Force of nature: on the origins of Ella Al-Shamahi

The British paleoanthropologist, evolutionary biologist, presenter and comic talks about how her Yemeni-Syrian heritage gives her strength to laugh in the face of danger

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Over the years, Ella Al-Shamahi has witnessed distressing scenes while working in some of the world’s most dangerous zones of war and conflict, terrorist activity or political unrest. As Al-Shamahi prepares to take the stage this week with her panel show, ‘Nature’s Worst’, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we revisit our Arab Showcase interview in which she explained why, for her, comedy is such a lifeline. This article was originally published on June 4, 2021.

One fine spring day early in the pandemic, the peace and unnatural quiet of a suburban street in north London was shattered by Ella Al-Shamahi shouting “Timber-r-r!” at the top of her lungs.

It was not perhaps the backdrop of choice for a paleoanthropologist more accustomed to searching for the remains of ancient civilisations in the jungle, digging for bones in Stone Age caves or studying leopards up close in wildlife reserves.

But, with Al-Shamahi’s usual stomping grounds temporarily off limits, where’s a National Geographic explorer pushed to the end of endurance by the tedium of lockdown to turn to for an adventure if not the garden?

"At one point, I did climb a tree because it was part of a 'we've had enough kind of thing'," Al-Shamahi, 37, tells The National. "The tree was a bit overbearing and we needed to chop down a few of the branches. There was nothing else to do. I was so bored."

Al-Shamahi's London "base camp" is from where she normally sets off to remote locations for the filming of TV programmes watched by millions, such as Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon.

For fossil hunters like Al-Shamahi, the many perils – the minefields, sheer cliff faces and deep caves, the warlords, drug gangs and pirates – come with the hostile territory. Courtesy Ella Al-Shamahi

That the producer and presenter felt compelled to find an escapade in the backyard “just to get through” coronavirus restrictions was a source of deep amusement to her somewhat diminished audience of siblings and neighbours.

In non-Covid times, the many perils – the minefields, sheer cliff faces and deep caves, the warlords, drug gangs and pirates – come with the hostile territory for fossil hunters of her ilk.

Part of her motivation is derived from her heritage. Al-Shamahi’s parents moved from Sanaa for her father to study for a master's degree in Birmingham, where the young Ella – or then Aalaa – was constantly told that she looked like her Syrian great-grandmother. “So I kind of felt a kindredness towards that part of me,” she says.

The third of five children, she concedes to being boisterous from the start, imbued with a confidence that she has carried into later life judging by her countless exploits.

The list of places where she has worked reads like a departures board in the foreign office's worst nightmare: war and conflict zones and scenes of terrorist activity or political unrest, including her ancestral homeland of Yemen as well as Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh, South America and the waters off Somalia.

Her predilection for being between prehistoric rock art and a hard place does not, she says, make her an adrenaline junkie. "It's really, genuinely not the case," Al-Shamahi says.

“I am not denying that I get a kick out of having some rather fantastic stories to be able to tell when we’re out at a restaurant or down at the local, but it’s so much more than that.”

What it is all about is science's geography problem. Some of the biggest discoveries in archaeology are yet to be made in the most unstable regions because they are underexplored and understudied.

“We’ve somehow decided as a scientific community that risk that involves politically unstable places is riskier than other risk,” Al-Shamahi says. “It’s a tragedy for science.

“There are scientists who go into outer space,” she says. “They literally attach themselves to rockets, but those kinds of risks are not deemed to be too unsafe. A lot of us are just asking for the risks of doing science in unstable places to be viewed in the same kind of case-by-case, nuanced way.”

Ella Al-Shamahi speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 - 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

It is also, Al-Shamahi argues, a tragedy for those living in the “quite significant portions of the planet” with a blanket ban. How many important discoveries could be made, she asks, if more study was allowed that might also give local experts a prospect for a future in science through collaborations, grants and funding?

“All round, it’s just better if we’re doing responsible science in those places,” she says.

Al-Shamahi has witnessed the profound boost that communities derive from merely knowing that exploration is happening on their doorstep. She talks about her first foreign dig that, though in Spain, “felt a million miles away, in a village in the middle of nowhere, up a mountain”.

"I had been told by different people that you either take to field work or you don't," she says. "And I definitely took to it."

Excavations hold something of Al-Shamahi's childhood fascination with an adventure or a mystery, and "not knowing for sure whether you're going to find out the answer – but there will always be the possibility that you will. It's wonderful."

Ella Al-Shamahi speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 - 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

What stands out starkly, though, in Al-Shamahi’s memory is the pride that the locals took from having a Neanderthal cave in their midst.

"They actually organised an orchestra for the whole village and the archaeologists in the first few days of us being there on the mountain. At one point, the orchestra, of course, starts playing the theme tune for Indiana Jones – at which point, we all lost it!"

It's a recurring theme for Al-Shamahi, who has often been referred to as a female Indiana Jones as well as Queen of the Jungle or The Real Lara Croft, monikers that she regards as "interesting compliments".

The main protagonist in the Tomb Raider franchise is more treasure hunter than archaeologist, she says, but notes that Lara Croft in one iteration did study at University College London, which is Al-Shamahi's own institute.

