Just Access

Episode 12 - Yemen in the Shadow of Transition

May 15, 2023 Just Access
Just Access
Episode 12 - Yemen in the Shadow of Transition
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we talk with Dr. Stacey Yadav. She's an Associate Professor of International Relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. We focus on her research practice and some of the main findings of her recently published book. The book is titled "Yemen in the Shadow of Transition, pursuing Justice Amid War", and it came out in 2022 from Hurst.

 In the next episode, we'll focus on understanding conflict and justice in Yemen more broadly from her extensive work on the country and conflict. Hope you enjoy the conversation.


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Interview - Dr. Stacey Yadav – Part 1


[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to Just Access. In this podcast series, we talk to some fascinating people, legal experts, academics and human rights advocates. We explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all. I'm Dr. Miranda Melcher, a senior legal fellow at Just Access, and over the next two episodes I talk with Dr. Stacey Yadav. She's an Associate Professor of International Relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In this first episode, we focus on her research practice and some of the main findings of her recently published book. The book is titled "Yemen in the Shadow of Transition, pursuing Justice Amid War", and it came out in 2022 from Hurst.

[00:00:45] In the second episode, we'll focus on understanding conflict and justice in Yemen more broadly from her extensive work on the country and conflict. Hope you enjoy the conversation.


[00:00:58] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Hi Stacey, thank you so much for being with us today to talk about your work and the book and your knowledge in general. We really appreciate having you!

[00:01:10] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Thank you so much! I'm really excited to do this. 

[00:01:12] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So we want to get into your career, your book, your expertise, and there's a lot of possible places we could start, but I think start with your book that came out as we mentioned, and it s really moving preface right at the beginning about memory, hope, people you've encountered in your research and this is such a theme of your work. Could you maybe start off telling us a bit about your personal experience in Yemen?

[00:01:40] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Sure! I started doing work in Yemen as a PhD student in 2004, so it's been a while. And what that's meant and where that work has actually occurred has been really different over the course of that time, but the relationships that I've made with Yemenis over the years have been really impactful.

[00:02:02] I think that would be an understatement and in particular, like most foreign researchers who work in Yemen, unfortunately I have suffered a personal loss of some significance - a mentor who I was really close to, in an act of political violence and also was sort of proximate to a number of really disruptive acts of political violence.

[00:02:26] And I wanted to acknowledge that at the top because it did shape my approach to the work in a lot of different ways, most of which I talk about in the introduction but it also just shaped who I am as a person and the kind of questions that interest me and the kind of commitments that I have politically.

[00:02:44] So I wanted to acknowledge that at the beginning. The assassination that I was referring to is something that has been unresolved and it never will be resolved. There will not be any kind of, let's say, criminal accountability for that. So that weighed on me as I was thinking about writing a book about accountability for injustice and the through line that runs through my experience over almost 20 years in Yemen is one of people reckoning with unresolved injustices.

[00:03:16] Dr. Miranda Melcher: That's a sad way to start, but I important way, and I can see why you started the book with that and why we wanted to mention it here. And I think, to pick up this idea of the impact it had in a lot of your work and this comes in your book and your work and your research design.

[00:03:33] And this is something we found really interesting and unusual, both for what you've done and also what it might mean for research more broadly. So I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about that collaborative research design, how you actually do that, practically, why, and maybe what could be learned for other researchers doing beyond Yemen.

[00:03:59] Dr. Stacey Yadav: So I'm really happy that we have the chance to talk about this because it's a new aspect, I guess, of my research, reasonably new, it's something that I care a lot about on an ethical level and it's something that I've been fortunate enough to be involved in some conversations in my discipline around how we think about and approach collaboration.

[00:04:18] But, I think this is an important topic, and I do think one of the unintended effects of the pandemic was that people became more open to some forms of remote collaboration, that there were ways in which, you know, things closed in and there were also new avenues of communication that became sort of normalized and I benefited from that. 

[00:04:38] But I would say, I think that the research in the book, as I said, spans almost 20 years. Some of that, a lot of that was ethnographic field work in Yemen in the 2000s, and then in the early part of the 2010s, I guess after the uprising, a lot of my research shifted towards participatory action research with activist communities, particularly youth activists who were kind of trying to pull through how they were gonna position themselves in the context of the transition.

