Book Review: Nathalie Peutz’s Islands of Heritage

Peutz, Nathalie Mae. Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Nathalie Peutz’s Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen is a sweeping account of life at the intersection of conservation projects, international development, national politics, and globalization on the largest island of Yemen’s Soqotra Archipelago. Soqotra is a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site renowned for its vast collection of unique plant and animal species, which makes it one of the most biodiverse places in the world. According to UNESCO, Soqotra is “of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna.” As Peutz shows, however, Soqotra’s designation as a natural World Heritage Site and the related burst of attention to its ostensibly universal natural value has effectively marginalized both Soqotra’s historical and its contemporary cultural heritage. While Soqotra was transformed from a generally undisturbed island community to the focus of large European-funded conservation programs oriented towards environmental protection, the waves of researchers, conservationists, and organizations that flocked to the island disregarded the fact that, in addition to its natural biodiversity, Soqotra is home to the rich cultural heritage of the Soqotran people, including the endangered Soqotri language. As the island has faced the onslaught of development, rapidly changing climate conditions, and now a civil war, the people of Soqotra have turned to this heritage as a tool to advocate for their political and cultural rights. Peutz situates this challenge to the status quo, what she calls “a heritagial revolution,” within a geopolitical and historical context where cultural heritage has long been the stage of anti-imperialist struggles for sovereignty. Here, Peutz argues that environmental protection and development are neither neutral nor apolitical, but part of a tradition of using the language of protection and conservation to facilitate the imperial ambitions of western powers. It is with this attention to nuance and history that she is able to show how heritage, in both its discursive and material forms, has become a force to be reckoned with in emerging struggles for political, social, and cultural empowerment in Yemen.

The book begins with a detailed description of the “opening” of Soqotra, and how this opening created a “crisis of hospitality.” Hospitality has consistently been a pillar of Soqotran cultural values, but the shifts in economic, political, and social structures caused by Soqotra’s absorption into the Yemeni state in 1990 put Soqotrans in the position of having to negotiate the arrival of foreign people, institutions, and systems without compromising on their traditions of hospitality or capitulating to neoliberal discourses. Consequently, she argues, the act of hospitality is inherently political, as it is imbued with understandings of the roles of host and guest, as well as assertions of domestic and/or political sovereignty. The deployment of hospitality toward foreign guests was as much about taking control over the situation as it was about adhering to traditional standards; it was a form of resistance against the threat of foreign incursion even though it necessarily meant welcoming and accommodating its presence. Peutz then demonstrates that, in this context where the amount of hospitality offered can be understood as a measure of self-mastery, the concern of many Soqotrans that their hospitality was dwindling reflected the anxiety that they were actually losing hold of their domestic sovereignty. But despite this anxiety, Soqotrans continued to play host to the states that arrived to, in one way or another, govern their island. Even as their ability to directly control their interactions with state officials and NGO employees was tenuous, the persistent cultural practice of hospitality (most evident in the provision of food and lodging) enabled Soqotrans to assert a degree of independence and self-sufficiency. Soqotra’s seasonal vulnerability to resource depletion, however, meant that following the 1990 opening, Soqotrans were increasingly dependent on the state for the provision of food. This dependency created a cycle in which Soqotrans’ ability to “host the state” by feeding and housing government guests facilitated their ability to sustain themselves. This system of governance defined by the host-guest relationship ultimately set the expectations for when Soqotrans would later find themselves hosting the state in a different form: integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs). 

The middle section of the book focuses on the arrival of these ICDPs at the turn of the 21st century, which not only precipitated an influx of foreign researchers and development officials, but also came burdened with particular notions of the environment, conservation, and heritage that transformed both Soqotrans’ relationship with their immediate surroundings and their understanding of their place within the larger world. In this section, Peutz focuses on how the ICDPs introduced the concept of “the environment” as the object of governance, management, and conservation. Though the interest in Soqotra’s natural environment was certainly not a new phenomenon, as foreign researchers had propagated ideas about Soqotra’s biological exceptionalism for decades, the institutionalization of environmental protection meant that not only was Soqotra’s natural environment the object of new modes of control, but Soqotran people were also molded into “environmental citizens” subject to this same system. Building on pre-existing imperial ideologies and the legacy of orientalism, the discourse of conservation promoted by the ICDPs suggested that Soqotra’s native population was to blame for environmental degradation and the island’s lack of development. They therefore implied, in much the same vein as self-serving and exploitative imperial agendas, that it was the responsibility of the ICDPs to seize control and educate the ignorant Soqotrans on how to “correctly” interact with their environment. As a result, Peutz shows that ICDPs advanced a sort of “environmental orientalism” and constructed the environment in such a way that its conservation became an integral element of Soqotran heritage, and its development was therefore positioned as their ideal future. The projects designed by ICDPs to transform this imagination of Soqotran heritage into a reality had drastic political and social effects on Soqotra. Rather than improving the material conditions of Soqotrans’ lives, protected areas created intense tensions within the community by physically displacing people, restricting their use of resources, and ignoring important tribal differences. It is for these reasons that Peutz argues the ICDP initiatives failed Soqotra and Soqotrans.

