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Réappropriations plurielles des modes d’identification à la nation dans la péninsule Arabique contemporaine

“This is our homeland”: Yemen’s marginalized and the quest for rights and recognition

Bogumila Hall

Résumés

Menant une réflexion sur les liens qu’ont entretenus les muhammashīn avec la révolution populaire de 2011, cet article se propose d'explorer la relation complexe entre les marginalisés yéménites et la nation, et plus globalement la façon dont les marginalisés s’inscrivent dans des enjeux politiques. J’y appréhende la façon dont les frontières approximatives de l'appartenance et de l'exclusion sont tracées, et comment elles sont négociées de façon complexe par les muhammashīn, qui cherchent à améliorer leurs conditions de vie, leurs droits et la reconnaissance en tant qu'êtres humains dignes. Au‑delà de la focale dominante qui s’intéresse aux principes de subjectivités subalternes construits en opposition, cet article met en évidence les actes de négociation plus nuancés, par lesquels les muhammashīn, bien que déshumanisés, choisissent de mettre en avant leur loyauté en tant que citoyens yéménites idéaux, désireux d'être incorporés dans le corps de la nation. La lecture qui est faite dans l’article de la période révolutionnaire du point de vue de ses acteurs les plus vulnérables vise à contribuer à la littérature récente sur les révoltes arabes et à faire entendre les voix et les points de vue des Yéménites marginalisés, dont les projets et les aspirations restent encore largement invisibles.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Challand, 2011, p. 279.
  • 2 Schielke, 2017, p. 208.
  • 3 Bamyeh, 2013, p. 194.
  • 4 See for example Ismail, 2011a; Tripp, 2013.
  • 5 Bamyeh 2011, 2013; Challand 2011; Hanafi 2012.

1In the early days of the Arab revolutions, when their outcomes were still impossible to predict, one thing did seem clear, as sociologist Benoit Challand remarked: “The revolts have opened the door to a totally new era characterized by a profound re‑invigoration of the nation (waan)”1. Anthropologist Samuli Schielke describes the uprising in Egypt even more evocatively as “a process of rediscovering and strengthening love for the nation”2. According to many observers of the Arab revolts, it was the emergence of “the people” (al‑sha‘b) as a collective agent, united by pragmatism in opposition to the regime, which marked the rise of a new political imagination and new political subjectivities in the region. Sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh argues, for example, that from Egypt to Syria to Yemen, the otherwise abstract concept of “the people” was “felt so concretely close to earth”3 that individuals were brought together and aligned with the nation, and ordinary citizens were given a sense of collective agency. The peoplehood was also re‑imagined, as Bamyeh and other scholars noticed, and in many ways it was reclaimed from the regimes4. Displays of non‑violence and popular unity challenged regime narratives of Arab nations as fragmented, sectarian and prone to violence. These helped to reinvent the political community from the ground up, around the notions of secular nation, civil state, citizenship and social justice5.

  • 6 Besides Sanaa, demonstrations and sit‑ins were held across the whole country in big cities and tow (...)
  • 7 “Clans and tribes forge new Yemen unity”. The New York Times, June 16, 2011. URL: <http://www.nyti (...)
  • 8 Author interviews and informal conversations with youth activists, Sanaa, August 2013. This materi (...)

2These changes could be observed in Yemen, where various actors constituted “the people”. Among those who occupied Change Square in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, in early 2011, were the educated urban youth, as well as tribesmen, Houthi supporters, socialists and some Islamists. And even though, by summer 2011, peaceful protests had given way to clashes between warring factions, occupied squares across Yemen6 continued to act as spaces of creativity and political expression among the revolutionary youth. A June 2011 opinion piece in the New York Times depicted these occupied spaces optimistically as sites where “the old barriers of tribe, region, clan and gender [were] crumbling”7. The impression that the revolution had generated a new sense of belonging was conveyed in a similar manner by Yemeni protesters. Youth activists I talked to in 2013 recalled how, during the first months of the uprising, they believed that a new Yemen was being shaped. They evoked instances of reconciliation between warring families, shared everyday life at the protest sites, and gestures of solidarity between residents of different cities, as illustrations of the short‑lived national unity8.

  • 9 Schielke, 2014; Porter, 2017.
  • 10 Bayat, 2015, p. S 37.
  • 11 For a similar point, see for example Winegar, 2012.

3While the accounts of scholars and revolutionaries alike record powerful stories of resistance in all their affective and transformative dimensions, they also tend to favor singularity over complexity, and ultimately risk reifying “the people”. Narratives of unity and of the indivisibility of “the people’s” demands overlook, for example, the mutual distrust between the various actors, or the fact that such moments of national unity may have been enacted through silencing, rather than transcending differences, by excluding those who did not fit the revolutionary imaginary of a righteous people9. Furthermore, subaltern groups are rarely acknowledged for using these revolutionary moments to start their own “minirevolutions”10, driven by their interests, needs and aspirations. Focusing largely on the revolutionary epicenters and on people’s heroic engagements, these dominant representations tend to either obscure or dismiss as reactionary all those who, for different reasons, did not join the central protest squares, or who experienced and contributed to the revolutionary cause in different, less spectacular ways11. These omissions of the ordinary, the non‑spectacular and the non‑represented are to a large extent tied to the dominant understanding among social movement scholars of what counts as emancipatory politics: which categories of actors matter and which aspirations are perceived as progressive. However, they also have broader implications for the construction of historical narratives, affecting which experiences of the uprisings are remembered, and which ones are forgotten or condemned.