[00:05:13] Since the war, I have not been able to go to Yemen, you know, for safety reasons, for some legal reasons as an American citizen, there are some limitations, et cetera. And for a while I still felt like I knew enough about the context that I could at least help to make sense of it for a general readership in a way that was better than what you might get in the newspaper. Right? 

[00:05:35] And I definitely did that almost started to feel like translation work. Not linguistic translation, but sort of, let's take these categories that you're reading about in the New York Times and pick them apart a little bit and think through them a little bit more critically. And I did that for a while, but I started to really reach the end of what I was comfortable saying, like I was following things closely enough to know that I didn't know what I needed to know in order to be able to speak credibly. 

[00:06:04] And I didn't know what to do about that because I think a lot of my friends and colleagues who've experienced research disruptions, whether they work on Egypt or other countries that experienced kind of a real closure that affected research conditions, a lot of people have chosen to work somewhere else, and I can't really explain why that was never something that I wanted to do, but it just wasn't. This is what I do with my life - I read and think and write about Yemen. And it's been that way for a long time. 

[00:06:36] So I had to think about how could I actually get closer to the kind of field-based knowledge that would make me feel useful? And it was at that point that the center for applied research and partnership with the Orient, which is Carpo, C A R P O, the think tank and advocacy organization based out of Bonn in Germany.

[00:06:57] They reached out to me about joining a research collaboration and it was a five team collaboration. Each team had an international researcher who had some longstanding research experience in Yemen and a couple of Yemeni researchers who were based there. And we were looking at everyday peace building practices in five different sectors of society.

[00:07:20] And the CARPO project was absolutely revolutionary for my research practice. It was a well-conceived collaboration that tried to foreground Yemeni agency and I think the language of ownership is like policy talk but it gave people a real stake and decision making power in the research process.

[00:07:43] So it was really the best of the research collaborations that I've had, although I've gone on to do more and have learned a great deal from all of them, but that still stands out as the best conceived process. And I was immediately confronted in that first project with something that contradicted something that I really thought I understood about the transitional period.

[00:08:07] So looking backwards, people were describing that so differently from what I had felt really confident that I understood. And that was the beginning of the puzzle that is the book, right? So, if we think of research as driven by puzzles, the puzzle for me was really, how did I get this wrong?

[00:08:24] Or a more sophisticated version, I guess would be, well, I thought I understood what people meant by that, and they're using it in a different way. So what explains that difference in meaning: is that a change, is it that people are hearing or seeing something different in that transitional process?

[00:08:40] And so I continued to learn through research collaborations and to kind of pull at that thread and I think that's eventually how I got to the book.

[00:08:51] Dr. Miranda Melcher: And I think that that really speaks to why the book is so strong in terms of content and research is that so many good pieces of work come from exactly that - that wait, what? Wait, hang on! Would that wasn't what I expected or wasn't what I thought and that's a really powerful motivating thing to have and so it doesn't me to hear that that was part of what pushed you in this process.

[00:09:16] Dr. Stacey Yadav: And you know, if I can put on like a methodology hat for a second, I mean, I think that this is a really good case for abducted reasoning, for the idea that we move back and forth between theory and observation and refining and revisiting and rethinking things isn't like the failure to validate a hypothesis, right?

[00:09:34] This is a fundamentally post positivist methodological approach, but I think that one of the assets is that when you encounter something puzzling you lean into that or try to make it less puzzling. I found that in the context of Yemen, it has not been hard to continue to work through puzzles for 

[00:09:54] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Well, and I think that that's such a useful thing, especially thinking any students who might be listening to this to know that a research project is not, you perfectly come up with it at the beginning and then you execute it exactly as planned. That's in fact not how most good research is done.

[00:10:09] It is quite often going, hang on a second, I'm really surprised and kind of confused by that. Let me figure out what's happening. So I think your book, your work and the answers you've given us just so far have been really helpful in kind of demystifying that exploration, I suppose of the behind the scenes of what led to this.

[00:10:27] And I kind of wanna be in this space for a moment and almost link it back to something you said right at the beginning, the idea that for these horrible events there isn't going be a nice clear cut resolution of a justice of a day in court and a gavel banging and kind of everything you might hope for from the films.

