Sunday, September 20, 2015

Realignment of Yemen's Identity Politics

Yemen in Sam Kalda's illustration

*As a blogger on Human Rights issues in Yemen for the past six years, I am stunned by the growing polarisation in the country; to take an even-handed stance for human rights is either viewed as a treasonous act or as a sectarian bias. If you criticise both the Saudi-led Arab coalition airstrikes and the Houthi-Saleh alliance forces, the supporters of both camps accuse you of supporting one side over the other. It’s us or them, both sides maintain; no middle ground.

Throughout my activism, it was easy for me to remain in that middle ground due to my mixed Ethiopian-Yemeni background which influenced my strong faith in fundamental human rights for all people, regardless of their colour of skin, ethnicity, gender, religious belief, etc. Having myself lived some of the ugly consequences of the abuse of human rights, in my case, that is racism, I developed a great sensibility of Yemen’s identity politics. Today, I perceive how people's definition of their identities in Yemen - whether in line with tribal, sectarian or class-based affinities - is realigning itself along with the new political order.


Growing up in Yemen, a country with a strict hierarchical class system was not an easy thing, especially for someone like myself with mixed-ethnic identity. My story, like the story of many multi-ethnic Yemenis, goes back to the time when my two Yemeni grandfathers, frustrated by the economic and political situation, had a leap of faith and left Yemen to find a better life elsewhere.

Yemeni ports served as a conduit for migration. Due to geographic proximity, the African horn was the destination for many migration waves coming from Yemen. Going east was also a popular destination for southeastern Yemenis. For my northern grandfathers, Ethiopia was the choice of destination. They settled and married two Ethiopian ladies (my grandmothers) and had children (among them are my later-to-be my parents). It is estimated that there were 300,000 - 400,000 Yemenis in Ethiopia at that time. Following the revolution of 1962 in the north of Yemen, the revolution of 1963 in its South and the dictatorship of Mengistu in their host country, many Yemeni migrants, including my grandparents, decided to go back to their home country in the 1970s. Some were forced to go back to Yemen by the emergence of communism in Ethiopia and its nationalisation policies that ripped them off the little wealth they worked hard to create, yet some were lured by the political change that had taken place at home. With a revolutionary perspective, Yemen’s former president, the late Ibrahim Al Hamdi was a key figure in calling on Yemenis abroad to return as he embarked on the road of nation-building. Thus, my Yemeni-Ethiopian parents migrated back to Yemen.

by Sam Kalda

In Yemen’s class system, unlike the “Akhdam”, a degrading term used to describe a dark-skinned minority who are believed to be the descendants of Ethiopian invaders from the sixth century and who has been enduring history of discrimination, I found myself located at the “Muwaladeen” categorisation, a term used to describe Yemenis born to foreign parents; the term was meant to racify the “half-Yemeni”, thus I struggled with both an identity crisis and racism. The most problematic issue though was the interplay between racism and classism. Growing up in Sana’a where at school I had my first encounter with Yemen’s multiplex social structure, my classmates bragged about their different classes; such as, Qadi and Hashemite class. As a kid, I was most intrigued and struck by the latter.

Hashemite class claims direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and many Hashemites see the superiority of their class above all outside their clan, and there has been a widespread concern among Yemenis that members of the Hashemite class, alongside with the Houthi movement, are fostering visions of restoring a religious imamite and resuming hierarchical supremacy. Families belonging to this lineage compose a form of nobility in Yemen, with many of them marrying only within their class. North-Yemen, once ruled by Zaidi hashemite dynasties from the very same north where Houthis come from, was freed from their reign by a coup d’etat in 1962 against the last Imam, Mohammed Al Badr Bin Hamidaddin, establishing the Yemen Arab Republic. This resulted in a civil war between the royalists and the republicans which lasted until the end of the sixties.

In today’s context, it’s crucial to remember that the Imam used to be the supreme representative of the Shia Zaidi Hashemite class, ruling north of Yemen in their name; much like how the Houthi movement is currently claiming to represent the Shia Zaidis. The main concern now is whether the reign of the Houthis would reproduce the old hierarchical class system, from which Yemen has not been fully liberated in its fifty years of the republic.