  • 12 Trouillot, 1995.

4Concerned with these issues, I propose in this paper to shift our gaze away from the center of the revolution to the struggles which unfolded at the sidelines of the main events. More precisely, this paper seeks to tell the story of marginalized Yemenis (al‑muhammashīn) who, in Trouillot’s12 terms, were silenced as both “actors and narrators” throughout Yemen’s history, including during the revolution.

  • 13 As I discuss later, the label muhammashīn was introduced relatively recently and is often consider (...)
  • 14 As the category of the muhammashīn does not figure in any official registers, exact figures are di (...)
  • 15 References to caste‑based social hierarchies can be found, among others, in works of Walters, 1987 (...)

5The muhammashīn, previously known by the derogatory name akhdām13, probably constitute the most vulnerable social category in Yemen. Muhammashīn activists estimate that the their number has reached 3 million (out of a total Yemeni population of 28 million) while, according to the state, the figure is much lower (around 300,000)14. The pariah status of the group goes back to the traditional stratification system, sometimes compared to India’s caste system15. Today, the majority of the muhammashīn in Sanaa are scattered across squatter areas and earn their living with menial occupations. They are usually referred to as street cleaners (‘ummāl al‑naāfa), beggars and black Yemenis — labels which hint at the intricacies of their subordination, where status, class and race all come into play.

  • 16 Following on from a preliminary research conducted with the muhammashīn in 2008, this article draw (...)

6Despite the fact that in 2011, protesters in Yemen claimed to be the “people”, speaking on behalf of Yemenis as a whole, the popular uprising was met with lukewarm enthusiasm by the muhammashīn. A small tent of muhammashīn activists from various parts of the country did not attract many of Sanaa’s slum dwellers. Some muhammashīn visited Change Square out of curiosity or genuine support, and a few participated actively; but the vast majority of the marginalized I knew refrained from joining the protests at all16. The revolutionaries spoke with disdain about the muhammashīn’s disengagement, attributing it to what they saw as a lack of political awareness, their irresponsibility, and their extreme poverty which made their lives a constant struggle for survival. Many suggested that the muhammashīn were among the thugs paid by the regime to occupy the counter‑revolutionary Tahrīr Square, and that their loyalties were always with those who offered them money. These oft‑repeated comments coalesced together into a narrative of the muhammashīn as passive recipients of charity, and thus incapable of abiding by revolutionary ideals.

  • 17 The idea of how power operates to exclude and silence certain voices from history is discussed by (...)
  • 18 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.

7The muhammashīn, on the other hand, attributed their skepticism about the revolution to a fear of chaos, violence, economic deterioration, or even a collapse of the state. What echoed particularly loudly among my interlocutors was a disbelief that, in the event of regime change, the revolutionaries would care about their plight any more than the current elites. Many pointed to previous national struggles in which the muhammashīn’s participation was never officially acknowledged, and never yielded any gains, as proof that they would be neglected regardless of their stance. One of my interlocutors, for example, referred to the “heroic” — yet undocumented and forgotten‑ engagement of the akhdām in the 1962 revolution against the imam as a lesson not to get involved in other people's fights . His words captured the unnarrated existence of his community’s past, and the nature of history‑writing more broadly17: “History is written by the rich and powerful. They get medals and statues and they are remembered in history books”18. This sense of being erased from national politics and from the collective national memory may help explain the muhammashīn’s cynical attitude towards the uprising. As I argue in this article, the marginalized, unlike the revolutionaries, did not “feel” they were part of “the people” and perceived the revolution as unlikely to redress their profound vulnerability, or to redefine the Yemeni nation in a way that would recognize their value.

  • 19 Politics of belonging refers to drawing and maintaining boundaries by making some individuals more (...)
  • 20 Among positive exceptions, see two unpublished doctoral theses, by Walters, 1987 and Seif, 2003.
  • 21 See for example Meneley, 1996; Dahlgren, 2010.

8Taking this mutual distrust — articulated through the protesters’ disdain for the muhammashīn and the muhammashīn’s distance from the revolution — as a starting point for my reflection, this paper sets out to explore more broadly the politics of belonging in Yemen, and the sense of belonging as articulated by the muhammashīn19. This means addressing marginal subjectivities and the multiple struggles to have their rights and humanity recognized. It seems an apt task since the rich literature on Yemen’s social order rarely records the voices, self‑images and lifeworlds of the muhammashīn, offering little space for their agency20. In the most recent scholarship on Yemen, the muhammashīn are either omitted altogether, reduced to a passing mention, or have their representations filtered through the perceptions of others21.

Theorizing ambiguity

  • 22 See, among others Achilli, 2014; Mahmood, 2005; Chalcraft, 2005; Ortner, 1995.
  • 23 See Mahmood, 2005, p. 14.

9Pointing to the muhammashīn’s distance towards the popular revolution is not to suggest that they have internalized their subordination or passively accepted their plight, nor that their politics, as some “subalternists” would argue, constitute a unique and autonomous domain. Drawing on a large body of literature which warns against conflating subaltern agency with resistance22, I explore the muhammashīn’s struggles in the light of their situated self‑understandings, their concerns and aspirations, as well as the material underpinnings of their everyday life. In other words, I start from the premise that there is a relationship between everyday life, the formation of political subjectivities and collective action, and that this relationship ought to be deciphered. Such a perspective allows us to acknowledge the complex trajectories of struggles, which do not necessarily take the form of “progressive politics”23, but rather are marked by ambivalence and ambiguity, and are always embedded within the structures of power.

