Yemen’s “untouchables”

November 12, 2012

Houdieda, Yemen

By Khaled Abdullah

The “Arab Spring” revolutions have helped societies in countries throughout the Middle East achieve hopes of change. But in Yemen, one group is still a long way from achieving its dreams.


The Akhdam, Yemen’s marginalized black minority, has suffered for centuries from perpetual discrimination and cultural persecution, and they are seen as “untouchables” at the bottom of the country’s social hierarchy.

Akhdam is a literal translation of the Arabic word “servants,” but the community prefers to be called the Muhamasheen – “the marginalized people”.

They are estimated to make up around 1.5 million of Yemen’s roughly 26 million residents, and they are widely perceived by mainstream society to be the descendants of Ethiopians who crossed the Red Sea to conquer Yemen before the arrival of Islam some 1,400 years ago.

I was happy to be assigned a story about this community because I thought it would help me cast light on their suffering. But I knew before I set off to document their lives that I would step into a reality that was very different to the experiences of most shantytown residents in other countries.

Distinguished by their black skin, the Akhdam are not only confined to living in slums outside Yemen’s cities, but face frequent evictions even from these deprived areas. They live in constant exile and face racism and derogatory myths wherever they go.

“We are black, but we are Yemenis,” says Muhammad Ali as he sits in his tent in a slum area in the south-western city of Taiz. “We are Yemenis, and they keep evicting us from our areas,” he says.

“People say we eat our own dead,” Ahmed Hussein says as he stands outside his hut in a slum near the capital Sanaa. “And they prevent us from burying our dead in the public graveyard.”

In the Akhdam slums, it is common to see the one-room huts crammed full with seven to nine family members, all living, cooking and sleeping in the same space just like sardines in a tin.

Driving back to the hotel at the end of one hectic day in a slum in the unrelenting heat of the port city of Houdieda, I passed by an Akhdam hut with an elderly man cooking outside.

I stopped and approached him to check whether it was okay for me to take photos. He didn’t mind, and when I started shooting I was astonished to see that he was cooking raw chicken feet and heads, the only thing he could collect for free from nearby butchers to feed his family of nine.

“This is the only thing I can afford,” Hadi Saeed said. He looked as if he were in his 70s. “How old are you?” I asked him. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “We are not given documents at birth.”

“It is difficult even to register our marriages,” he added.

In every slum I visited, I saw listless expressions on people’s faces, reflecting their suffering and struggles against abject poverty and limited opportunities.

I think education is the way out for their daughters and sons to change this reality. One good example of this is thirty-four-year-old Wadia al-Mekhlafi. He managed to pursue higher education and is now running an NGO called al-Amal, or “hope”, in Taiz. “The lack of education is one of the root causes of the marginalisation,” he said. “Access to schools is the key.”

Although the law gives every Yemeni the right to basic education without discrimination, access to education is still difficult for this minority. “I’ve tried several times to enrol my daughter and two sons in school this semester, but every time I go to register them, the school’s headmaster says the classrooms are filled and refuses,” says Mujahed Yahia, a father of eight, who lives near Sanaa.

“It’s a difficult struggle when you try to change the fate of your children,” he said.

Every time I leave one of their slums, I ask myself how long my beloved country will continue to overlook the plight of these poor people.

I hope it will not be for long.

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