Black and Yemeni: Myths, Genealogies, and Race
Gokh Amin Alshaif, University of California, Santa Barbara
At the time of this publication, the Saudi-led coalition’s brutal war on Yemen has entered its seventh year. The region’s wealthiest countries’ assault on one of its poorest has wreaked broad and deep devastation, plunging Yemen into famine and transforming it into a site of unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Recent estimates suggest that at least thirteen percent or 3.3 million people are internally displaced, and eighty percent or 24.1 million of Yemen’s residents are in need of aid for basic sustenance, such as food, water, and fuel.[i] The Saudi-led coalition’s sea, land, and air blockade has starved Yemen, which imported ninety percent of its foodstuff prior to the war. Food and humanitarian aid have become weapons of war used by both the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition.[ii] As a result, an entire generation of Yemeni children suffer from malnutrition or starvation. The targeting of Yemeni hospitals has destroyed the healthcare sector leaving the most equipped hospital in Yemen’s capital with a meager sixteen available ICU beds[iii]—just as Yemenis face cholera and a historic global pandemic.
The crisis has heightened existing disparities within Yemen as “even war discriminates.”[iv] Among the most affected are the Muhamasheen, a community of Black Yemenis who have long been subject to systemic and structural racism. On the outskirts of internally displaced camps, Yemen’s Muhamasheen seek refuge. These Black Yemenis face coercive exclusion from these already marginalized spaces. Officials regularly expunge Muhamash names from aid distribution lists, depriving them from access to food distribution and UNCIEF grants specifically allocated for Muhamasheen.[v]They are forced to seek shelter in the public spaces of a dilapidated landscape from open farmlands to war-torn schools and buildings.[vi] These people, teetering on the margins of the margins, have much to teach us about race, racialization, and the geopolitics of antiblackness.
Scholars and human rights practitioners have described the Muhamasheen (s. Muhamash), or “the marginalized,” as Yemen’s “untouchables” echoing the conditions of Dalits in India.[vii] Most reside in informal housing in urban and rural outskirts, with little access to basic infrastructure or services. Muhamasheen are regularly turned away from hospitals and schools, and violent crimes against them go unpunished.[viii] Yemeni parents habitually warn their children to avoid the sun lest they resemble a “khadim,” or “servant,” the derogatory label that confines the Muhamasheen and that many Yemenis still use to name members of this community. Proverbs too remind one to “clean [a plate] after a dog [eats from it] but break it after a khadim.” It is crucial we recognize this power over naming and the antiblackness imbued in the label of khadim. As Black feminists have long taught us, racism shapes the grammar of everyday life.[ix] In this manner, the language of “servant” excludes the Muhamash from multiple categories: the Yemeni, the citizen, and the human.[x]
The Muhamasheen are not the only Black Yemenis or Black people residing in Yemen. The historical links between Africa and Yemen have a long and rich history. In the sixth century, Yemen was part of the Abyssinian kingdom of Aksum. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Najahid dynasty, which originated in Abyssinia, ruled Yemen’s lowlands. The legacy of the Najahid lives on in the spaces and people of today’s Zabid and Tihama. Links to the Horn of Africa continue well into the modern period. Yemen was a major route in the East African slave trade and slavery was not officially prohibited until 1962. African refugees, predominately Somalis and Ethiopians, long fled to Yemen before the current war. Ethiopian Yemenis and Eritrean Yemenis reside on both sides of the Red Sea, reflecting historical and contemporary roots Yemeni merchants and migrants established along its banks.
Despite this long history, African Yemenis, like other Black Arabs, face systemic racism.[xi] The term “muwalidin” refers to any Yemeni of “mixed blood”; it is a derogatory term punctuating juridical and popular conventions delineating Yemenis of African parentage as “half-cast.” Officials routinely deny Black Yemenis’ biopolitical presence as well as their “Yemeniness.”[xii] A March 2014 Civil Status Authority decree forbade identity cards “for muwalidin born outside Yemen, especially to those born in the Horn of Africa, who do not have proof of Yemeni nationality.”[xiii] The decree is careful to clarify that non-Black muwalidin, specifically those “born in the Gulf countries, Europe and Asia,” are excluded from this policy.[xiv] These Black Yemenis face a persistent state and popular antiblackness, common to Black Arabs who continue to be called abid or “slaves” throughout the region.[xv]
Even in this deeply racialized context, and the presence of other Black Yemeni communities, the Muhamasheen’s“untouchable” position is distinct. But what does it mean to be “Black” or “African” in Yemen? African diasporic communities like the Muhamasheen reveal the dynamic and heterogenous links between the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, and Africa. As Enseng Ho, Sebastian Prange, and Nancy Um show, Southern Arabia has long been a global anchor of East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia.[xvi] Additionally, Mandana Limbert reminds us that as late as the 20th century, the label of “Arab” itself was still being constructed and contested. She argues that it was a consequence of a new focus on the Arabian Peninsula as the source of “Arabness” and an intense reorientation away from the Indian Ocean that has “shaped and reinforced an ethnicized and even racialized notion of Arabness in the broader Arabian Peninsula.”[xvii] While Limbert’s focus is specifically on Oman, we see a similar racialization process unfolding in Yemen where Muhamasheen have lived as permanent outsiders for centuries.