  • 24 The black feminist historian Tina Campt describes the concept of “fugitivity” as based on outward (...)
  • 25 For the conceptual discussion on negotiation as a political strategy, see the special issue of the (...)
  • 26 O’Brien & Li, 2006; Comaroff & Comaroff, 2006; Von Schnitzler, 2014.
  • 27 Chatterjee, 2004, 2011.

10In this vein, I show how discourses and structures of domination contribute to the creation of the muhammashīn as a particular type of destitute and dehumanized subjects, not fully belonging to the Yemeni nation. Following on from this, I examine how marginalized Yemenis make sense of their subordination, how they articulate their vision of justice, and interpret their horizons of the possible. From their specific position, the muhammashīn question the terms of belonging to a social order that denies them their rights and their worth; thus, they strive for dignified lives and greater inclusion. However, they do not necessarily do so as “fugitives” who explicitly contest or disengage from the state projects that subjugate them24, but rather mostly through modest strategies oriented at reform and self‑empowerment through which they negotiate power structures and the terms of their subordination. The notion of negotiation, not reducible to mere opposition, has been addressed by many scholars25, who have highlighted the shortcomings of the power‑resistance dualism and pointed to new terrains of subaltern politics, such as law and rights‑based approaches26. Partha Chatterjee considers negotiation, which plays out along lines other than resistance, as a paradigmatic mode of engagement with the state for poor and marginalized groups, what he refers to as “political society”27. According to Chatterjee , the subaltern do not necessarily wish to challenge or evade the state in search of autonomy: rather, they seek its attention by demanding welfare and entitlements. However, unlike citizens who claim their rights through legal channels, members of the “political society” constitute themselves as objects of the state’s care and make blatant claims, relying on illegality and coercive practices on the ground.

  • 28 It is necessary to bear in mind that the mode of governance in Yemen is very different to Chatterj (...)

11While Chatterjee’s observation that political battles extend beyond the usual realms of politics is crucial, the case of the muhammashīn calls into question his binary reading of the “political society” of the poor and underprivileged, and “civil society” of the bourgeois, rights‑bearing citizens, as two distinct modes of political action. In contrast, the struggles of the Yemeni marginalized point to porous boundaries between the different areas of engagement and to a blend of discourses of justice deployed by the subaltern, which are complementary rather than exclusive. As this paper shows, the muhammashīn seek material provisions. However, they also reject their position of marginality and demand to be recognized as worthy Yemenis and bearers of rights, rather than just being tolerated and exempted from law, as Chatterjee suggests28. To that effect, the Yemeni marginalized navigate between institutional and non‑institutional channels, address the state as much as they bypass it, and rely not only on the idioms of moral economy of fairness but also those of rights.

From akhdām to muhammashīn

  • 29 Mundy, 1995, p. 6. See for example: Bujra, 1971; Dresch, 1989; Caton, 1990; Stevenson, 1985; Serje (...)
  • 30 Despite important regional variations in the status system, a generalized hierarchical structure i (...)
  • 31 The akhdām are usually believed to be descendants of Christian Ethiopians who invaded and ruled Ye (...)
  • 32 The akhdām until today are unanimously identified as “black” even though the members of the group (...)
  • 33 Seif, ibid.
  • 34 Until the 1960s, the presence of akhdām communities in the North was minimal. Adra, 2006.
  • 35 Bujra, 1971.

12Depictions of a traditional stratification system and “a hierarchy of social statuses” have dominated much of the anthropological literature on Yemen, in particular that of the 1960s and 1970s29. These writings describe Yemeni society before the revolutions of the 1960s as governed by a rigid social hierarchy based on descent and occupation, with the akhdām at the very bottom30. The stigma of the akhdām (literally “servants”) was attached to their presumed non‑Arab origin31 and to their occupations, regarded as degrading by dominant society. The akhdām worked as menial laborers, cleaners, porters, shoemakers, but also as ritual healers, dancers and musicians. They were perceived as carriers of dirt and of disorder, and held in disdain for their alleged moral, religious and behavioral flaws. As anthropologist Huda Seif argues, the myths of racial difference and of the immorality of the marginal “other” have served the Yemenis of higher status to construct themselves as bearers of virtue32. As these depictions served to mark social distinction, they also justified relations of domination and inequality, in effect socially and spatially segregating the akhdām from mainstream society33. Although the actual position of the akhdām before the 1960s varied significantly across regions and communities34, they were in general pushed to the margins and were prohibited from owning land, carrying arms or intermarrying with members of other social groups35.

Social change and new patterns of distinction

  • 36 Carapico, 1996; De Regt, 2008.
  • 37 Seif 2003.
  • 38 Carapico, 1996; De Regt, 2008; Lackner 2016b.
  • 39 Stevenson, 1985.
  • 40 Stevenson, 1993.

