Ahhhh, Yemen!

Posted: March 3, 2008 in Uncategorized

No way! Racism in Yemen. It can’t be. But then again some think it is religiously justified.

Perhaps these blacks should just “realize their place” and not complain

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.”

In fact, the Akhdam — who prefer to be known as “Al Muhamasheen,” or the marginalized ones — may have been in this southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula for as long as anyone, and their ethnic origins are unclear. Their debased status is a remnant of Yemen’s old social hierarchy, which collapsed after the 1962 revolution struck down the thousand-year-old Imamate.

But where Yemen’s other hereditary social classes, the sayyids and the judges and the sheiks, and even the lower orders like butchers and ironworkers, slowly dissolved, the Akhdam retained their separate position. There are more than a million of them among Yemen’s fast-growing population of 22 million, concentrated in segregated slums in the major cities.

“All the doors are closed to us except sweeping streets and begging,” Mr. Obaid said. “We are surviving, but we are not living.”


The Akhdam who work as street sweepers, for instance, are rarely granted contracts even after decades of work, despite the fact that all Yemeni civil servants are supposed to be granted contracts after six months, said Suha Bashren, a relief official with Oxfam here. They receive no benefits, and almost no time off.

“If any supervisor wants to dismiss them, they can do that,” said Ali Abdullah Saeed Hawdal, who started working as a street sweeper in 1968. “The supervisors use violence against them with no fear of penalties. They treat them as people with no rights.”

The living conditions of the Akhdam are appalling, even by the standards of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world.

In one Akhdam shantytown on the edge of Sana, more than 7,000 people live crammed into a stinking warren of low concrete blocks next to a mountain of trash. Young children, many of them barefoot, run through narrow, muddy lanes full of human waste and garbage.

A young woman named Nouria Abdullah stood outside the tiny cubicle — perhaps 6 feet by 8 feet, with a ceiling too low to allow her to stand up — where she lives with her husband and six children. Inside, a thin plastic sheet covered a dirt floor. A small plastic mirror hung on the wall, and a single filthy pillow lay in the corner.


When the winter rains come, the houses are flooded, she said. On the cold days in winter, the family burns trash to stay warm.

Read it all…

  1. This is extremely upsetting, but not a surprise.

  2. Yosef Davis says:

    Overall what do you exspect. we all should now by know the racism that excist in the Arab world if you dont know what were have you been. These Yemenese in America are racism right her against Afro-Americans here in the states. Masjid Faruq in brooklyn, brothers wont even give you the salam to black. Lets not talk about the store that muhammid a yemenese Arab was selling beer and pork and lotto right below the masjid in Peeksill, NY alot of the people of yemen have a seal on their heart it is self evident with the anti sunna pratices that they bring to North America. this does not apply to all of the arabs but I see the racism in their eyes. now in Yemen the people who protected the Prophets (s.a.w) companions are beeing treated like dogs.

  3. dawudwalid says:

    The sad part of it is that in the Gulf nations, Yemenis are discriminated against because they are considered too dark. For that matter in Michigan, the Lebanese discriminate against them too.

    You’d think that this would make them more sensitive to “sood”. I have a Somali friend that told me horrible stories about living in Yemen.

  4. Kwame Maddem says:

    Racism, class , and caste bias is still one of the major challenges facing muslim societies.In Latin America there have been black conscience movements that challenged these disturbing norms.I would like to know about groups in muslim world that have been formed to challenge these standard pratices that are embedded in these social structures.It shameful when you cant name one muslim country that treat blacks as there equal.Some Europeans countries are further along then muslim countries when it comes to dealing with racism.Where are the fatwas condemming this nonsense.This coming Friday I myself plan on passing this article out after jumah.
    Lets demand that our muslim organzations here in this couintry take a stand.Maybe we need to go to the Yemense counselate and demand immediate action.Is the muslim world in need of anti apartheid movement?

  5. salafiburnout says:


    Hopefully it is articles like these and discussions like the ones that we are having that will bring change.

  6. IBN ABDUL HAQQ says:

    ASA Br. Abdur Rahman please check out the BLACK SLAVE WARS that took place
    in Iraq.

    By William Jelani Cobb

    Enter the words “black,” “city” and “fuel” into the search engine of the American psyche and you’ll conjure up the image of a Chevron station in Detroit. But add a historical element into the equation and you come up with Basra, Iraq. In the three-card hustle of American foreign policy, the port-city of Basra is the elusive Queen. (The other two bluff cards say “Saddam Hussein” and “War on Terrorism.”) This week, Iraq’s delegation to OPEC gleefully reported that 2.1 million barrels of crude oil were flowing from the Basra wells daily.

    The city’s contemporary significance centers around its oil production; historically, though, the city was a commercial and governmental center that rivaled Baghdad for wealth and influence. It is also home to the little-discussed populations of black Iraqis.