The Muhamasheen and Yemen’s place on the banks of the Indian Ocean invite us to rethink our categorization of territory and space. The origin myths and genealogical imaginations that structure Muhamash lifeworlds reveal complex intersections of race, class, skin color, and the constructions of Arabness and Blackness. Everyday Muhamasheen and Muhamash activists in turn reveal how language, genealogy, and origin are key sites of the struggle for racial and social justice.
Origin Myths and Genealogical Imagination
What can the Muhamasheen’s experience as one of many Black Yemeni communities reveal about race and racialization in Yemen and the Indian Ocean? How do we make sense of the Muhamasheen’s position in Yemeni social hierarchy? Huda Seif, Delores Walters, and Muhammed Qassim al-Khayyat highlight different origin myths other Yemenis use to explain this group of Black Yemenis’ marginalization and living conditions even when compared to other Black communities in the country.[xviii] The myth goes something like this: An East African king and his soldiers invaded pre-Islamic Yemen. “Indigenous” Yemenis ousted the conquerors and enslaved the remaining African soldiers, relegating them to the social fringes and derogatorily naming them “Akhdam” or “servants.” Their specific African origin changes with each retelling. However, their centuries of continuous residence in Yemen remains consistent in each tale. Yet despite this, Muhamasheen remain permanent outsiders who are Black and “African” as opposed to Yemeni and Arab. These origin myths use the Muhamasheen’s “Blackness” and “foreignness” as an indication, and explanation, of the community’s immortality and impurity. The Muhamasheen’s perceived immorality and impurity then makes legible the morality of non-Muhamash Yemenis. For instance, Muhamash women in parts of Yemen do not veil to differentiate themselves from elite “moral” Yemeni women; nor do elite Yemeni women veil in front of ‘effeminate’ Muhamasheenmen as they would in the presence of non-Muhamash men.[xix]
We can trace a relationship between genealogy and morality to the Mutawakkilite’s social classes in Yemen. Prior to the 1962 North Yemeni Revolution, Zaydi Imams governed northern Yemen under the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. Yemenis became increasingly organized into a strict social hierarchy that consisted of five social classes: one, the Saddah [religious class], two, the Qadis [the judges], three, the Shaykhs [tribal leaders], four, the Qabayil [tribesmen], and five, the khums[the Fifthers]. This social stratification took shape along genealogical lines. The more traceable the genealogy and the stronger the claim to a proximity to the sacred, the higher the rank and the accompanying political, social, and material power.[xx]
Each social class has its origin myth. As Luca Nevola’s work on Yemen and Andrew Shryock’s work on Jordan show, ancestral claims and narratives do more than shape an imagined identity. “Genealogical imagination,” determines your (im)morality.[xxi] The Saddah claimed links to the prophet Mohammed and occupied the highest rung in the hierarchy. They would become the ruling Imams, as prescribed in Zaydi Islam. The Saddah were constructed as wise, just, noble, and skilled mediators. Shaykhs and their tribesmen traced their genealogies to tribal confederations such as those of Hashid and Bakil. Their origin myths are replete with brave warriors fighting for justice and protecting the weak (thu’afah). Their descendants are constructed as masculine, honor bound, and trustworthy. The khums or Fifthers consist of groups with “untraceable” genealogies. Conventional wisdom posits these people as weak and “lacking origins” (nuqqas al-asl). These “lacking” people, or nuqqas, include the muzayyinīn, such as butchers and grocers, and other Black Yemenis, such as the descendants of enslaved and formerly enslaved people.