13The 1960s and 1970s have typically been understood as a time for the reconfiguration of Yemen’s traditional social hierarchies36. The most obvious changes related to the emergence of new political regimes which banned slavery and status distinctions, instead proclaiming all citizens equal. In the North, the 1962 republican revolution brought an end to the imamate, while independence from the British in the South resulted in the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Egalitarian discourses and policies were particularly evident in the socialist PDRY, where, despite the authoritarian nature of the regime, a state‑controlled economy and socio‑political transformations allowed for certain improvements in the akhdām’s material conditions. As such, people from the lowest strata suddenly had access to land and profited from employment, education and healthcare provided by the state37. Social relations were also revised in the northern Yemen Arab Republic, through a new secular educational system and, in particular, the shift from a subsistence to a market economy. In the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers, among them akhdām, migrated for work to the Gulf states. With increasing social mobility, the expansion of a commercial sector fueled by migrant remittances and international investments, and a major resignification of certain occupations (such as trade), a new class structure started to crystalize in that period. The new system of inequalities was no longer based solely on descent, but also on wealth, and later by proximity to ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ’s networks of power38. These changes affected the social and economic position of the akhdām. On the one hand, due to modernization programs, the demand for some of the akhdām’s traditional occupations, such as ritual circumcision, started to decrease39. On the other hand, because the strict relationship between status and livelihood practices had broken down, the akhdām were not, at least in theory, restricted to the occupations formerly ascribed to them. In particular, through migration, many improved their financial situation and managed to escape the stigma of their low status40. However, traditional status expectations were not fully dismantled: for example, the first group of akhdām who appeared in Sanaa in the early 1960s where brought from Zabīd by the new republican rulers to work as street cleaners. Employing the akhdām exclusively in the sanitation sector reinforced the assumption, prevalent in Sanaa until today, that this menial labor was uniquely an “akhdām domain”.

  • 41 The northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen merged int (...)
  • 42 De Regt, 2008; Lackner, 2016b.

14The fact that the lived experiences of marginalization are not static or overcoded by traditional models of distinction, but rather tied in a dynamic manner to the wider structural processes, was clearly reflected in the personal narratives of my interlocutors. While the 1970s and 1980s were remembered by many with certain nostalgia, the 1990s, when Yemen was unified41, were depicted by the marginalized in Sanaa as a time of crisis (āzma), starkly at odds with the upward mobility and material improvements many had experienced in previous decades. In 1991, after Yemen opposed the American‑led military attack on Iraq, thousands of Yemeni migrant workers were expelled from the Gulf and forced to return to a country which was unable to accommodate such a surge in the workforce. The crisis in Yemen was further compounded by a two‑month long war in 1994 and subsequent neoliberal economic reforms introduced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For ordinary people, the structural adjustment programs meant an end to subsidies on food and fuel, higher costs of living, limited access to healthcare and education, and insecurity brought on by the flexibilization and the informalization of employment42.

  • 43 These informal settlements are commonly referred to by Yemenis as mahwāa, a word which often trans (...)
  • 44 Shobargi, 2008.

15It is in this context of growing poverty and the state’s incapacity to distribute wealth and services that squatter areas started to proliferate in Sanaa and other big cities in the early 1990s. These new urban enclaves ‑ known today as the “places of the marginalized”43 as if these were their natural habitat ‑ became home to many kinds of dispossessed Yemenis. Among them were the landless akhdām lured by the capital’s supposed job opportunities, Gulf returnees, migrants from rural areas, low‑paid public and private sector workers and other vulnerable families who could no longer afford formal housing44. The informal settlement of Dār Salm in southern Sanaa, which today hosts around 300 families (according to resident estimates), was one of the first to emerge in the capital, when squatters took over what had been vacant land until the late 1980s. Some of the long‑term residents described their settling there, along with the realization that their dreams of finding work, opening a small business or building a house would not be fulfilled, as a sort of unexpected degradation, clearly tied to changes in Yemen’s political economy: “In Saudi Arabia, I lived like a king. I had money, I was relaxed… everybody was happy. Back then, I could never imagine I would live like this. You don’t know when, and you find yourself living a life of a beggar” explained Aḥmad, originally from Dhamār province, who had moved to Sanaa in the early 1990s in the hope of a prosperous life, and instead ended up in a shack made largely of the leftover materials he was unable to sell for recycling.

  • 45 Hashem, 2007, p. 263‑264.
  • 46 One of the examples often evoked by the muhammashīn was that of Yemen’s former Minister of Finance (...)
  • 47 One of these is the Samsara compound, adjacent to Bāb al‑Ṣabāḥ market and donated to the earlier m (...)

16The rapid spread of urban poverty in the 1990s led many to abandon the term akhdām and to speak instead of the problem of “marginalization” (tahmīsh). In the accounts of activists, the label “marginalized” (muhammashīn) was coined by foreign NGOs and was widely adopted by Yemenis, in an effort to erase distinctions based on descent or skin colour, and to merge the akhdām into the broader category of Yemen’s underprivileged population. In Sanaa, the term usually designates sanitation workers as well as other casual workers, regardless of their social origins, who have migrated from the countryside and ended up in menial jobs45. More broadly, the label is used to refer to residents of slum areas. The conflation of the muhammashīn with slum dwellers points to the porous boundaries and the new meanings that this social category has acquired in today’s urban Yemen. In this case, racialized status is determined not only by descent, occupation or even skin color, but it is also tied to material living conditions and tangible appearances which reflect and reinforce vulnerability46. The makeshift slums, which have turned into quasi‑permanent, despised settlements, are one of the features that mark the muhammashīn out. At the time of my fieldwork in Sanaa, the muhammashīn were concentrated around two spaces ascribed to them by the authorities47, and six informal settlements in the neighborhoods of Dār Salm, al‑Ḥaṣaba, Ḥizyaz, ‘Asir, and Banī Ḥushaysh in Sanaa’s north‑eastern suburbs. These degraded places lack basic services and infrastructure, and constitute a particularly hazardous environment, made up of garbage piles, mud pools, and shacks made of stone, plastic, tin, bricks and cardboard. Not surprisingly, residents of the slum areas repeatedly depicted their depraved living conditions as inhumane, stripping them of their dignity, and evidence of the state’s lack of care for the lives of the muhammashīn. Due to the densely built‑up urban space, muhammashīn settlements, such as the one in Dār Salm, are in the middle of “regular” neighborhoods, yet this physical proximity does not translate into greater conviviality between the marginalized and the other residents of the area. “Sanaa is like a prison, there are walls between different classes (abaqāt)” argued ‘Alī, from the Samara compound located in the buzzing Bāb al‑Sabāḥ market, when explaining why members of his community remained strangers in the neighborhood where they have lived their whole lives.