Being part of two cultures, two settings and two forms of being problematised Yemen’s identity politics for me and my hybridity forced a rift between me and home. Nonetheless, it provided me with a critical outlook of political and social issues. Even more intensely today, as I live abroad, the vision I have towards Yemen is a vision of plurality. Thus, my Human Rights activism as a blogger since 2011 has been modelled by my belief in a Yemen that guarantees its citizens a social structure where they can live in with their cultural complexities and diverse identities & ethnicities that have been historically shaped by the decisions Yemenis have made.


Yemen in Sam Kalda's illustration

Although Yemen's complex political, social and cultural structures have managed to function as a fluid equilibrium on the surface, there have always been chronic identity tensions.

Until Yemen's 2011 uprising, these identity tensions were influenced by two major factors: the unification in 1990 and the aftermath of the civil war in 1994, resulting in major rifts between north and south. Some contend that one of the causes of the tensions was former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's forced seizure of the lands in the south, leading to discontent among southerners over his rule.

Another likely cause was when southerners realised that the new oil finds in the south that formed more than 40 percent of Yemen's reserves back then would have supported South Yemen's smaller population if they had not been seized by the north. Furthermore, during my personal observations in the country, there was a feeling in South Yemen, particularly among "de-tribalised" people, who felt that they should (re-)define themselves as tribes to be taken seriously by the new ruling system in the north.

Saleh's approach to leadership further complicated identity relations. His leadership was based on divide and rule and his tactics on prioritising the survival and benefit of his own family and tribe, deepening the rift between disparate groups and undermining the idea of a Yemeni national identity. For instance, prior to 2004, Saleh used to support the Islah party against the Houthis and vice versa. Even during Yemen's 2011 uprising, Saleh endeavoured to fragment the anti-government protesters by arguing that the mixing of male and female protesters was un-Islamic.

In today's context, as the country engages in one of its bloodiest civil wars, there is a realignment taking place simultaneously on two levels: a reconfiguration of power and identities. Firstly, it is fuelled by the new reality where yesterday's adversaries are today's allies. After enduring six wars between 2004 and 2010 that led to the death of their founder-leader at the hands of Yemeni security forces under Saleh's rule, Houthis have formed an alliance with their old oppressor, Saleh.

Considering that Saleh used to be Saudis' ally in the fight against Houthis' revivalist movement for Zaydism through those six wars, today he is turning the tables, siding with Houthis not only to fight the Saudi-led coalition but also to crush those who helped oust him in 2011. The reconfiguration of identity relations is perhaps the most troubling one - it shows itself as the violence on the ground has been mobilised based not on simple binary distinctions, but rather, on a complex and ambiguous process.

by Sam Kalda

While Yemen's biggest richness in diversity is its people and needs to be celebrated, in the light of the civil war, it has become the base of multifaceted local cleavages. For instance, in Houthi-owned media, there were reports on Houthi-Saleh militiamen calling the southerners "The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) supporters" to strip them of their "Yemeniness" in order to justify killing them. This has caused a great polarisation where southerners in Aden and Taiz mainly cheer for the Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi forces, whereas people in Sanaa feel political allegiances based on ideological and class agenda.

Since Sanaa has become the headquarters of Houthi rule, locals point out that the capital city tends to exhibit animosity against the Saudi-led coalition and the south - not only because it's moving in line with Houthis' stance, but also because of the historical tensions between the north and the south.

The rise of the Houthi movement represents a major reconfiguration of identity politics in the country. As people are pushing themselves into a new formalised identity group, viewing what's at risk for them in the violence, they find it difficult to identify with others who used to be of like-minded groups. And yet, they engage - consciously and subconsciously - in a continuous process of negotiating differences and antagonisms at the social and political level. Thus, the concept of a "Yemeni nation" is being redefined. While the prospect of witnessing a comeback of two Yemen(s) is debatable, it's certain that the country's north will look completely different.

The longer the war drags on, the greater the polarisation.

One can argue that this has been the case since 2007, with the emergence of the secessionist movement - which by itself showed that no civil nationalist identity exists in Yemen. Still, I would argue that it's been the case since the unification in 1990 when a combination of nation-building and the integration of the north and the south has been nothing but a failure. The current realignment is more significant than the revolution itself in 2011, which only proposed a new desultory reality.
Yemen is being transformed through a drastic change, where Yemen's agencies in the private and political spheres are under transformation as well.

For my “Muwaledeen” family members across Yemen, they are still surviving and few of them had to flee back to Ethiopia, to the old home. “History repeats itself,” tells me, my cousin, from Addis Ababa.

*A brief version of this essay was originally published on Al Jazeera English