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On colour and origin: the case of the akhdam in Yemen

The shift towards a collective identity based on race has had major implications for Yemen’s most marginalised people.

Pomegranate seller, Yemen. Rod Waddington/flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 2013, Nu‘man al-Hudheyfi – a man of akhdam origin – participated at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) held in Sanaa as part of the crisis reconciliation efforts following the 2011 Yemeni Arab Spring. At the time, Hudheyfi was the President of the National Union for the Marginalised and a member of the General People's Congress, the majority party in the country. In the past, he has defined the ‘marginalised’ as all “those people excluded from property and instruction, forced to live at the margins of society”. But during the conference, his focus was mainly his fellow people, the akhdam, as he condemned the NDC’s racism (‘unsuriyya) by pointing out that Yemen’s three million ‘black people’ had only one representative at the NDC.

Crucially, Hudheyfi brought attention to how the akhdam’s social, economic and political marginalisation intersects with discrimination based on their skin colour. By bringing into focus ‘blackness’ as a defining characteristic of the akhdam, Hudheyfi qualified his people as a discrete ‘ethnic group’ resting on a particular racial identity – a move that significantly expanded the meaning of the term ‘racism’, which was traditionally used to refer to descent-based discrimination in Highland Yemen.

In Yemen, the akhdam are a minority group of black slum dwellers that are often relegated to ‘impure’ or ‘impious’ tasks, such as serving, musical performances, and magic, among others. Traditionally, most of them dwelled in rural areas of western and southern Yemen. However, after the 1962 revolution establishing the Yemen Arab Republic, many akhdam were compelled to work as salaried street-sweepers in major cities.

During the oil boom in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, many Yemenis – including a large number of akhdam – left their country in the hopes of improving their economic situation. However, after the first Gulf war, these migrants were forced to return back to Yemen. And since the akhdam had no property or land to come back to, many of them found refuge in isolated, temporary, makeshift camps called mahwa – a term that is typically used to describe a dog shelter – where they lacked access to water and electricity.

Today, the akhdam continue to suffer from socio-economic discrimination: they experience difficulties enrolling their children in school and accessing employment. They are perceived by the Arab majority in Yemen as the lowest-ranking group of the hierarchical system of the Yemeni Highlands, similarly to the low-caste Pariah group in India. Due to this social stigma, they are condemned to endogamy and to socio-political marginality.

The emphasis on ‘blackness’ as the defining characteristic of his people was a crucial shift from folk representations of the akhdam.

Hudheyfi’s emphasis on ‘blackness’ as the defining characteristic of his people was a crucial shift from folk representations of the akhdam, which focus on their genealogical origin rather than their skin colour. In Highland Yemen, it is common to believe that people descending from the same ancestor share the same physical and moral qualities (e.g. values, linguistic and technical skills, taste, dress code, posture, etc.).

The most recognised lines of descent are Northern Arabs and Southern Arabs. People belonging to these two genealogical stocks are believed to embody superior moral qualities, such as generosity and bravery, and are deemed pious Muslims. The residual minority of the population is described as ‘lacking in origin’ (nuqqas al-asl) and believed to be morally deficient, a category that encompasses white-skinned people – usually working as servants, bards and butchers – and dark-skinned people alike. While it is not rare to find black Arabs (especially in the area of the Red Sea Tihama coast), those who belong to the akhdam minority are perceived as a genealogically defined subset of the wider category of people ‘lacking in origin’, and are therefore more discriminated against than their white counterparts.

Genealogical essentialism relies on a peculiar form of historical consciousness, what Andrew Shryock would define ‘genealogical imagination’. This form of historical imagination refers moral selves to their past origin, and vice versa: the glorious deeds or the infamous acts of the ancestors concur to define moral selves in the present. The akhdam, for instance, are often associated with a subset of Ethiopian invaders who raided Yemen in the 6th century a.d. led by the Christian commander Abraha al-Ashram, and are consequently labelled as betrayers or cowards.

This focus on descent is mirrored by the way the notion of racism first emerged in the Yemeni public discourse. In 1962, a revolution erupted overthrowing the Imam and establishing the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). During the imamate, political power was reserved to people of Hashemite origin (i.e. Northern Arabs and descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), so the notion of racism (‘unṣuriyyah) was first adapted to the Yemeni context in order to condemn the use of genealogy as a means to rule and claim distinctive privileges. Indeed, Mohammed al-Zubayri – one of the ideologues of the revolution – even accused the Hashemites of ‘partisanship of the origin’, a form of positive racism. It is therefore unsurprising that the 1962 provisional constitution fostered an egalitarian ideology, abolishing distinctions grounded on lineage, and that the 1991 constitution reaffirmed the principle by stating that the Yemeni State “shall guarantee equal opportunities for all citizens in the fields of political, economic, social and cultural activities” (Art. 24 of the Constitution).