  • 48 For example, domestic work, which used to be the domain of akhdām women, has been overtaken by mig (...)
  • 49 Some among my research participants worked also for local associations, or as taxi drivers, and a (...)

17The sense of stagnation conveyed by my interlocutors is a corollary of many factors: degrading living conditions, poor health, lack of skills and education, as much as a lack of social and symbolic capital, and government neglect. All this means that the muhammashīn have limited access to the labor market, even for those jobs traditionally reserved for the akhdām48. Unlike in the past when their role in society was clearly defined, nowadays, from a market perspective, the muhammashīn seem largely redundant. Some still perform their traditional “undignified” occupations: such as working for the municipality as street cleaners, or collecting waste and selling it for recycling. However, the majority struggles with unemployment or catch menial jobs on a daily basis49.

Trapped in marginality

  • 50 See for example shadow reports submitted to the various UN Committees by the International Dalit S (...)
  • 51 CERD/C/YEM/16.
  • 52 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2010.

18The issue of who comprises the category of the muhammashīn, and what is at the root of their marginalization, is controversial. While rights organizations depict the muhammashīn as an ethnic minority suffering from racial discrimination50, the state denies this and paints a picture of national homogeneity. For example, in the report submitted by Yemen to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2005, Yemeni society is portrayed as “homogenous”, with only a “negligible proportion” of Yemenis of African or Indian descent. According to the report, those who live on the social fringes, the muhammashīn, suffer solely because of their “economic background”, not their race or ethnicity51. Also, ordinary Yemenis spoke reluctantly of ascribed social status, emphasizing that the category of the akhdām did not exist anymore and that the muhammashīn were poor Yemenis like anyone else. In this vein, some of my Yemeni friends and acquaintances questioned the validity of my research, worrying it may bring back dormant social hierarchies and racialized definitions, which in their view no longer shaped Yemen’s social structure. And yet, abundant popular anecdotes and stereotypes about the muhammashīn conjure images of the group’s radical difference. In these essentializing narratives, the marginalized are portrayed as outsiders because of their culture of permissiveness, unbound by traditional customs and traditions (‘ādāt wa taqālīd), and especially their “culture of poverty”, whereby their perceived lack of hygiene, recklessness and disregard for education does not allow them to live within mainstream society. I often heard that the muhammashīn do not bury their dead, or recklessly spend all their money on qat — stories recounted to me as proof of the group’s cultural alterity, and holding the marginalized responsible for their plight. A low‑ranking politician from the ruling General People’s Congress party (GPC) explained the lineaments of the muhammashīn with a discourse often heard in Sanaa52:

Believe me, there is no racism in Yemen, there are no akhdām. All this talk, it is just to attract attention and money. The people who live in the slums, there are Yemenis like all of us, they are of the same religion, the same race. The problem… it is just their lifestyle. We are all poor in Yemen, but we don’t necessarily beg, we don’t live among dirt… but the muhammashīn, these are people who don’t want to live like others. To give you one example: why do they have so many wives and kids if they have no money? They send them to beg, they don’t care about their education or health.

19These common depictions are more than free‑floating discourses. They reflect the ambiguous terms by which the Yemeni marginalized are recognized. On the one hand, the category of the akhdām is said to be non‑existent, and belongs to the past. On the other, it seems to live on, passed on through what are perceived as the collective, hereditary traits of the muhammashīn. These specific characteristics (being immoral, lazy, reckless, rebellious and so on) stick to them and leave the muhammashīn trapped in perpetual “otherness”. Their marginality is not questioned, it is a label on which their identity is cast, and a defining trait which strips them of their worth.

Quests for humanity and rights on the sidelines of the popular revolution

  • 53 Fraser, 2007, p. 28.
  • 54 Fraser, 2000, p. 110.

20As the previous sections have shown, the material and the symbolic are inextricably linked in making and perpetuating the vulnerability of the muhammashīn. The entanglement of destitution and disesteem that shapes muhammashīn experiences brings to mind Nancy Fraser’s apt conceptualization of redistribution and recognition as “two mutually irreducible dimensions of justice”53. Fraser argues that these two modes of struggle are inseparable, since they are needed to address both class inequalities and status hierarchies. Although writing in the context of late capitalism in western societies, Fraser’s understanding of the politics of recognition is especially relevant here. Struggles for recognition, in both liberal political theory and among rights activists, are usually understood as identity politics, where the goal is the affirmation and the protection of difference. Yet, for Fraser, the core of recognition claims is not the defense of a specific culture or identity, but the social status of those who, through “institutionalised significations and norms”54, are not deemed as full and equal members of society. Understood in this way, the politics of recognition is concerned with equality and ending social subordination, rather than preserving particular identities.

