Racist Sentiment Rife From Yemen’s Corridors of Power to the Street
By: Jamal Jubran
Published Monday, July 16, 2012
Political leaders prove far from shy about making public racist comments, and the public are quick to blame every criminal act on foreigners.
Sanaa - On Wednesday afternoon, a suicide bomb in front of the southern entrance of the police academy in Sanaa killed ten soldiers. The academy is only tens of meters away from the Khuzaymah Graveyard, the biggest cemetery in Yemen’s capital, the young men dying in sight of their final resting place.
But the suicide attack was not the only explosion in Yemen that day. Not too far from the bombing site, and at around the same time, the MP for the General People's Congress Party (GPC) Sheikh Muhammad Bin Naji al-Shaef was detonating a different kind of bomb in the parliament building, when he threatened to “discipline” the Finance Minister Sakhr al-Wajeeh.
This came after a quarrel between the two men, after Wajeeh raised a point of order to protest a statement made by the MP attacking the prime minister. The MP made a personal attack against Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, who was not present in the session. MP Sheikh Shaef had said “we want to be ruled by a Yemeni prime minister, because the current one is Eritrean or Somali.”
The majority of MPs could only respond to this crude racist talk by withdrawing from the session, after the Sheikh refused to apologize for what he had said.
Yet this is nothing new. Indeed, the statements of MP Sheikh Shaef only echo those made in the past by the deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh against the current prime minister, when he was the chairman of the National Dialogue Committee at the end of last year.
The former president was quoted by a source in the ruling party as having said, “Basindwa is the last person to know anything about Yemen’s affairs, and has nothing to do with Yemen.” Ali Abdullah Saleh also said, “It is best for him to focus his attention on Somali affairs on which he is an expert.”
Whenever former President Ali Abdullah Saleh found himself unable to respond to an opponent, he used to say to that person, directly, “You are Somali – or Ethiopian or Eritrean; go home.”
Saleh said this to Hassan Baoum, leader of the Yemen Southern Secessionist Movement al-Harak. He also said it to Professor Abu Bakr Al-Saqqaf, one of the foremost teachers of philosophy at the University of Sanaa. And when the dialogue between Saleh and Ali Salim al-Beidh, his former deputy, reached a dead end in 1993, the former Yemeni president did not hesitate to deploy the same racist slurs against him.
Such racism is not limited to the Sheikh and the former president, and is also present in the street, which seems to be racist by nature. For one thing, many Yemenis are unable to compete with African talents from beyond the country’s borders, which those Yemenis believe outshine them when it comes to high-caliber jobs in international organizations and oil companies that pay high salaries in hard currency.
While such individuals are hired because of their qualifications and expertise, the Yemeni street chooses to overlook this, making racist statements against them instead. This racism is exclusively aimed at black-skinned people, while white foreigners are not met with the same treatment. It is as though the Yemeni street has an inferiority complex, only when it comes to whites.
But the problem goes further than this. Last June, a suicide bomb rocked the city of Aden, killing General Salem Ali Qoton – the commander of Yemen’s southern region. Following the attack, rumors spread like wildfire saying that the suicide bomber who had carried out the attack was in fact a black Somali.
Without any scrutiny and before any official investigation into the circumstances of the attack, people believed and accepted this rumor: the attacker was definitely a Somali and therefore all Somalis in Yemen must be dealt with accordingly. Let it be a war against every Somali then - a war which came to pass not long after.
On that same day there were reports about reprisals by Yemenis against anyone with black skin, because to them any black person must necessarily be Somali, Eritrean or Ethiopian. Thus, many black people were evicted from the homes they had leased with no problems in the past.
In the city of Dhamar (south of Sanaa), a large number of black people were rounded up and detained illegally in a remote camp.
The same scenario played out again a few minutes after last Wednesday’s suicide bombing near the police academy in Sanaa. Without thinking and without knowing anything about the circumstances of the incident, one taxi driver said, “I am sure it was a Somali suicide bomber behind the attack.”
All Somalis and black people here now find themselves under suspicion by default.
But the racist statement made by MP Sheikh Shaef against the Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa sparked a strong reaction, including many messages of solidarity and condemnation, and mass withdrawals from parliament sessions in protest against Shaef’s statements.
Nevertheless, these same people would remain silent when former President Ali Abdullah Saleh used to say the same things. Basindwa is the prime minister today, so it is a different matter altogether. But does a Yemeni have to become prime minister before he or she can find solidarity and protection from the racism that comes from both the street and parliament?
Harm That Goes Unpunished
In Yemen, rich people used to boast that they treated the Ethiopian maids who worked in their palaces well, unlike the treatment they received in other Arab countries. But the stories that have begun to circulate in the media say otherwise.
Sajieh (25 years old) is a Christian Ethiopian woman who came to Yemen to work as a housemaid for a Yemeni family. She left her home, her husband and her only daughter in search of work. But as soon as she arrived at her employers’ home, she was met with brutal treatment and contempt.
On 21 August 2011, the police were notified of a corpse belonging to an Ethiopian woman in a hospital in Sanaa. The forensic examiner’s report said that the victim was brutally tortured, with cigarette burns found on her hands and body. But because the suspect’s father works in the judiciary, the investigation was put on hold, and the suspects were released from custody.
The girl’s body remains in the hospital, while her family can only ask for her to be buried in her home country, in light of the justice system’s failure to resolve her case. This is but one of many stories that will inevitably emerge, one after the other, as if to say that there is an underground life in Yemen that no one knew anything about.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.