Episode 12 - Yemen in the Shadow of Transition
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.
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
[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
[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
[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
[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
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
[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.
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
[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.
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
[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
[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.
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
[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.
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.
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
[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
[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
[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.
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.
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
[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.
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
[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
[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.
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.
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
[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!