Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation In Yemen (2022)

Peutz, Nathalie. (2018) Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen; Stanford University Press (Stanford, California) Notes, Appendix, References, Index, Pp. ix-286.

When it comes to conservation efforts in cultural heritage work, the odds of sustaining specific cultural areas and their people’s safety do not seem to be an issue that initially arises in the conversation. However, conservation methods are consistently challenged when factoring in the circumstances of a country that holds beauty and history and has been deeply impacted by wars and governmental sanctions. Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen by Nathalie Peutz raise awareness of the many exceptions when referring to conversation efforts and programs in war-torn and politically hostile environments.


Soqotra Islands, historically and geographically, is an isolated habitat with a trade history and unique endemic cultural heritage. However, in its remoteness, the Soqotra Islands’ natural designs have attracted visitors’ eyes, economists, and other countries for decades, creating positive and unbearable changes such as famine.


Based on Peutz’s research background, her presentation of the past conflicts and those of the present that haunt Yemen accurately presents multiple arguments without displaying subject matter biases. Peutz, an associate professor of Arab Crossroads Studies & Anthropology at NYU Abu Dhabi, has authored additional works surrounding the women of Soqotra and the cultural revolution of the Soqotran people. Islands of Heritage primarily focus on the historical makings of Yemen and the Soqotra Islands. History records that conservation efforts in the country and island community have been challenging and riddled with controversies.


Between existing under British governmental authority until the late 1960s, the separation of republics prior to, and the present-day civil war, Yemen has endured many changes that have directly impacted its citizens. Regarding previous texts reviewed throughout the semester, Islands of Heritage is the first book that significantly showcased both positive and negative influences of heritage conservation on social and commerce development.


Several governmental state-sanctioned programs and initiatives introduced to the locals often centered on economic and environmental changes to the island. Ecological conservation initiatives usually emphasized revitalizing the island as a natural tourism hub while also encouraging the establishment of economic independence. Overall, the central premise that Islands of Heritage presents is that cultural heritage conservation and transformation can be a positive reform but can potentially create significant outcomes for the residents of the small island. Moreover, depending on what side of the spectrum someone is on, the level of impact varies.


Throughout the narrative, Peutz does an excellent job at presenting the facts and allowing the reader to form their own opinion on what was the main culprit behind the current turmoil that influenced heritage conflicts for the indigenous Soqotran people. The many conflicts presented throughout the book’s six chapters and conclusion that served as factors affecting the island today besides wars included naval blockades, air embargoes, environmentalist and humanitarian projects, industrialization practices, and roadway construction.


However, with the challenges these progressive changes brought the island and its inhabitants, some benefits arose. Given the island’s remote location, it was a welcome relief for official roadways and an airport to be added because it established a connection for the island to the world. By the 1990s, the unification of North and South Yemen into the Republic of Yemen changed the hospitable environment of the area. Based on cultural beliefs and practices, hospitality is considered an increasingly commoditized Arab sociability, cultural identity, and politico-moral virtue that impacts the economy. (Peutz 2018, 35)

A prominent developed narrative that seemed unsettling about Soqotra Islands was the implication that the Soqotrans were people that required rescue by being shown a more industrial and commercialized way of life to survive. This narrative almost always speaks to the top-down depictions in cultural history. Nevertheless, it is notable that the people are resilient and culturally possess the necessary tools and knowledge to continue their legacy. Plainly, the political power struggle over land ownership has been the main culprit of Yemen and Soqotra’s plight. What could be a workable solution for Soqotra and conserving cultural and natural heritage with these thoughts in mind?
Peutz identifies that community development rests on the notion that the individual (or family) is considered for the greater welfare of the community or tribe. (Peutz 2018, 196)

Soqotra, a historically significant and unique community, should consider its citizens as valuable resources that have the best interests in the welfare of their community and its history. Although this concept seems rudimentary, it appears to be the basis of where a society such as Soqotra needs to begin. The ideas and appeal of culture are present with the desire to present words, poetry, and arts, celebrating and educating the masses about the islands and their people. However, the action of convincing outsiders and political powers of their cultural worth serves as the most challenging task to date.


Societal structures that have been developed and shaped by political agendas often struggle with this level of assertion. However, it is something that if everyone adequately invested in the welfare of the island partakes in, more practical initiatives could be enacted that would serve a better chance for salvaging what is left and what can become of the island’s 21st-century legacy. Peutz’s Islands of Heritage is an impressive conversational developer on how cultural conservation and preservation should adjust and adapt to the ever-changing elements of culture and history and the ever-changing political structures and laws impacting intangible and tangible heritage.