    Thirty years of black and Diaspora studies have shed light on the scale, intensity and impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade — the 400-year traffic of Africans between the continent, Europe and the colonies of the alleged new world. Less attention has been paid, though, to the millennium-long slave trade that scattered African slaves throughout present-day Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan and India.

    Emerging European capitalism and the labor requirements of cash crops like sugar, cotton and tobacco drove the Trans-Atlantic trade; the Trans-Saharan trade, which flourished from the eighth century AD through the 1840s, brought African labor to the hazardous enterprises of pearl diving, date farming and the raw, brutal work of clearing Iraqi salt marshes. African boys were commonly castrated to serve as eunuch guards of royal harems. Unlike those who were enslaved in the west, however, blacks enslaved in the Arabic-speaking world also served as guards, sailors and high-ranking soldiers.

    In the 19th century, Basra was one of the most profitable slave ports in the region, commonly offering slave traders as much as 50% returns upon their “investments.” There has been a black presence in Basra — present-day Southern Iraq — as early as the 7th century, when Abu Bakra, an Ethiopian soldier who had been manumitted by the prophet Muhammad himself, settled in the city. His descendants became prominent members of Basran society. A century later, the writer Jahiz of Basra wrote an impassioned defense of black Africans — referred to in Arabic as the Zanj — against accusations of inferiority which had begun to take root even then.

    The Zanj, who were primarily persons of East African descent, were to have a significant impact upon Iraqi history. They had been traded from ports along the African coast (Zanzibar, which is derived from the term “Zanj,” was a major slave exporting center during the era) to clear salt marshes. Laboring in miserable, humid conditions, the Zanj workers dug up layers of topsoil and dragged away tons of earth to plant labor-intensive crops like sugarcane on the less saline soil below. Fed scant portions of flour, semolina and dates, they were constantly in conflict with the Iraqi slave system. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Zanj staged three rebellions, the largest of which occurred between 868 and 883 AD.

    Led by an Iraqi poet named Ali Ibn Muhammad, the Zanj uprising of 868 galvanized thousands of black slaves who laid siege to and eventually overran the city of Basra. In short order, black soldiers in the army of the ruling Abbasid emperors based in Baghdad began to desert and swelled the ranks of the rebellion. Similar to later rebellions that created liberated “maroon” communities throughout the new world, the 15-year conflict, known as “The Revolt of the Zanj,” led to the establishment of an independent Zanj capital city, minting of currency and the decade-long control of Basra — one of the most important trade ports in the Abbasid empire. At their zenith, the Zanj armies marched upon Baghdad and got within 70 miles of the city. The Zanj uprising was crushed in 883 by the Abbasids, but doing so required vast amounts of the empire’s extensive resources.

    African slavery in Iraq continued to exist throughout both the Ottoman and British empires which incorporated the region into their holdings. In the mid-19th century, decades after the Trans-Atlantic trade had been (technically) outlawed, the Arab trade persisted. As historian Joseph Harris writes in his African Presence in Asia: From Kuwait, slave parties were dispatched in small groups on land and sea to Zubair and Basra, where brokers sold slaves in their homes. The surplus was marched along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Baghdad.British officials during the era noted how widespread slave ownership was among the Iraqi families.

    The descendants of the Zanj exist in the region today in (often self-contained) communities with names like “Zanjiabad, Iran” that hint at the history of the peoples living there. The status of these black Iraqis is little discussed — though Iranians have written of persistent racism and stereotypes directed at the Zanj in their country. One can only wonder, though, what the addition of hundreds of oilmen will do for a black minority community living in Basra — because word-association for the terms “oil” “money” and “slavery” yields the following results: Texas

  7. moreno says:

    I have seen darker Arabs who live in squalor and nobody says anything. Even the African Arabs say nothing about their condition themselves. Only after heated discussion will Arabs admit grudgingly it even exists. In some communities Blacks have fully acceptes their lower status and it is painful to see. When your country is against you or deny you exist what do you do as a community?

  8. Kwame Madden says:

    Thank you Ibn Abdul Haqq for sharing that information.Salafi burnout
    your right it is good that we can have discussions and articles like this.Many muslims spirts are crushed do to not have outlets to express themselves.

  9. Kwame Madden says:

    Thank you Ibn Abdul Haqq for sharing that information.Salafi burnout
    your right it is good that we can have discussions and articles like this.Many muslims spirts are crushed do to not have outlets to express themselves.

  10. anon says:

    assalamu alikeum

    Unfortanlty this is nothing new, although i guess to the nytimes and its auidence its some kind of revelation.

