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Conversations: A Yearning for Yemen Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003

Second thoughts on working in the Middle East

(Courtesy The Archaeology Fund)

Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University was chief archaeologist on the Transarabia Expedition, which made international headlines in 1992 with its search for the lost ancient city of Ubar. More recently, he has been studying ancient frankincense routes in Oman and Yemen. With more than three decades of fieldwork in the Middle East to his credit, Zarins spoke to ARCHAEOLOGY about how terrorism and the war in Iraq have affected his research.

What's the mood in the Arabian peninsula toward Western researchers?

I was in Oman last summer before the war, and everything seemed pretty cool, but Oman has a tight rein over its people through a centralized government. But even when I used to walk around the souk I didn't feel particularly good about it. I mean, everyone was very hospitable. But you had this feeling in the back of your head, that things weren't right. And that was before the invasion of Iraq.
   The last time I was in the field as an archaeologist was in Yemen, six months before 9/11, under the auspices of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies. As far as I know the institute is technically still open, but I think that most American researchers have stayed away.

Is the Yemeni government discouraging research?

No. We were there doing work when the USS Cole was bombed. The government got kinda uptight about it but they didn't kick us out. It's more from the American end.

Are you talking about when you're organizing American-led expeditions to the region?

You just mention the word Yemen and American university administrators dive for cover. Yes, the country has a problem with tribalism and tribal kidnappings, but that's been going on for a decade and has nothing to do with recent events. The invasion of Iraq and 9/11, however, have just made the situation worse.

What makes Yemen such a spectacular place to do archaeology?

First of all, eastern Yemen has never been explored. When we worked in Oman and moved on into eastern Yemen we were dealing with the same set of people, the Modern South Arabic Language speakers. A very unique group of people: they're not Arabs but another Semitic group of people who have a very interesting way of life. [Through them] we can investigate the frankincense and myrrh trade. I'm also working with other researchers to get a grant to look at relationships between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Africa is very close--less than 15, 20 miles away in some cases--and no one's really worked that research area up very well. Everything from the emergence of modern humans to the origins of agriculture linking Africa and Arabia can be done right there. It's a spectacular thing. Plus a lot of people want to look at DNA, did Semitic people come out of Africa into Arabia or vice versa. All of these issues can be linked with Yemen, because Saudi Arabia is kind of a closed book.

What do you mean by that?

Saudi Arabia doesn't allow foreign expeditions. The only window of opportunity was between 1974 and 1986, when the national archaeological survey took place. Foreign archaeologists were all allowed to come in and work for them directly, which we did. Since then, only very few have come in and done odds and ends. They have their own people who do the work, but unfortunately it doesn't get publicized internationally.

So if you were invited back to the Arabian peninsula next week, would you go?

I already have an invite from the Yemenis. If I had the money, I could leave tomorrow. But the better side of valor is, well, you think about this, you think about that. And all it takes is a couple of crazy people with guns. These are the problems you face.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America