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.
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