Traditional Heritage House in Sana’a plundered as Yemeni heritage comes under increasing threat

Published on 5 June 2014 in Culture
Amal Al-Yarisi (author)

Amal Al-Yarisi

Traditional Heritage House’s collection includes traditional clothes, artifacts and precious silver, as well as many historical photographs such as the two pictured above.

Traditional Heritage House’s collection includes traditional clothes, artifacts and precious silver, as well as many historical photographs such as the two pictured above.

Arwa Othman, head of the Traditional Heritage House in Sana'a, spent two years collecting traditional artifacts to fill the museum. She was devastated when it was robbed earlier last month. The padlocks were broken and glass windows were smashed. Important collectibles were found scattered around the house and precious silver items were missing, along with rare traditional clothes.  

Established in 2004, Othman says the museum is one of a kind and contained important pieces of Yemen's rich heritage. Museums in Hadramout, Seyoun, and Al-Dhale have also been robbed in the past, Othman said.

“On May 16, I was surprised to find the house robbed by unknown individuals. Some other collectibles were tampered with. So far, we have not identified who did it,” said Othman. The problem of robberies is particularly acute at the moment, given that the government's hands are full in dealing with multiple crises and it cannot pay much attention to matters of heritage. What happened to the Traditional Heritage House is a case in point.

Othman said the house is a cultural entity that was formed to help safeguard the spiritual and material heritage of Yemen. She said she aims to preserve it and make it accessible to researchers.

Othman has been interested in Yemen’s history since she was a teenager. She used to save her allowance and buy traditional collectibles. “Every time my family gave me YR50 ($0.23), I headed to the market in Taiz where I was living. I used to buy many old items,” Othman recalled.

After she graduating from high school, she studied philosophy at college. When she got further along in her major, she remembers realizing that philosophy is part of heritage and society.

In 2004, Othman won YR1 million ($4,650) in a writing competition. She used the cash to establish the museum.

Lack of government support

“Yemen used to be one big museum that included a variety of cultures and traditions,” Othman said. Now, she is concerned that Yemen’s history is not being preserved. The problem, she said, is that “we live in a time in which the government does not really exist.”

She continued, “Yemen should have the [biggest and best] museums given it’s an ancient country with a rich cultural history. However, what is happening is the opposite. Our museums are stolen from and neglected.”

After Othman opened the museum, she sought the Culture Ministry’s support. “I rented a small house at my expense and I organized some events that exhibited Yemeni culture, such as traditional clothes,” she said.

In 2009, five years after she began her endeavor, the Culture Ministry allocated the house YR30,000 ($140) per month. However, Othman said the financial support ran dry after only two years.

She closed the house after the 2011 uprising because of the worsening security situation. She moved the museum's items into two rented rooms in a building in Sana'a for safe storage. Nowawadys, the Traditional Heritage House, still closed, is on Al-Wihda Street in Sana'a. Othman said she pays YR60,000 ($280) monthly for the rental.

“The ministry promised to provide me with a house for the collectibles in lieu of monthly financial support, yet the promise amounted to nothing. Nothing tangible has been accomplished,” she said. To her, “the Culture Ministry seems dead.”

Othman could not reopen the museum because she became preoccupied with the National Dialogue Conference that began in March of 2013. She was made head of the Freedoms and Rights Working Group.

When the NDC wrapped up, Othman started preparing to reopen the museum. She plans for the museum to include different sections, including traditional clothes, musical tools, decorations, and kitchenware.

It’s not just rent that is of concern to Othman. She cannot afford to hire a guard, and this was most likely the reason her museum was robbed. “If the government gave attention to the museum, it would not be in such a situation,” she said. “These museums are supposed to have surveillance cameras at least.”

“I aspired to make this museum functional again. I thought to make a hall for lectures on the roof in addition to a library that includes all manner of heritage-related books,” said Othman.

After the museum was robbed, she postponed her plans. “It is true that my goal was halted but it will not be stopped for good,” she said. “What happened will not let me down. I will roam all around Yemen to pick up traditional collectibles and promote our country’s heritage.”

Though there is another state-run museum in Al-Tahrir neighborhood of the capital, it has been closed for the better part of the last ten years under the pretext of ongoing repairs, according to Othman. “This museum was reopened two years ago but it was then closed again. Some collectibles were badly stored and some others were stolen,” she said.

The security vacuum and prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness in Yemen has led to a growth in the black market for illicit antiquities. Just last month a British national was ordered to pay a fine after he was caught attempting to smuggle antiquities out of the country via Sana'a International Airport.

Muhand Al-Syani, head of the Antiquities General Authority, said there are 22 museums in Yemen but all of them were closed following the 2011 uprising. He confirmed that many of these museums  have been robbed, including the national museum in the capital.

Al-Syani said investigations into the thefts are underway, as are negotiations for contracts to provide museums with surveillance cameras in cooperation with the Social Fund for Development.

As far as Othman is concerned, “everything has been stolen from this country except its history. We should preserve it, and not to allow anyone to take it from us,” she said. “This museum does not belong to me only. It belongs to all Yemenis.”