The Untouchables of Yemen

A tribal fighter jumps off a truck on a road linking the Yemeni capital Sanaa with the oil-producing province of Marib 26 June 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Khaled Abdullah)

By: Jomana Farhat

Published Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Yemenis with dark-skin are called al-Akhdam or al-Muhamasheen, meaning the marginalized ones. They are treated as outcasts in their own society, living in isolated communities and forbidden from marrying into more privileged classes. Many expected the uprising to bring about improved conditions, but so far, this has not been the case.

Taiz – The city of Taiz near the Red Sea is home to one of Yemen’s marginalized communities, commonly referred to as the Akhdam.

It is next to impossible for these outcasts, who are estimated to number around 1.5 million nationwide, to afford shelter with even the most basic amenities such as electricity and running water.

You see them roaming the streets, particularly around piles of garbage, trying to eek out a living doing menial work such as emptying toilets and fixing sewage pipes. Given the intermittent nature of their work, many simply resort to panhandling in order to survive.

Their demand is one: steady work. They want to be treated equally and given the opportunity to have regular jobs with health coverage to mitigate their poor living conditions and to break out of the cycle of discrimination to which they are subjected.

Wafa City residents, although predominantly Akhdam, are only slightly better off than their impoverished counterparts in other areas of the country. The city was built a few years ago in cooperation with the World Bank in order to provide housing after their homes were threatened by floods.

Nevertheless, the small units built here – despite their modern exteriors – are barely livable due to years of neglect. Most units are made up of three rooms that on average house between seven and 20 individuals.

Abduh Qassem Ghaleb, a member of the al-Wafa Association that works with this marginalized community, confirmed that there are 244 homes in Wafa City with a total population of no less than 2,000, most of whom are garbage collectors.

Ghaleb said that the government is responsible for the conditions that the Akhdam must endure to survive, noting that many of them work as day laborers earning extremely low wages.

Wafa resident Rubaie Abdo Said is not that comfortable living in the city where he has resided since 2005. He simply wants to be treated equally, complaining that while at work, “everyone is one family, but as soon as the workday ends, I am treated like an outcast.”

Said explains that his wage is not nearly enough to support his large family and he must rely on borrowing money here and there to make ends meet. His situation has become so dire that his children have stopped going to school since he cannot afford to buy their books and uniforms.

As for Salama Sinhan, who lives with her husband and six children in Wafa City, she can’t afford to pay the water and electricity bills. She must rely on assistance from a charitable organization, which provides them with a mere 20 liters of water a day for the whole family.

Next to Sinhan’s house, there is an area full of tin shacks where less fortunate Akhdam live. Sana resides in one of these ramshackle sheds with six family members, some of whom are married and have children.

The woman, in her 20s, said that water constantly seeps into the house during the winter, causing chronic illnesses among the children in particular. Also, she pointed out, most of the shacks have no toilets or bathrooms.

Novelist Ali al-Makri, who has written a book about this marginalized group, attributed the desperate state of the Akhdam to a number of factors, “most importantly, a racist outlook that places these darker-skinned people at the bottom of the social ladder.”

According to Makri, there are historical reasons, too: “Yemenis tend to believe that they came from elsewhere, that they are of African origin,” adding that “there are a number of inaccuracies in such a view.”

“But suppose that it is true,” he continued, “do they not deserve to be treated equally after living in Yemen for hundreds of years?”

He further suggested that another source of discrimination stems from Akhdam’s gypsy culture that is not easily accepted in conservative Yemeni society.

“What is worse,” Makri argued, “is that even those attempts by the state and society to integrate them are carried out in a racist and discriminatory way that does not insist on changing the dominant misconceptions about them in Yemeni society.”


Intermarriage Is Not Allowed

In addition to depriving Akhdam of decent housing, jobs, and education, Yemeni society does not approve of intermarriage with this marginalized community.

While it is virtually taboo for a Yemeni family to give their daughter to an Akhdam man, some men do marry into the community, risking banishment by their families.

The Akhdam had high hopes that the 2011 Yemeni revolt would help end the cycle of racism that has placed them at the bottom of the social ladder. Many of them participated in the uprising, appearing regularly in the demonstrations and sit-ins that filled the mains squares of the capital city Sanaa and Taiz.

One significant step that resulted was the formation of a political party to represent them and possibly improve their conditions. In the meantime, many political parties continue to prey on this community simply to gain votes for parliamentary and presidential elections.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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