21This echoes the vision of justice articulated by the muhammashīn, who yearn for the state’s care and its material provisions, but also more broadly for an end to the difference ascribed to them, greater inclusion, and a recognition of their worth as Yemenis, rights‑bearing subjects and human beings. In this vein, the dehumanized and scarcely valued muhammashīn chose to declare themselves loyal Yemenis and ideal citizens, rather than embracing oppositional subjectivities or radical black consciousness, in the style of Frantz Fanon, for example. The desire to have their “sameness” recognized could be discerned in daily conversations and interviews, where the muhammashīn juxtaposed mainstream Yemenis’ views of them as being of “lesser value” (nāq), with stories of their full personhood and humanity. Well aware of dominant perceptions, my interlocutors would often start conversations by debunking rumors and myths about them, denying for example, that they had African origins, or by confirming their religiosity and commitment to the country. This desire to be recognized as “proper” Yemenis was also why some of my interlocutors contested the label of “muhammashīn”, worrying that it naturalized their marginality, or established them as a homogenous, distinct group to which they did not wish to belong. Others, on the other hand, were skeptical about comparisons with the struggles of black communities worldwide, fearing that this would mean embracing, rather than rejecting, the view of their non‑Yemeni origins.

  • 55 Bayat, 1997.
  • 56 As the following sections reveal, the muhammashīn’s efforts are often dependent, for example, on m (...)

22These aspirations of recognition were not only spelled out during interviews or discussed privately among community members. Against the common assumption that the muhammashīn are passive and expect handouts, I trace in the following pages how the Yemeni marginalized strive to recast themselves as worthy citizens and workers, while making a broad claim to their rights. I do so by offering some insights into their civil society work, labor struggles and acts of community-led protest. Although I will address the diffuse and the spontaneous, I focus particularly on the organized and the sustained. By doing so, I depart from dominant approaches to subaltern politics that favor the former over the latter. In particular, since the post‑structuralist turn, scholars have turned to the sites of everyday life and unorganized and non‑strategic practices as the loci of subaltern agency. As Asef Bayat famously argued, the struggles of the poor and the marginalized are about deeds, not words: rather than writing manifestos and making public claims, the subaltern engage in unspoken struggles through which they deal with daily hardships, create their own spaces, and appropriate what is not delivered by the state55. While paying attention to the ordinary and unspoken has been highly insightful, I argue that a too narrow focus on the “everyday” as a bounded site risks overlooking what is located outside of it. In other words, such a perspective downplays the dynamic nature of subaltern engagements and the connections that exist between daily defiance and more organized forms of contention. Finally, it also downplays the emotional and material labor that goes into subaltern attempts to forge new political identities and build more sustained forms of collective action. It is precisely this slow, often ambiguous, and unspectacular process to become a political agent that this paper is trying to capture56.

  • 57 The demarcated period starts with the beginning of the popular revolution and lasts until the laun (...)
  • 58 Author interview, Sanaa, October 2012.

23While all the engagements I discuss predate the popular revolution, the period between 2011 and 201357, as I will show, gave a new impetus to the muhammashīn’s struggles. This is not because the marginalized merged with the crowds of protesters, nor because their stigma was forgotten thanks to revolutionary fervor. Rather, the restructuring of the political order, and the new sensibilities that the revolution generated, opened up new means of struggle for the muhammashīn and, at least temporarily made their claims more audible and gave them more resonance. This was visible, in particular, in what became known as Yemen’s transitional phase, when the muhammashīn, attuned to changes in the political environment, carved out their own spaces of protest to demand that the value of their labor and their lives be recognized. Although at the margins of the uprising, the muhammashīn thus used this period not only to highlight their exceptional exclusion and suffering, but also to frame their plight as a litmus test for the success or failure of the revolution. As one activist put it bluntly: “There will be no ‘new Yemen’ if our situation remains the same. And we will no longer keep silent”58. This statement is significant because it suggests that, in the shadow of revolutionary processes in Yemen, new political subjectivities emerged among the muhammashīn who started to perceive their own cause as an issue of national importance, and to view themselves as speaking subjects and possible agents of change.

Enacting civility and rights

  • 59 Carapico, 2002; see also Carapico, 2014; Abu Lughod, 2013.
  • 60 Bonnefoy & Poirier, 2009, p. 11.
  • 61 Carapico, 2002, p. 380.
  • 62 One of the examples recalled by the slum dwellers was a campaign organized by a French NGO meant t (...)
  • 63 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2010.

24When in early 2011 the popular uprising challenged the long‑established political order in Yemen and brought to the fore the power of ordinary people, many of my interlocutors still insisted that only “civil society, not riots” could improve their situation. While the muhammashīn’s depiction of the protests as “riots” (mushāghibāt) echoed the language of the government, they themselves had not necessarily been loyal to the regime, nor did they believe it to be the guarantor of their well‑being. On the contrary, although some of the Sanaani slum dwellers — seeking privileges and protection — belonged to the GPC, they were openly critical of the ruling party and of its politicians, whom they perceived as greedy and corrupt. On the eve of the revolution, for example, an oft‑repeated complaint was that the GPC only paid any attention to the poor immediately before elections, when they attempted to buy votes with small amounts of money and empty promises. What the muhammashīn’s reluctance towards contentious politics conveyed then was less support for Ṣāliḥ’s regime, and more their acceptance of the hegemonic narrative of democratization in Yemen. This narrative grew stronger in the 1990s, when western governments and international organizations financed the expansion of the civil society sector, as part of their mission to promote democracy, peace and stability in the Middle East59. In Yemen, as elsewhere in the region, the influx of money meant a proliferation of liberal think tanks, humanitarian projects and NGOs working in the fields of charity, development, human rights, women’s empowerment and social work60. The expected role of these new civil society actors, as Sheila Carapico described it, was to “lobby governments and rally public support for gradual reform and a liberal agenda”61. At the same time, the marketization of civil society and its heavy reliance on donors led to a largely depoliticized form of activism that bypassed, rather than confronted, the state. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the issue of the muhammashīn started to appear on the agendas of Yemeni and international NGOs which ran charity projects, awareness‑raising programs and workshops to teach slum dwellers new skills and behaviors62. Despite the attention given to their cause, changes on the ground were modest, and many muhammashīn accused the NGOs of exploiting their suffering for their own interests, turning “akhdām” into a “buzzword to receive funding”, as one community activist put it63. Furthermore, delegating the problem of the muhammashīn to the realm of development and poverty alleviation, without addressing the structural causes underlying their marginalization, had a depoliticizing effect. It led to a widely held assumption, also shared by the muhammashīn, that ending marginalization was a matter for experts and administrative measures, not politics.

