Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2015

Nathalie Peutz

Assistant Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Soqotra’s Musealization of the Present and Mobilization of the Past

When Yemen’s Soqotra Archipelago was “discovered” as a “unique national monument” in the mid 1990s, Soqotra (the archipelago’s largest and most populated island) became host to several competing heritage regimes. On the one hand, through a series of UN-funded conservation-and-development projects working in tandem with the Government of Yemen, the archipelago was transformed into a “natural” World Heritage site in light of its intangible environmental value. On the other hand, under the guidance of visiting Salafi missionaries from mainland Yemen, many Soqotrans found renewal in what they consider their (intangible) Islamic heritage, long denied to them under the former socialist government.  

With both these regimes restrictive in nature and introduced by outsiders, several Soqotrans have launched their own heritage projects as expressions of their cultural sovereignty. One example of this is the Soqotra Folk Museum (est. in 2008), a private collection of Soqotra’s material culture conceived, curated and funded by a Soqotran émigré. This paper examines the ways in which this museum was developed both in conversation with and as a response to the world heritage regime and the Salafi movement. It considers which aspects of “Soqotri” identity have been memorialized and forgotten through this private collection; to what degree the structure and contents of this museum can be said to exhibit an “indigenous” notion of heritage; and how it reshapes notions of past, present and future.  Finally, it analyses the role and presence of this museum within the context of the other, ongoing intangible heritage practices on the island and draws some conclusions as to why, in today’s Soqotra, it is the material present that is becoming increasingly musealized, while it is the intangible past that is being mobilized in the service of revolution.

Nathalie Peutz is an assistant professor of anthropology at New York University Abu Dhabi. Her research, based on fieldwork conducted in Somaliland and in Yemen, focuses on questions of migration and mobilities, conservation and development, and identity and heritage in the Arab and Western Indian Ocean worlds. Before moving to NYUAD, Peutz spent a year as an assistant professor of anthropology at Wayne State University and a year as a post-graduate associate at the Council of Middle East Studies at Yale University. Peutz is also the recipient of fellowships from Fulbright-Hays (DDRA), the SSCR-IPFP, the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA), the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation (Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies), and the American Institute of Yemeni Studies. Her publications include a co-edited volume on deportation, The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement, and several articles on the recent transformation of Yemen’s Socotra Archipelago into a World Heritage site. She is currently completing a book manuscript on heritage engineering and conservation-based development in Socotra.