It is important to recognize the hierarchy that exists even within this fifth class with the muzayyinīn at the top, followed by those Black Yemenis believed to be descendants from formerly enslaved people, and at the lowest position the Muhamasheen. The Muhamasheen’s origin myths are bereft of holy ancestors or brave Indigenous warriors. The Muhamash is constructed as foreign, violent, effeminate, sexually deviant, impure, and immoral. As such, police officers regularly dismiss violent crimes and sexual assault against Muhamasheen women who they posit as “naturally promiscuous.” Today, common proverbs warn Yemenis not to “be fooled by a khadim’s loveliness, it’s in his bones you’ll find his filthiness.”[xxii]
The hierarchy within this fifth category reveals a gradation of Blackness and antiblackness in Yemen. It is a spectrum rather than a binary of race and racialization. Some Muhamasheen mobilize this gradation to claim belonging among other Black Yemeni communities. Indeed, African origin plays a role in constructing the “Blackness” of the Muhamasheen in comparison to other non-Muhamash Yemenis, who may not phenotypically differ. In this way, the presence of the marginalized and affectable Black subject provides a contrasting “other” on whose back the racialized Yemeni figure can claim some dignity.[xxiii] Thus, Yemenis draw on imagined (im)pure genealogies to construct the “Blackness” of the Muhamash. The figure of the Muhamash is then mobilized to construct a contrasting “Arab-Yemeni” with equally dark skin. To be a Muhamash is to be Black. To be a Qabiyli, Saddah, or even a muzayyin is to be “Arab;” the two terms mutually exclusive while also always mutually constitutive. But how do we read “Black” in a context where pigment does not provide an easy roadmap?[xxiv] The Muhamasheen show us that in Southern Arabia, the legibility of Blackness happens at the intersection of skin color and origin narratives.
North Yemen’s 26th of September Revolution ousted the despotic Imams of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom in 1962; the promise of a new order was ubiquitous. Political power was redistributed across social divides. Some Fifthers took a share of the new republic’s political power. However, the legacies of Imamate Yemen’s genealogical imaginations continued to shape the lifeworlds of social classes, particularly that of the Muhamasheen. The revolutionary Yemeni state institutionalized Muhamash untouchability, limiting Muhamash employment to the sanitation sector. Even before the current war, the only government occupation available to most Muhamsheen was street sweeping, garbage collecting, or janitorial work. Unlike other government employees, and in contravention of labor law, the Muhamsheen work without contracts or basic protections. In this way, state official’s selective application and suspension of law suspends the Muhamash as an extrajudicial figure, excluded from the category of the human. They are a people “on whom new forms of regulation can be exercised.”[xxv]
Resisting and Reimagining Genealogy
Muhamasheen have sought to dislodge this web of genealogy, racism, and antiblackness. Some resist or diminish the importance of genealogy altogether. Muhamash activists like Mohammed Al-Qairai recast the struggle in global terms. A prominent member of the Yemeni Socialist Party from 1985 to 2008, Qairai founded the political group The Movement of the Free Black People in 2005. In naming themselves Black people as opposed to “marginalized,” this movement highlights Blackness, as opposed to genealogy or class, as the source of structural exclusion.[xxvi] The Free Black People Movement recasts the narrative from one of purity, morality, and ancestry to a global struggle against violent structural racism and the persecution of Black bodies and lives.
Others reimagine Muhamasheen’s genealogy. The Muhamash-led organization Ahfad Bilal (the Grandchildren of Bilal) invokes a link to Bilal ibn Rabah, the formerly enslaved Black companion of the prophet Muhammad. Muslims recognize Bilal as the first Black man to embrace Islam. The prophet Muhammed entrusted Bilal with leading the first call to prayer from the Ka‘ba; Bilal holds a revered place in Muslim imaginaries. Ahfad Bilal dismantle the tropes of heresy or immorality. They craft an alternative origin of bravery, piety, and proximity to the sacred. Ahfad Bilal also center the equality of Muslims regularly invoking the hadith attributed to the prophet Mohammad that, “there is no difference between Black and white [Muslims]—only in taqwa [level of piety].”