Asked whether there is any truth in the story that she was motivated to undertake a genetics degree at UCL by wanting to disprove Darwin's theory of evolution, she collapses laughing: "I can't tell you how embarrassing it is now at my age to admit to that."

Many in the Muslim community from which she hailed didn’t believe in natural selection but Al-Shamahi decided that the English biologist’s work was “pretty solid”, and the rest is deep history.

She completed a master's in taxonomy and biodiversity at Imperial College, and is currently a stress to her father for not having finished her PhD on Neanderthals. “For my father, having a master's is the equivalent of having a high school education,” she says.

She grew up amid a large, devout Arab diaspora in Birmingham, gaining “a good Yemeni background”. Back then, Al-Shamahi wore the hijab, and many relatives still do.

“It wasn’t for me, just like an arranged marriage clearly wasn’t for me,” she says in a reference to her divorce. Removing her scarf marked the end of what she affectionately describes in her new book as her “fundamentalist period”.

Despite being written in lockdown during what some see as the demise of one of humanity's most ancient social gestures, Al-Shamahi insists that The Handshake: A Gripping History was never going to be an obituary.

There are so many other tragedies around the world that people just have fatigue

She argues that the handshake is biological rather than cultural – embedded in our DNA – and will make a return as soon as it is safe to do so, just as it did after the Black Death or Spanish flu.

The book is peppered with humour of the kind she displays in her other line of work as a stand-up comic at gigs in clubs and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or in her TED talks.

Some of the best bits are about the “dodgeball tactics” that Al-Shamahi employed until the age of 26 to avoid shaking hands while following religious stricture regarding physical contact between men and women. “My Muslim background, it seems, was the dry run [for social distancing]; it was the Dominic Cummings going to Barnard Castle,” she writes.

Al-Shamahi has described comedy as a lifeline because she goes to a lot of dark places. Asked if this meant the clinical depression she suffered from in her late 20s, she confirms that the two years when she could barely leave the house were “dark for sure”.

She says it would have been nice to know back then that she would go from being “a shut-in” to a National Geographic explorer, and wants others debilitated by a similar sense of hopelessness to take something positive from her story. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

What Al-Shamahi struggles with most is seeing people in distress. “In war zones or sitting there talking about how they’ve lost their houses or all the boys from their village have just been called up [to fight] … that’s the stuff that’s really dark,” she says.

An aerial picture taken on October 17, 2020, shows a view of Shibam City in Yemen's central Hadramawt governorate. - Against the backdrop of what resembles the Grand Canyon stands Yemen's ancient city of Shibam, the 'Manhattan of the desert' that has largely been spared by war but remains at the mercy of natural disasters. (Photo by - / AFP)

The war in Yemen is very personal to her, often giving rise to tears as she speaks. She is thankful for being British, but is pained that those such as her aunts and cousins are living under the constant threat of bombardment.

“You want people to care, but it’s very hard,” she says. “There are so many other tragedies around the world that people just have fatigue.”

As a third-culture kid, Al-Shamahi is sensitive to what is at stake and feels a responsibility to protect. She tries to highlight the beauty of the region so that there are not only “depressing narratives”.

She name-checks Unesco World Heritage Sites that look like Petra but few have heard of such as Shibam Hadramawt, known as the "Manhattan of the Desert" for what Al-Shamahi calls its ancient skyscrapers made from mud. "It would be a real tragedy if they're gone before the world knows about them," she says.

Another good example is Socotra, a Yemeni archipelago near Somalia, to where a few years ago she led a trip funded by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation as a reconnaissance for a potential large-scale interdisciplinary expedition.

“It’s something else,” she says. “There are trees there that look like they’re out of a Dr Seuss book. There are a lot of species that exist there and nowhere else on Earth. It looks very alien; in fact, they call it the most alien-looking place on Earth. It’s not what you expect of the Middle East.”

Socotra, a Yemeni archipelago near Somalia, to where a few years ago Al-Shamahi led a trip funded by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation as a reconnaissance for a potential large-scale interdisciplinary expedition that she hopes will proceed once the pandemic is under control. Courtesy Ella Al-Shamahi

The aim is to draw attention to the questions over the future of sites like Socotra that are caught up in the politics of the continuing conflict. “To all of this tragedy that happens in a war zone, there’s another added level of tragedy, which is: ‘Look, are you prepared to lose this place? All these species from our planet?”

Fundraising is ongoing for the expedition that cannot, in any case, begin until the pandemic is under control. There is also much still to be done to plan the old-school trip on which the team intends to travel by dhow, camel and foot while talking to the locals, surveying and studying.

“Something like that is not easy to pull off at the best of times, forget in a place that’s in the middle of the Indian Ocean in water that has, let us say, a few pirates,” Al-Shamahi says.

The enforced delay might also give her time to work on some of the “unnecessary quirks” that she says drive her colleagues nuts out in the field. Al-Shamahi is the explorer who always gets lost – “I’m never the navigator on my teams, and for good reason,” she says.

And while when things go awry she is the one that the others look to for lightening the mood, they lament that she can’t do the same with her luggage.

“All their bags look perfect, and then I turn up,” she says. “It is hilarious. I don’t know, the Bedouin blood in me is strong or something because I just want to take everything.”

* 'The Handshake: A Gripping History' (Profile Books, £10.99), by Ella Al-Shamahi, is available now