Island of the Phoenix: An Ethnographic Study of the people of Socotra

Island of the Phoenix: An Ethnographic Study of the people of Socotra

Vitaly Naumkin

Ithaca Press

Vitaly Naumkin, of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, conducted research in Socotra between the mid-1970s and 1987, latterly as part of a joint Soviet-Yemeni team, but it is only with this publication (well translated by Valerie Epstein) that most of us can acquaint ourselves with the findings of this project (earlier publications having been published in Russian).

The scope of this large book (422 pages including index) is wider than the subtitle suggests. The first 134 pages (plus 22 pages of appendices) describe the island’s geography, climate, geology, history, archaeology and the physical characteristics of the Socotrans. Anyone interested in southern Arabia will find much of this material engrossing - especially the chapter on the history of Socotra based on Arabic and western sources. That said, some of the topics in this first third of the book are of doubtful relevance in an ethnography, and/or are treated in unnecessary detail -especially the highly technical accounts of early land formation, excavations and of investigations into Socotra’s ‘racial types’. For most readers summaries would have sufficed.

The bulk of the book is devoted to ethnographic topics, with chapters on the Socotran economy, material culture, marriage and kinship, and magic, ritual and religion, and a concluding chapter on the neighbouring island of Abd al-Kuri. The most interesting and useful accounts are of the traditional Socotran economy - based on animal herding and date palm cultivation in the hilly interior and fishing on the coast - and of the material culture, covering husbandry methods, food processing, craft production, agricultural activities, fishing and pearling, clothing, settlement patterns and housing.

Unfortunately the value of the ethnographic information is undermined by the author’s weak methodology and analysis, and by glaring gaps in the data. Information was collected from all over Socotra by means of surveys and formal interviews, but it does not appear that the researchers became intimately familiar with any community. Perhaps because of this the text alternates between detailed descriptions and tables of survey results from which inadequate conclusions are drawn, and generalisations and normative statements for which scant evidence is provided. What is consistently missing is explanatory context.

Although the research spanned more than a decade of dramatic change, and social development appears to be one of the author’s concerns, quantitative data (for example on prices and herd sizes) and other economic information collected by the researchers is undated (When is now?) so there is no way of assessing the local effects of such factors as the oil boom or out-migration for work. The treatment of social topics also lacks essential context. Though there are references to indigenous political and status categories such as ‘clans’ ‘tribes’, ‘leaders’ and ‘sayyids’, and state institutions or officials are occasionally mentioned, there is no overall description of the social structure, nor of how it operated before and after Socotra was absorbed into the PDRY. (Incredibly we are not even told the sizes of different groups nor even the population of Socotra!) Nor is any attempt made to analyse the inter-relations of different aspects of Socotran life - for example herding practices with tribal organisation, or status differences and income levels with bride price -and insufficient information is provided for the reader to draw his own conclusions. Perhaps understandably in view of the language difficulties and the Soviet Union’s isolation, there is also a dearth of references to the large anthropological literature on the Yemen and on relevant theoretical concerns, and such theories as are posited, for example the dual divisions of tribes and marriage preferences, seem archaic and out of touch. The overall impression is of an assemblage of fascinating but incomplete ethnographic data hanging in space.

Shelagh Weir

Author: 
Vitaly Naumkin