[00:10:45] And yet on the other hand, we also have this idea from research methodology of always being an observer of kind of having one foot outside. But that doesn't work for a lot of reasons. It's sometimes it's practical ones, like you can't go to the country, you have to work with people on the ground, activists who are themselves working out how they are positioning themselves on what they're doing. So to how you've just very helpfully helped us understand how to think about a research as not being about failure or success. How can we think about research in terms of civil action or justice? Can they be in relation to each other?

[00:11:26] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Yeah, I mean, I think they can obviously, but I should probably say something about how I conceive of justice in the book because it relates directly to how I approach the study of it methodologically. So, you know, in the book, I don't make any argument about what is just. I don't make any kind of transcendental or transcendent claim about the content of justice.

[00:11:49] I'm coming from the capabilities approach, which is a body of normative theory, mostly in development economics, that tries not to prescribe just outcomes, but to think about just processes or more specifically the processes that allow people to agree on what is unjust. So the idea is that it's a lot easier for people to find overlapping consensus that something is wrong or bad or unjust than it is for them to agree on what would be just, but that by eliminating the things that they can agree are unjust, we've made some kind of progress.

[00:12:27] So that's a sort of my own like philosophical stake in this, but it's also really compatible with doing the work of just mapping the way that people describe or invoke justice. So I don't need to agree with them, but I can say that the opportunity to describe something as unjust, even the opportunity to describe it to a researcher, but certainly the opportunity to describe it through one's activism or to describe it through one's writing, et cetera, the opportunity to do that descriptive work contributes to that collective sense making that I describe as remediating injustice. 

[00:13:09] So I don't know if that, I mean, implicit in your question I think was maybe the like, what about how do you do this objectively kind of thing. And I don't, cuz that's again, epistemologically, methodologically, I'm not seeing myself as outside of the world that I describe. But I do think that what I'm interested in is like trying to map out that terrain of how differently situated actors are conceiving of justice and looking for the places where they overlap. That also leads me to find the places where they're really incommensurable and they don't overlap at all. And that's really helpful if you wanna anticipate where the sticking points are going to be in a piece building process, for example.

[00:13:53] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Yeah. And there's also a sense making aspect of, if something is not mapped, then it's very easy for it to become invisible or forgotten. And so the mapping in and of itself not creates legitimacy in a sense of therefore you have to agree with them, but creates legitimacy and agreeing, yes, this is a thing that exists.

[00:14:12] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Right. Or you have a better understanding, you as a reader or as an observer, have a better understanding of what the issues are for people. Right? I love Wendy Pearlman's work on Syria, and one of the most impactful parts of her work for me was the ethical call to scholars to invite narration.

[00:14:33] To adopt methods that invite people to narrate and to do that because it expands their agency. So just sort of, because it's a good thing to do. But once you do invite that narration, I think it really just opens up so much opportunity to understand what people mean as they try to make sense of their lives.

[00:14:53] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So, I we're definitely gonna ask you about some of this, well, what is it that's being made and how is it being made? But I think we need to do a little bit of mapping first. So can you tell us about the principled nonviolent activism. What is some rationale, scope, success, failure? There's quite a of actors within this category, so could you help us, you know, map a little bit of those foundations for us?

[00:15:18] Dr. Stacey Yadav: So in my book I talk about civil action, which might actually be a little bit more minimal, a standard than what you described, in the sense that civil actors don't always conceive of their work as activism. Many do. Lots and lots of people do, but some people don't. And their work might still fit in the category. 

[00:15:42] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Civil action then and think of that category.

[00:15:44] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Okay. 

[00:15:46] So I think of civil actors as a type of non-violent actor, right? Absolutely non-violent. But what makes them civil? And here I'm not using civil in the way, for example, that Yemeni interlocutors often use the word, which can sometimes denote secular or liberal or non-tribal or a number of other things.

[00:16:08] I'm actually using it coming from the literature on civil action, which defines it as non eliminationist, recognizing at a bare minimum the right of one's adversaries to continue to exist. And if that sounds like a really low threshold, it absolutely is, but it's important that it be that low because that's what makes it possible then for people with really very different and potentially incommensurate priorities to be equally considered civil actors and to try and map out those places where they might converge.

