Foreign Policy Blogs

Yemen's Lowest Class

The New York Times today has a harrowing and brutal portrait of Yemen's own version of the Untouchable class, the Akhdam– servants- a dark-skinned, shunned class who barely scrape by a slum-dwelling non-existence sweeping streets and begging.

 Quoting Robert Worth (who has done some interesting work of late on this vital but n
neglected country):

SANA, Yemen ‚ By day, they sweep the streets of the Old City, ragged, dark-skinned men in orange jump suits. By night, they retreat to fetid slums on the edge of town.

They are known as "Al Akhdam" ‚ the servants. Set apart by their African features, they form a kind of hereditary caste at the very bottom of Yemen's social ladder.

Degrading myths pursue them: they eat their own dead, and their women are all prostitutes. Worst of all, they are reviled as outsiders in their own country, descendants of an Ethiopian army that is said to have crossed the Red Sea to oppress Yemen before the arrival of Islam.

"We are ready to work, but people say we are good for nothing but servants; they will not accept us," said Ali Izzil Muhammad Obaid, a 20-year-old man who lives in a filthy Akhdam shantytown on the edge of this capital. "So we have no hope."

Now, there is no proof at all that they come from a pre-Islamic invasion, but that difficult myth has continued to plague them.  There indeed is much confusion as to their origin, but the idea that they are remnants of an ancient expeditionary force who stayed behind to muck around in gutters is an absurd and self-perpetuating myth. 

One of the biggest problems the Akhdam have is that, in addition to dealing with spurious legends, the government has a million other problems to deal with.  Yes, they are the poorest in Yemen- but there isn't much of a mobile upper class among the Arabs of the country, anyway.   There is already a lot of grumbling about daily life, and for President Saleh to wage a campaign to help “outsiders” would be an act of political folly. 

But: perhaps we are looking at this with tear-colored glasses, instead of seeing the brighter side of the picture.  Yemen Times?

IIn Yemen, there is a minority of people with dark complexion called al-Akhdam. Historically speaking, their presence in Yemen has been a result of the Ethiopian pre- Islam invasion in 525 BC. Settling down in Yemen and throughout the years have adapted a life style in which they practice many trades especially folklore dancing, handicrafts, cleaning and some other free trades. Unofficial statistics show that the population of this minority reaches 500,000 inhabitants living in Sana'a, Shabowa, Lahj, Abyan, Aden and al-Hudaida.

Well- that doesn't sound so bad.  These people have folklore

I don't mean to make light (well, kind of, but only at the Yemen Times).  What that article does show is the ingrained prejudice (see the myth asserted as fact) and the somewhat rosy picture it paints, both institutional obstacles to progress. 

Things are bad for many in Yemen.  Things are horrible for the servants.  I would recommend highly Worth's piece, and look at the accompanying slide show.  

Side note: The Yemen Timeslater ran this letter, which I hope shows that while the problem of the Akhdam might be institutionalized, it isn't all-pervasive.

"Akhdam" as you described the unfortunate segment of the Yemeni community, sounds humiliating term for this section of the society. Just say the poor rather than "Akhdam". Encouraging the use of such names by Yemen Times supports the continuous degrading of these people, by branding them that slavish name.

It is high time YT refrain from encouraging the use of such discriminative labels, which are against all norms of human rights, although used by the majority of Yemenis in the northern parts of Yemen

Side note 2:  Research for this piece led me to a site called “…Or Does It Explode?”, the Lorainne Hansbury play (but please don't associate it with Sean Combs).   The site is dedicated to the struggle for civil rights in the Middle East, and they have an interesting article on this topic (with its own interesting links).   I haven't been able to find who runs it, but it looks like a site worth checking out. 



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.