However, in spite of this egalitarian ideology, lineage remains a central concern in contemporary Yemen. Ideological state apparatuses depict ‘national character’ on two grounds: Yemeni citizens are defined as Muslims and ‘Sons of Qahtan’ (i.e. Southern Arabs). The akhdam – like other marginalised minority groups – do not qualify as either: first, they cannot trace back their lineage to the ancestor of Southern Arabs and second, their moral character is deemed impious, as shown by the proverb “Don't look at the beauty of the akhdam, sins are in their bones”. Whereas, in other historical contexts, the symbolical and social exclusion of human subjects acquires meaning through notions of race grounded in skin-colour and phenotypical traits, in Yemen individuals are essentialised and excluded due to their genealogical origin. It is against this backdrop that we can understand how marginalised people resort to the notion of racism in order to criticise the discriminatory practices enacted by the vast majority of the Arab population.

White-skinned butchers, servants, and bards, as other professional castes, are harshly discriminated against by the Arabs, especially on the basis of marriage. Drawing on the historical tradition that considers lineage-privileges as a form of discrimination, this group of white-skinned people ‘lacking in origin’ overtly accuses the Arabs of ‘racism’ (‘unsuriyya), a local usage that differs significantly from our understanding of race and racism as being grounded in skin-colour and phenotypical traits. But while recognising a mutual stigmatised status, these white-skinned people are unable (and unwilling) to identify with the akhdam on political grounds. This situation is determined by multiple factors, among which two are decisive: firstly, each professional caste takes pride in its own lineage, in contrast to the hegemonic narratives that describe people ‘lacking in origin’ as one homogenous group of morally deficient individuals; secondly, unlike many akhdam, these professional castes rarely suffer economic marginality and spatial segregation, since they have access to education and property.

In spite of the egalitarian ideology, lineage remains a central concern in contemporary Yemen.

The dark-skinned akhdam, on the contrary, seem to emphasise a colour-based form of racial discrimination, using skin-colour as a medium to construct an encompassing group identity and to claim social and political inclusion. Running against the evidence that dark-skinned Arabs exist (and that they are not labelled akhdam), many akhdam – including Hudheyfi – would suggest that “this is the Yemeni culture: every black is an akhdam”. This assumption brings colour to the foreground, extending the potential number of marginalised people to “ten million Yemeni citizens”, and rearticulating the arab/akhdam binary as being one of “white” vs. “black”.

In July 2013, Hudheyfi founded a political party named Akhdam Allah. During the presentation, he affirmed, “It is a long struggle. We walk on the path of our predecessors (aslaf): Mandela in South Africa and Martin Luther King in the United States.” By evoking international key figures of the black movements in South Africa and the US, he resorted to racism as a powerful, internationally recognised, tool for political struggle.

This last point brings us to a decisive matter. Unlike other marginalised caste-groups in Yemen, who are almost invisible, the akhdam have been tremendously successful in mobilising international institutions and media in their support. In many occasions, international and local broadcasters (e.g. al-Jazeera, CNN Arabic, etc.) have dedicated thorough reports to their condition. The International Dalit Solidarity Network (2011) has described their situation in terms of a “caste-based discrimination”.

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (2011) has emphasised the “social and economic marginalization” of the akhdam referring to the General Recommendation no. 29 of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which crucially extends the meaning of ‘race’ by including descent-based discrimination. These international reports, while recognising that genealogical origin is still a major drive in shaping people's economic and social conditions in contemporary Yemen, exclusively focus on the marginalisation of the akhdam. This focus, I argue, depends on the fact that by turning descent into race, the akhdam have succeeded in redefining their community as an identifiable “discriminated ethnic group” of black people. 


This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Giupeppe Maimone, Luca Nevola, and an anonymous contributor to participate in the discussion.

About the author

Luca Nevola holds a PhD degree in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Milano-Bicocca. Since 2009 he has undertaken several periods of fieldwork research in northern Yemen, especially in Beny Matar and in the Old City of Sanaa. His PhD thesis examines the role of genealogical constructs in essentialising professional caste groups in the Yemeni highlands. He currently works as a legal advisor in a reception facility for asylum seekers in northern Italy.


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