[00:16:44] So what constitutes success in terms of civil action? I mean, if the threshold is that low for what is civil actor, the threshold for success is also I think going to be very variable. Right? In terms of its relationship to justice, one of the things that I think is most important is the naming of injustice. The diagnosis of injustice is a central part I think, of civil action that when civil actors enact projects to try and address their concerns, the naming of those concerns and the projects that they enact to address them, tell us a great deal about what their priorities are, and I think the success of those projects can really only be measured internal to the projects themselves. I don't think I have a general theory of success.

[00:17:33] Dr. Miranda Melcher: I think that's important, right? That's important to not have one general thing that gets applied across everything particularly when we're about such a range of actors and goals and projects, but that lends more importance to what you're talking about in terms of mapping.

[00:17:49] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Certainly! I guess when people can agree that something is wrong and can take some action to address it, even if they take action to address it for different reasons, right? They might think the thing is wrong for very different reasons, but if they're able to address it in some way, that would be a success from my perspective.

[00:18:05] Dr. Miranda Melcher: There is a difference, as you've already mentioned, between agreeing that something is wrong and agreeing what should be done about it or what the ideal other opposite state of being correct would be.

[00:18:17] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Yeah. And also even why it's wrong, there may be real disagreement on why it's wrong.

[00:18:24] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So given the variety of areas of overlap, but also areas of difference, even if that doesn't prevent working together, what happens on a protest square?

[00:18:38] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Well, there's a quotation in my book from a youth activist who was describing 2011, and described it like a job fair, which is fascinating to me because I don't actually know what job fairs that individual may or may not have attended, or what a job fair in Yemen looked like. But in my mind, you know, it conjured this very specific image that I think probably is not what the square looked like. But what that person ended up describing was that they themselves had, had very little prior exposure to a range of ideological possitions. And being in a space in which people from a wide range of political backgrounds were present, they went from tent to tent in the encampment space and got exposed to these ideas and had the opportunity to kind of sort through some of them themselves. 

[00:19:33] Other activists who participated in the same activity talked about, in a way that very clearly informed my theorizing on this, talked about recognizing the limits of what they had in common with people recognizing where some really principled disagreements were, but what the things that they could work together towards might be. And a lot of it was expressed in the interviews and observations of, well, I'm thinking in particular of a big meeting with a lot of youth activists in 2013, but they were recollecting about their 2011 experience.

[00:20:11] And so many people talked about really quotidian actions like drinking tea together, smoking together, chewing pot together and just the practice of sitting with people who were different from you and having a common object, right? They did have a common object, which was at that point getting rid of President Ali de Lasal.

[00:20:33] It might have been a bigger object than that in terms of getting rid of a necrotizing political class or issuing in some kind of new political system. But beyond that, there was not a lot of agreement. And so much of the emphasis in their recollections was on that, the act of sitting together in a really basic and human way. And it's not lost on me that those recollections were also at a time when they were, again, sitting together. But there were other things that happened in the squares, like the phenomenon of what's called rights theater, of the staging of these kind of almost didactic plays that were morality pieces that described injustices, social injustices, that envisioned alternative, that were a form of kind of collective imagining. And there's some really good work on the theater piece, in particular from some scholar researchers who were there at the 

[00:21:30] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Well, lots of detail in the book for anyone listening who's particularly interested in that piece, we'll point you to the book to read about that in detail, I think.

[00:21:38] Dr. Stacey Yadav: But, if I can analytically think about what I see in that play or in those plays, that's narration. And so I think it's really important to emphasize that when I talk about narration, I'm talking about it across genres. So fiction, poetry, visual arts as a form of narration, as well as research actually as the growing cohort of Yemeni researchers who are producing reports and writing non-fiction, writing, sort of social science accounts of the conflict all of that is, these are different genres, certainly, but they are all in some way narrating.

[00:22:16] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Well, and this is something that obviously we can talk about in terms of, as you just gave us the example, right? In 2013, remembering 2011, or understanding what happens in the imagined future of what this could look like, but very much in Yemen there's also the idea of the narration in terms of remembering the past and how the past impacts the present, and how memories of the past and memories of past injustice remain very salient.