    The ironic thing about yemen is that they’re proabably the closest of the gulf arabs to africans in terms of descent, because the red sea is close to africa and its always been a big trade link between africa and the arab world from there and some yemenis are just as dark and african looking as those on the picture, but their no less discrimnatory than the *whiter* skinned arabs. When it comes to their own countrymen (not outsiders/foriegners- because in that case, race, nationality and ethnicity is central and paramount), its all about tribe in the gulf and granted that colour and racism is a very big issue, tribe is even bigger and those mentioned in the article are from whats seen as the *lowest* tribe. There are dark skinned yemenis who are upper class and of higher tribe that are of the same colour and look as those pictured. It just so happens that the majority if not all of that tribe mentioned in the article are more african, than other tribes which have a mix of arab and african in them. Btw, i am not in any way defending any of these actions or discrimnatory acts of racism in yemen but just trying to point out that its not always 100% black and white and you can’t always put things in the american context, on a society that has complety different foundations and context of its own. arabs societies are very tribal and that can and is more influencial than race in many cases. You can be as dark as the night, but if you belong to the tribes of the ruling, upper and even middle class, then that puts you above a white skinned arab from lower tribes. But if you have a black person, whos not yemeni, then they’re even more at the bottom of the pile. Thats why i take offense with this anyalsis below* by the writer.

    *[Even the recent waves of immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia, many of them desperately poor, have fared better than the Akhdam, and do not share their stigma.]

    Its complete rubbish. obviously this writer hasnt been to the areas where somalis are living. I tell you straight up that somalis in yemen get no love and are treated no better than the yemeni tribe mentioned. Somali women are raped and many are co-orced or forced into prositiution, even the kids, the police beat up men and women- and thats just the ones that have mangaged to make it there. They are not employed either and most if not nearly all are beggers too. Hundreds have died just trying to get there. Some of the smugglers chucked off women and kids off the boats taking them, after taking all the money they had saved to make the journey.

    Alot of horror stories have been coming back to somalia and many are being diascouraged not to go yemen (my cousins being just a few), but what with the situation in the south of somalia, with the country being bombed and occupied by invading ethiopian army (who btw are on killing, raping and looting many civilians- something the western press has blocked out by and large, esp. in U.S and Britian, but international western aid agencies have mentioned), many see no hope but to leave and see yemen as the best option they have because its being one of the few countries whose goverment took in somali refugees- granted they were not wanting as many that came and are still proabably trying to come. I remeber during the civil war in somalia, many somalis fled to saudi, and after taking in a very small amount of refuguees, its started deporting all the rest of the somalis back to somalia, which at the time was being bombed to dust- literally! The non muslim western nations didnt even send somalis, who came to their countries, back because they knew that it’d proabably mean those going back would more than likely die, but yet our saudi muslim brethrens were happy to do so and did, leaving fatal consequences.

    I think overall though, things need to change. They should no way have to put up with that BS by their own folk (or anyone else!)

  11. dawudwalid says:

    I agree with the previous poster that there is a different dynamic in this society than simply the color based view that we have here in America.

    I’ve personally met people from Bani Hashim while in Saudi Arabia that looked Sudani. Of course, they lived much better than other Saudis that aren’t from that tribe, much less the Arab guest workers who are Palestinian that have much lighter skin.

    Tribe has always played a bigger role than “race” among the Arabs in the Gulf area.

  12. Leila says:

    I lived in Yemen and Inshallah next week i will start a blog and will write about sexual harrassment in Yemen from a female perspective. Black people in the North of Yemen are better integrated than in the South. Race is more complicated in the Arab world than in the West. I agree with dawudwalid that tribe plays a bigger role than race.

  13. Regardless of the cause of injustice, racism, tribalism or religious discrimination, injustice remains injustice. While I will admit that there is a bit of truth in the fact that many anti-Islamic elements hype up internal Muslim problems as a way to make Muslims look bad, the fact remains that when Muslim act contrary to the Qur’an and Sunnah, when we hate someone because of their skin color, when we oppress ourselves, we bring the bad consequences upon ourselves.

    We can’t blame the Jews, the Americans or anyone else. We must blame ourselves and improve upon our own behavior.

    As MLK said “Injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere”


  14. Leila, I look forward to your blog about Yemen. I heard the harrassment is terrible in Yemen. If you wear hijab, you’re a prostitute, if you don’t wear hijab you’re a prostitute, if you wear niqab you’re a prostitute, you’re just a ‘ho cause you left the house at all. My friend had to beat off several men and some who exposed themselves. Plus all thNastay!
    Yeah, I heard about Yemeni kids whose mothers are half East African dissing Africans too. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about Africans. So, they disassociate themselves from their AFrican side.

  15. IBN ABDUL HAQQ says:

    ASA Sister Margari you and other sisters keep holding our feet to the fire. Strong women only scare weak men.All i ask from my muslim sisters
    is to walk it like you talk it also, this will take a joint effort to rid our ummah of this sickness .As we point out these faults please pray for the ummah of Muhammad (s.a.w) because we are our best friends and enemies.

  16. Denesenko says:

    I was going to work in Yemen, halas, I have to admit that I am not interested anymore. It is unbelievable what I just read. This country is a member of the United Nations and yet there is still that of racism I just read.

    Where are the Brethren Muslim? I worked in different countries , Nepal being my last assignment and never seen such things even thought the cast system there is also horrible, however, there are at least harmony between different religions. What Islam can really tell the rest of the world if so called Islan States are worse than devil?

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