the rest in Hadibo. I also traveled throughout the island, traveled with Soqotran friends to Sanaa, and interviewed Soqotrans living in Oman and the UAE. I then returned to Soqotra for follow-up visits nearly annually through 2013: in February 2006; summer 2007; December–January 2009–2010, 2010–2011, 2011–2012; and in December 2013. The renewed seclusion of Soqotra since March 2015 has prevented me from visiting since.

45. Anthropologists have written influential monographs on the social and political importance of poetry in Yemen (see Caton 1990, 2005; Miller 2007; and Taminian 2000). Although I had known how central poetry was to all sorts of communication, I did not anticipate that I would have to seek out poetry until realizing that certain topics would remain elusive unless I did. For the uses of poetry on Soqotra, see Morris 2011, 2013.

46. On “collaboration,” see Marcus 2007; on “engagement,” see Low and Merry 2010.

47. See Peutz 2013.

48. This drone strike was the first (known) US attack in Yemen; extrajudicial targeted assassinations (drone strikes) on al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula began in December 2009 and numbered more than one hundred by 2013 (HRW 2013).

49. For more on this “empty” time before oil in Oman, see Limbert 2010; in the UAE, see Bristol-Rhys 2010.

50. Sahlins 1985.

51. For another take on insularity—as “the essential quality of worlds both connected and isolated to varying degrees by that which surrounds them—sea, land or both,” see Margariti 2013: 209.