The final section explores how Soqotrans resisted the external control of foreign environmental projects by appropriating and mobilizing the language of heritage to carve out a place for the maintenance of their language and culture within this system.  Peutz shows that the Soqotran diaspora played a key role in leveraging Soqotran cultural heritage against the dominance of ICDPs by fighting to reorient the focus of heritage discourse from nature to culture, by bringing Soqotran heritage into the fold of pan-Arabism, and by promoting solidarity between Soqotra and the transnational Gulf. She argues that the cultural heritage discourse on Soqotra should be understood as emerging from the interplay between the local population, the western and non-western conservation professionals, and the transnational diaspora communities. One of the ways that Soqotrans have contested the authority of the environmental conservation-focused experts who descended on the island has been to create a parallel “research ecology” which focuses on the cultivation and preservation of Soqotra’s cultural heritage in direct contrast to foreign experts’ obvious preference for its environmental/natural heritage. By the end of the 2011 revolution, the small but significant industry of Soqotran cultural heritage had become a platform for articulating Soqotra’s cultural sovereignty and for legitimizing Soqotrans’ vision for the future of their political sovereignty.

Though Peutz’s work is centered on the experiences of the people of Soqotra, an island and a people still thought of by many as mysterious and forgotten, the result is as much a portrait of a state navigating a tumultuous present and facing an uncertain future. Peutz makes it clear that the ability of Soqotrans to capitalize on heritage as a strategic resource is directly related to Soqotra’s designation as a World Heritage Site, a status that comes with the weight of international concern and financial investment. Yemen is also home to three other significant World Heritage Sites: the Old Walled City of Shibam, the Old City of Sana’a, and the Historic Town of Zabid.[1] While Soqotra has largely remained sheltered from the ongoing hostilities in Yemen, these three sites are currently inscribed on the List of World Heritage in danger. Yemen’s cultural heritage has been devastated by the violence of the civil war; since 2015, more than 78 archaeological sites, monuments, museums, mosques, churches, tombs, and old cities have been destroyed or severely damaged.[2] Of these, 59 were damaged or destroyed by Saudi Coalition bombs, even though UNESCO provided the coalition with information regarding what cultural heritage to avoid, and respect for cultural property in the event of armed conflict is a principle of international humanitarian law.[3]

In stark contrast to conflicts in places like Syria and Iraq, very little attention has been given to the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Yemen as a result of hostilities between the Saudi Coalition (supported by the United States) and the Houthi rebels. The clear discrepancy in the amount of concern for preserving cultural heritage sites or condemning those who are implicated in their damage indicates that it matters what kinds of histories are being destroyed and by whom. Whereas Syria and Iraq have a large number of ancient remains familiarized in biblical and classical texts and architectural forms, like Palmyra or Nineveh, Yemen’s antiquities do not fit quite so comfortably into Western pasts. And given that Saudi airstrikes are the main culprit in the destruction of heritage sites, there is significantly less incentive for countries like the United States and the UK, who have consistently supplied the very weapons being used, to draw attention to their role in perpetuating the destruction.[4] As such, Peutz’s nuanced and considerate account of the history and politics of heritage in Soqotra is a welcome contribution to a conversation that has too often sidelined or been silent on threats to Yemen’s heritage, whether from war, development, or climate change.


[1] UNESCO World Heritage. "Yemen." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed August 09, 2019.

[2] Khalidi, Lamya. 2017. “The Destruction of Yemen and Its Cultural Heritage.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49 (4). Cambridge University Press: 735–38. doi:10.1017/S0020743817000691.

[3] Ibid, 736.

[4] Khalidi, Lamya. "Yemen Proves It: In Western Eyes, Not All 'Notre Dames' Are Created Equal | Lamya Khalidi." The Guardian. April 26, 2019.