Nu‘man al-Hudhayfi, the founder of another Muhamash-led movement called Akhdam Allah (or Servants of God) also emphasizes religiosity. Founded in 2013 during the transitional period after the 2011 uprising, Akhdam Allah re-appropriates the derogatory label of “servant” to challenge racism, move out of the margins, and claim space in the Yemeni social fabric.[xxvii] Hudhayfi rejects the term “Muhamasheen” because of its elision of the marginalized urban poor and the “Akhdam.” He argues that the label “Muhamasheen” also allows state officials to frequently dismiss international calls opposing Black Yemeni oppression by pointing to economic hardship as the decisive factor in their social condition.[xxviii] “Using the term Muhamasheen does not serve our cause and its specifics,” Hudhayfi explains, “Our cause will be lost and vanish within the issues of other marginalized groups in Yemen.”[xxix] Instead, and like the Free Black People Movement, Hudayfi stresses race and racism as the source of Black Yemeni’s discrimination.[xxx]
For some Muhamasheen, the elision of race and class is an opportunity to deny the significance of genealogy altogether. In this logic, the Muhamasheen are marginalized Yemenis, just like any slum dwellers. Rather than demand state restitution or special protection, these Muhamasheen draw on the rhetoric of citizenship, equality, and rights to demand equal access.[xxxi] As a man named Ali explained, “We do not want any special rights as a minority. The minority status was imposed on us. I hope that one day we are seen as just Yemenis, and not Muhamasheen or Akhdam. What should count is that you are a Yemeni and a Muslim, and not your family background.”[xxxii] Ali and other Muhamasheen like him, demand inclusion not as a Black minority but as “Yemeni and Muslim.” From this angle of vision, state agencies are vehicles for rights, integration, and inclusion.
Other Muhamasheen are critical of the promises of citizenship and the state. They point out that integration, sameness, and citizenship discount the structural, institutional, and social past and present of racism and exclusion. From this perspective, the Yemeni state cannot be a site of change and liberation. Indeed, the social landscape itself is structured around exclusion. Frustrated by repeated and failed attempts to realize equal citizenship, Nabil Al-Maktari reflects on the broken promises of the Yemeni Uprising,
Institutionalized by the government and normalized by the people, we are Arabs, Muslims, Yemeni citizens, like you. So why are we made to feel inferior? Why are we treated like slaves? I came to this [protest] square because I wanted to feel equality. Instead, I find discrimination in every corner. This is racism in its worst form.[xxxiii]
Maktari emphasizes here both commonality and difference. Despite his insistence of his Arab, Yemeni, and Muslim credentials, his history, class, status, and skin color mark him as an always already foreign outcast.
Enduring Legacies and the Yemen War
The Houthis’ hold on northern Yemen depends on their hold of the Hudaydah, Sanaa, and Marib governates. In addition to being a source of power supply and oil production, Marib is a stronghold of tribal and sheikh led anti-Houthi resistance. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has deployed Muhamasheen mercenaries to fight in Marib, paying some and coercing others.[xxxiv] Some claim that defeating tribal leaders with “Akhdam” is a psychological ploy to humiliate and defeat the resistance. Here then we see the long life of antiblack claims of the lowly, immoral, and effeminate foreigner.
Houthi mobilizes these tropes to threaten Yemeni tribesmen with the image of immoral and foreign fighters plundering their homes and honor (sharaf). This military strategy draws on Muhamash origin myths: just as their ancestors subjected and defeated “Indigenous Yemenis” in pre-Islamic times, so too would twenty-first century Muhamasheen humiliate Marib’s shaykhs. Only this time, these fighters were not led by an African king, but a Yemeni Houthi and member of the Saddah class. In either case, the Muhamash stands as permanent outsider.
When can an “outsider” become a Yemeni? How far back must someone trace their genealogy before they can claim their Yemeni origin? The Muhamasheen of Yemen and Yemen’s position at the brink of the Indian Ocean dismantles the territorial, conceptual, and disciplinary divides of the “Middle East” and “Africa.” They reveal a more entangled history and present. The Muhamasheen, and the multitude of Black Yemeni experience, demonstrate racialization as a spectrum rather than a binary. The construction of “Arab” and “Black” happens at the dynamic intersections of imagined genealogies and skin color. The Muhamasheen’s social history and their condition as permeant outsiders in a country they have resided in for centuries reveal both the durability and instability of racial and national categories.
[ii] Martha Mundy, “The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War” (World Peace Foundation, October 9, 2018).
[iii] BBC. “Yemen bracing for coronavirus outbreak.” May 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-52671049
[iv] Rania El Rajji. “‘Even war discriminates:’ Yemen’s minorities, exiled at home.” Minority Rights Group International. January 2016.
[v] Mahmoud Rizq. “Political, Economic, and Cultural Factors & the Suffering of the Muhamasheen.” Insaf Center for Defending Freedoms & Minorities. September 8, 2020.
[vi] Aisha Al-Warraq. “The Historic and Systematic Marginalization of Yemen’s Muhamasheen Community.” Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. June 4, 2019.
[vii] Delores M. Walters, “Perceptions of social inequality in the Yemen Arab Republic.” Ph.D. Dissertation. New York University, 1987; Huda Seif. “The accursed minority: The ethno-cultural persecution of Al-Akhdam in the Republic of Yemen: A documentary & advocacy project.” Muslim World Journal of Human Rights 2, no. 1 (2005); Susanne Dahlgren. Contesting realities: the public sphere and morality in southern Yemen. Syracuse University Press, 2010. Anne Meneley. “Living hierarchy in Yemen.” Anthropologica (2000): 61-73.