[00:22:46] So can you tell us about that? How long is injustice remembered? If we're talking about youth activists, very well key events could be before they were alive. 

[00:22:56] Dr. Stacey Yadav: Absolutely. And in fact, I think it's really telling. So the National Dialogue Conference, which was really the signature piece of Yemen's post uprising transitional period, had a, one of the working groups was the committee to address transitional justice. And so it's a kind of weird feature that the national dialogue was both the site of substantive transitional justice and supposed to be an instrument for more of it. Right?

[00:23:22] They had to decide on when to start the clock. 

[00:23:27] Dr. Stacey Yadav: How far back to reach in addressing injustices. And there were extremely deep divisions among members of that committee. And in fact, it was the first committee that needed to ask for a delay for an extension of the national dialogue time clock, because they were having such a difficult time resolving that question of when to start counting. I think that's been one of the frustrations I've had in the process of writing the book and talking about it with people, has been policy practitioners who are really focused on the current conflict. And I absolutely understand why and the injustices that are happening every day in the context of the conflict are manifold, but the older ones are not going to go away. I mean, it's multiplying the number of grievances and injustices that are calling for some kind of remedy as opposed to displacing the older ones.

[00:24:20] Yeah, I think that's a really important point that often I think of it, it can be more useful as a visual metaphor of like layers of blankets or layers of mattresses, right? Just because you're adding more on top doesn't mean that the ones underneath disappear. So this is obviously a lot of what we are curious about, this process of remembering.

[00:24:41] Cuz obviously just because something happened doesn't mean it is remembered. Just because something happened doesn't mean it's remembered as an injustice that is still open, if that makes sense. So in this context how are memories preserved, transformed, remaine salient? What is it that's happening that's enabling these remembered things? Why are they still salient? What are the processes happening that are making that possible?

[00:25:10] Dr. Stacey Yadav There are a lot, but I think the ones that stand out to me, so much of what's happening happens in the context of the arts and visual forms of remembering. So there was a really provocative street art campaign spray painting the faces of disappeared political prisoners all over the walls in Fauna, that one really stands out in my memory, and a lot of the faces that were being captured, some were recent in the context of ongoing conflict, but some of them were older names and faces that people would recognize over a generation. There was a documentary film, "Karama Has No Walls" that depicted a really pivotal massacre of civilians in the context of the 2011 uprising and that went on to be nominated for an Academy Award and it was the first Yemeni film certainly. And that grew out of the initiative of some filmmakers and visual artists who started in one of those protest squares, right, they met in that context and they formed what I guess we would call an NGO although that seems not quite right. 

[00:26:16] They formed an organization, you can look it up, #Support Yemen, and it's a multimedia collective where they make what I would call justice related short films. And sometimes those films connect to longer history of injustices and public memory in Yemen, like with Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh poem, " the Melody of Our Alienation", which is really beautiful and they put visuals to it and did a recitation of this well-known Yemeni poem.

[00:26:52] I think the role of the poet in Yemeni society is something that might not be like widely appreciated. And so I should say something because I definitely remember the first time that I was at a public event and someone introduced someone else to me as a poet. And I thought, that is not a job description that I encounter in my day today.

[00:27:10] And in fact, it was a meeting of a lot of pretty politically significant people. So it was even weirder to be getting this, please meet this person who's a poet. And then I gradually really, as I read more and also just paid more attention, saw that poetry in the oral tradition is so significant in Yemen and the poet as chronicler, observer, but also as a kind of righteous voice. That's a well-established kind of social position. 

[00:27:40] So for this new media collective to then create a whole set of visuals for a younger generation that is differently mediated than their parents, I think that was really an extension of an existing form of communication, but paired with the expectations of a younger generation of Yemenis and it's really powerful.


[00:30:29] Dr. Miranda Melcher:   Thank you, Stacy, for exploring your research practice and some of the main findings of your book. As a reminder, the book is titled Yemen in the Shadow of Transition, pursuing Justice Amid War from Hurst in 2022. In our next episode, we'll continue our conversation with Stacy and look to understand conflict and justice in Yemen more broadly. Stay tuned!