From al-Akhdam to al-Muhamashin: Genealogical Imagination, Power, and Resistance in Yemen’s Black Minority

By Gokh Amin Alshaif
Submitted to Session P5861 (Black and Arab Across the Red Sea, 2020 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The 1960s was a decade of global revolution. In Southern Arabia, it was a time of hope and promise in both Republican North Yemen and Communist South Yemen - the only Communist state in the Arab world. But revolutionary hope and promise did not extend to all Yemenis. Black Yemenis, known as Akhdam, (or “servants” in Arabic) were trapped at the bottom of both states’ social ladders. To this day, this sector of the African diaspora occupies an “untouchable” position in the Yemeni social landscape. They live in informal housing on the margins of villages and cities with little access to clean water, heating, healthcare, or safety. These conditions are not simply a consequence of Yemen’s position as the most impoverished Arab country. These conditions are a direct result of structural and historical anti-blackness. Anti-blackness permeates the very origin myths surrounding this marginalized group. These myths usually tell the story of foreign African invaders who occupied pre-Islamic Yemen only to be ousted by the indigenous Yemeni population. The African soldiers who remained in Yemen, were enslaved, relegated to the social fringes, and their descendants dubbed as Akhdam, or “servants” by other Yemenis.

These origin myths tell us much about the struggle for Yemeni social and racial hegemony. Many Yemenis draw on such myths to not only justify this group’s social position as the “servants of Yemen” (akhdam al-Yaman), but also construct this group’s very identity as “Africans” rather than Yemeni-Arabs. The post-1962 north Yemeni state’s employment of this group in exclusively sanitary positions further demonstrates this struggle and highlights the revolutionary state’s role in the racialization of these Yemeni “servants.” Thus, this paper explores the role genealogical imagination plays in the construction of “Arab” and “black” identities in Yemen. What does this process tell us about how race and “blackness” is constructed in the country and the region more broadly? In what sense was the post-revolutionary north Yemeni state a racial state? What can this teach us about the racial undertones of other revolutionary states and their state-building project? The paper ends by demonstrating how various Muhammashin, this group’s preferred name meaning “the marginalized” in Arabic, have sought to reclaim the power over naming and genealogical imagination. Their struggle to do so teaches us much about the categories of “black” and “Arab” in the Middle East and the limits of viewing these categories as mutually exclusive.