The Foreign Service Journal - September 2014 - page 76

Documenting a
Vanishing Art
Silver Treasures from the Land of
Sheba: Regional Styles of Yemeni
Marjorie Ransom, The American
University in Cairo Press, 2014, $49.50,
hardcover, 246 pages.
Reviewed by Andrea Rugh
Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba
is the first book ever written about the
silver jewelry of Yemen, showing the rare
diversity and exceptional skills of crafts-
men in this small country nestled at the
tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Not only
does the book document a disappearing
art; it gives us a sense of the craftspeople
who produced the jewelry and the
Yemeni women who wore it.
Anyone familiar with the region or
the craft will appreciate the spectacular
contribution the book makes to preserv-
ing and documenting the heritage of this
little-known part of the world. Without
exaggeration, this book is the culmina-
tion of about as perfect a match of author
and content as comes along in the pub-
lishing world.
Retired FSO Marjorie Ransom car-
ried out years of research to produce
Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba
including several trips to the country
between 2004 and 2009. While there, she
lived in the silver market of old Sanaa
part of the time.
Venturing out with a trusted driver,
Venturing out with a trusted driver, she also traveled to different
parts of Yemen, from the mountainous regions of the north to
the remote oases of the southeast, to seek out the elderly Yemeni
artisans who alone could tell the story of this dying art form.
she also traveled to
different parts of
the country, from
the mountainous
regions of the north
to the remote oases
of the southeast, to
seek out the elderly
Yemeni artisans
who alone could tell
the story of this dying art form.
Along the way, she was passed almost
literally from silversmith to silversmith
and from woman to woman, each show-
ing her their personal pieces of jewelry
and contributing to the recorded history
of this unique craft.
The difficult and diverse terrain gives
an idea of the difficulties silversmiths
faced in marketing their wares and
acquiring the resources they needed to
pursue their art. Robert Liu’s exquisite
photographs illustrate in beautiful detail
the signature aspects of each silver-
smith’s work.
In its layout, content and comprehen-
siveness, the book is worthy of the craft
it explores. Most of the pieces have never
appeared before in print. Adding depth
and poignancy are the stories of the
Yemenis and the generosity they showed
the author. Typically, museum catalog-
ing of lost art does not involve such close
attention to context and the human
beings that produced it.
It is hard to overemphasize the ardu-
ousness of this kind of research—the
physical difficulty of traveling where
roads are often no more
than tracks; where public
sleeping accommodations
are usually not available;
where foreigners may be
kidnapped by local tribes
to make a point with the
government; and, perhaps
most important of all, where
distrust of outsiders has to
be overcome.
To undertake it, one must, like Ran-
som, have trust in the natural hospital-
ity and generosity of the local people,
as well as the ability to disarm their
suspicions with appropriate documents
and explanations. One part of this is, of
course, to conduct oneself through dress,
etiquette and mannerisms in ways local
people understand.
The author joined the Foreign Service
in 1962, but had to resign when she mar-
ried David Ransom, another FSO. Their
first post was Yemen (1966-1967), when
that country was relatively untouched
and it was possible to become deeply
involved with the local people. She
returned to the Foreign Service in 1974;
and they again served in Yemen (1975-
1978), as the first State Department
tandem couple in the Arab world.
In 1999 Mrs. Ransom was nominated
to become ambassador to Yemen, but
was one of 26 FSOs denied a confirma-
tion hearing by Senate Foreign Rela-
tions Committee Chairman Jesse Helms
(R-NC). Her retirement in 2000 and
the unexpected death of her husband
prompted her to apply for a grant from
the American Institute of Yemeni Studies
to research Yemeni jewelry.
It was the beginning of an extraordi-
nary journey, where her incomparable
knowledge of the language and coun-
try, and her persistence in the face of
so many obstacles, led to this striking
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