[ix] Hortense J. Spillers. “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book.” diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81
[x] Sylvia Wynter. “Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument.” CR: The new centennial review 3.3 (2003): 257-337
[xi] Nathalie Peutz. “‘The Fault of Our Grandfathers: Yemen’s Third-Generation Migrants Seeking Refuge from Displacement.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 51, no. 3 (2019): 357–76.
[xii]Aljazeera. “Yemen’s ‘Muwaladeen’: The struggle for equal citizenship” https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/4/5/yemens-muwaladeen-the-struggle-for-equal-citizenship
[xiii] Ibid. Emphasis added.
[xv] Eve M. Troutt-Powell. Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire. Stanford University Press, 2012.
[xvi] Engseng Ho. The graves of Tarim: genealogy and mobility across the Indian Ocean. University of California Press, 2006. Sebastian R. Prange. Monsoon Islam: Trade and faith on the medieval Malabar Coast. Cambridge University Press, 2018. Nancy Um. Shipped but Not Sold: Material Culture and the Social Protocols of Trade during Yemen’s Age of Coffee. University of Hawaii Press, 2017.
[xvii] Mandana E. Limbert. “Caste, ethnicity, and the politics of Arabness in southern Arabia.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34, no. 3 (2014): 590-598.
[xviii] Delores M. Walters, “Perceptions of social inequality in the Yemen Arab Republic.” Ph.D. Dissertation. New York University, 1987. Huda A. Seif. “Moralities and Outcasts: Domination and Allegories of Resentment in Southern Yemen.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2003. Mouhammed Qassim al-Khayyat PhD Dissertation.
[xix] Anne Meneley. “Living Hierarchy in Yemen.” Anthropologica (2000): 61-73.
[xx] The Houthis who currently control much of northern Yemen today, and who are part of the Saddah class, are arguably attempting to reestablish this allocation of political power along genealogy and proximity to the sacred. Given their claim to genealogical links to the prophet Mohammed, and as prescribed in Zaydi Islam, the Houthis justify their takeover of the country’s political institutions.
[xxi] Luca Nevola, “On Colour and Origin: The Case of the Akhdam in Yemen,” openDemocracy, February 7, 2018. Shryock, Andrew. Nationalism and the genealogical imagination: Oral history and textual authority in tribal Jordan. Univ of California Press, 1997.
[xxii] Author’s translation of Ali al-Maqri, Black Taste…Black Odour, 1st edition (Dar al Saqi, 2012)
[xxiii] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Towards a global idea of race. Borderlines Series, vol. 27, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
[xxiv] This question is inspired by the question Zachary Mondesire posed about South Sudan in his 2020 MESA Conference presentation: who’s Black when everyone is Black? Zachary Mondesire. “Race After Revolution: Imagining Blackness and Africanity in the ‘New Sudan.’” Black and Arab Across the Red Sea. MESA Panel. October 2020.
[xxv] Veena Das and Deborah Poole, Anthropology in the Margins of the State, 1st ed., School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series (Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press; 2004): 12.
[xxvi] Christiansen, Connie, and Sabria Al-Thawr. “Muhamesheen Activism: Enacting Citizenship during Yemen’s Transition.” Citizenship Studies23, no. 2 (February 17, 2019): 115–38.
[xxvii] As Christiansen and Al-Thawr ( point out, Akhdam Allah was also an attempt to appeal to the Houthis or “Ansar Allah.”
[xxviii] Christiansen and al-Thawr “Muhamesheen Activism.” 2019.
[xxix] As quoted in Christiansen and al-Thawr “Muhamesheen Activism,” 135.
[xxx] Nevola. “On Colour and Origin.” 2018.
[xxxii] As quoted in Bogumila Hall. “‘This Is Our Homeland’: Yemen’s Marginalized and the Quest for Rights and Recognition.” Arabian Humanities. Revue Internationale d’archéologie et de Sciences Sociales Sur La Péninsule Arabique/International Journal of Archaeology and Social Sciences in the Arabian Peninsula, no. 9 (December 7, 2017).
[xxxiii] As quoted in Christiansen and Al-Thawr, “Muhamesheen Activism,” 121.
[xxxiv] Mahmoud Rizq. “Political, Economic, and Cultural Factors & the Suffering of the Muhamasheen.” 2020.