  • 64 The National Union for the Marginalized was first registered under the name “The National Union fo (...)
  • 65 The manifesto was retrieved from the website <http://www.mohammash‑ye.net before it shut down in e (...)
  • 66 Author interviews and focus group with several members of the National Union for the Marginalized, (...)
  • 67 Informal conversations with members of the National Union for the Marginalized, Sanaa, Summer 2013

25The establishment of the National Union for the Marginalized (al‑ittiād al‑waanī li‑l‑ muhammashīn)64, which proclaimed itself as the “voice of the voiceless” and is now known as a representative body of the muhammashīn, illustrates these processes well. The Union, chaired by Nu‘mān Qā’id al‑Ḥūdhayfī, was set up in 2007 with the financial assistance of the World Bank, foreign embassies and the GPC. Registered as an NGO and approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Union gathered together hundreds of activists and 70 associations from all over Yemen, with the aim of empowering and representing the interests of the muhammashīn. Among their goals, as the Union manifesto stated, were “social integration”, “fighting poverty and illiteracy” and acquiring “full citizenship rights” for the Yemeni marginalized65. These were to be achieved through actions in the fields of culture, human rights and development, not political activism66. However, accountability towards donors and a constant search for funding meant that the National Union for the Marginalized, despite its ambitious claims, was scarcely present in the lives of the muhammashīn in Sanaa, who often complained that the organisation was elitist and had betrayed their cause. Its financial dependence on the GPC, and the fear of losing its support, was also why ‑ as activists later admitted ‑ the Union distanced itself from the popular revolution67.

  • 68 The most common requests related to health issues, and several of my research participants kept ne (...)

26Despite these risks of co‑optation and depoliticization, civil society work carried out by the muhammashīn should not be too easily dismissed. Besides the National Union for the Marginalized, many smaller associations were active on the local level. They occasionally helped make small improvements to the living conditions of the muhammashīn, and provided communities with legal assistance, vocational courses, workshops and other forms of support. Thus, these various initiatives, even if short‑lived due to a lack of funding, contributed to the subaltern process of learning, giving way to more organized forms of claim‑making, often through legal channels, such as filing petitions for resettlement, appealing to courts, or writing to the authorities to demand access to healthcare. In some cases, communities came together, asking for example for a school to be opened in their local area, in others, requests were submitted by individuals requiring assistance, usually with the help of NGOs. Even if they rarely received any help, many slum dwellers kept scrupulous records of their “correspondence” with the state68. It is, at least partly, through these encounters that the marginalized in Sanaa commonly translated their grievances into the language of rights, and evoked their citizenship status to highlight that they were denied what was guaranteed by law. Using the idiom of rights, the muhammashīn conveyed also the legitimate, not the contentious, character of their demands: “We don’t want charity, we only want our rights”, was an oft‑repeated refrain among slum dwellers and sanitation workers.

  • 69 The beginnings of the organization go back to the early 1990s, when the first initiatives were car (...)
  • 70 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.
  • 71 Author interviews with members of ‘Umr wa ‘Uqbī and the Yemeni Organization against Slavery and Di (...)
  • 72 Walters, ibid.

27On the personal level, for those engaged in civil society activism, work provided an opportunity to escape the over‑coding of marginalization by pursuing roles and careers other than those ascribed to them by society. Some of my interviewees described how they had asserted, through community activism, their self‑worth, not only to others but also to themselves.‘Alī, a law student involved in “‘Umr wa ‘Uqbī69, the first association set up by the muhammashīn in Sanaa, put it this way: “Because of my education and my work for the community (…) I gained confidence. I see my community [the muhammashīn living in Bāb al‑Sabāḥ] as more inclusive, more civil, and working harder than most Yemenis. People should learn from us”70. Other activists expressed similar feelings, juxtaposing their own civil attitudes and commitment to secular and national values with what they perceived as the “backwardness”, “sectarianism” and “tribal loyalties” of other Yemenis. The fact that the muhammashīn did not discriminate against anybody based on their wealth or family background, and that they were committed to gender equality, were evoked by some who argued that the muhammashīn were the only genuine agents of a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya)71. The emergence of these new identities (as “ideal” citizens) points to significant changes that took place among the Yemeni marginalized, who, according to Delores Walters, and as recently as the late 1980s, lacked any organizational structures and did not articulate identifications alternative to those ascribed to them72.

Serving the nation, cleaning the squares

28In addition to civil society work, many muhammashīn employed in the sanitation sector turned to trade union activism to collectively demand higher wages, job security and dignified working conditions. In this light, the case of street cleaners in Yemen is interesting, since it illustrates well how old forms of distinction intersect with new exclusionary arrangements, fostered to a large extent by the state, resulting from both its actions and inaction. In the interviews I conducted, sanitation workers, like other muhammashīn, described their sense of degradation and attributed it to the workings of what could be defined as “racial neoliberalism”. According to these workers, the neoliberal reforms and processes of market deregulation that had unfolded in Yemen since the 1990s targeted street cleaners more harshly than other employees of the public sector because of the stigma of their occupation. Thus, despite the fact that sanitation workers were formally state employees, the reforms stripped them of any rights and turned them into casual workers, working on a daily wage basis (al‑ajr al‑yawmī), with no health insurance, protections or benefits.

  • 73 The official name of the syndicate is the General Union of Municipality and Housing Workers (al‑ni (...)
  • 74 As claimed in the booklet produced by the syndicate, since the first country‑wide strike in 1993, (...)
  • 75 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.

29It was against this backdrop that sanitation workers started to coordinate on the national level in the early 1990s. In 2007, the Syndicate of Sanitation Workers (niqāba ‘ummāl al‑naāfa)73 was set up, and joined the General Federation of Worker’s Trade Unions of Yemen. Like civil society activists, workers emphasized the rightful, non‑transgressive, character of their struggle, which relied strictly on the means granted to them by the law, such as issuing public statements, lobbying, demonstrations and strikes. Through these actions, they managed over time to negotiate small increases in wages74. “Garbage is our curse and weapon”, commented one trade unionist, alluding to the stigma it brought on the street cleaners, but also to the leverage it provided them since their work stoppages left cities unlivable75.

  • 76 Author interview, Sanaa, September 2012.
  • 77 Focus groups with sanitation workers, Sanaa, October 2012.

30The revolutionary process in Yemen gave new life to the workers’ struggle, even though they were not driven by a desire for regime change. In 2010, street cleaners engaged in a series of country‑wide strikes, joining a larger mobilization of labor groups in Yemen. However, in early 2011, when the uprising against the regime of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ was in its nascent stage, sanitation workers suspended their strike, arguing that they did not want to aggravate the crisis. Consequently, leaders of the workers’ syndicate left the uprising, showing neither support for the revolution, nor explicitly condemning it. For several consecutive months, street cleaners, dressed in their distinctive green uniforms, could be seen at both the revolutionary Change Square and the counter‑revolutionary Taḥrīr square. As Muḥammad al‑Marzūqī, the head of the workers’ syndicate explained, they were not there to take sides, but rather to do their jobs, as a sign of loyalty to the Yemeni people, who at a time of political turmoil, urgently needed their services. As Marzūqī put it: “We are loyal to our homeland, and we are always ready to serve the people”76. In a similar vein, many workers, reflecting retrospectively on the early months of the revolution, recalled it as a time of sacrifice involving intense work. In the words of one them: “We worked more than usually, we could not stop or choose the place where we worked. Our role was similar to that of soldiers who protect the whole country”77.

  • 78 In the interviews I conducted in 2010, sanitation workers spoke mostly of the injustice they endur (...)
  • 79 Ismail, 2011b.
  • 80 Winegar, 2011.
  • 81 Porter, 2017.

31The idioms of “serving the nation” and “being like soldiers” deployed by my interlocutors in 2012 framed their decision not to join the revolution as based on their commitment to "the people", rather than out of loyalty to the regime. In other words, street cleaners positioned themselves beyond the divisive lines of “regime supporters vs. regime opponents”, signaling by contrast that their political strategy was based on compromise and negotiation, rather than antagonism. Moreover, this new way of depicting their role as workers78 clearly subverted dominant representations of street cleaners. By emphasizing their personal contribution and commitment to the country, workers asserted their dignity for what is perceived as an “undignified job” and the legitimacy of their demands. These attempts at resignification have to be seen in the context of broader revolutionary changes, at a time when cleaning the streets had become part of the revolutionary ethos, interpreted by some as acts of citizenship79, reclaiming public space from the regime80, or as a testament to revolutionary humility81. Even though sanitation workers distanced themselves from the protesters, and the “revolutionary cleaning” initiatives were not acts of solidarity with street cleaners, the redefinition of relations between citizens, acts of cleaning and urban space nevertheless gave the street cleaners’ claims more resonance.

  • 82 Author interview with Muḥammad al‑Marzūqī, Sanaa, July 2012.
  • 83 For example, on December 12, 2012, as a joint initiative between the municipality and civil societ (...)

32Changes in attitudes towards sanitation workers, from both the authorities and the public at large, could be observed during the transitional period, initiated by a power‑transfer deal signed in November 2011, ending Ṣāliḥ’s rule and bringing a formal end to the revolution. As a result of the initiative brokered by the neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, a “national unity government” was appointed in December 2011 and ‘Abd Rabbuh Manṣūr Hādī elected president in a single‑candidate contest in February 2012. Attuned to the political changes and hoping that the new government — keen to demonstrate its democratic credentials —would be more amenable to their claims, street cleaners returned to protesting. Between January and April 2012, the longest sustained mobilization in the history of the syndicate, sanitation workers held a series of protracted strikes across Yemen, demanding fixed, full‑time contracts (tathbīt) and better working conditions82. In an unprecedented move, the new prime minister, Muḥammad Bāsindwa, met with sanitation workers in person to negotiate an agreement and eventually, on April 12, 2012, passed a decree which granted workers permanent contracts, health benefits and time off. This was interpreted by many in Yemen as a victory for the workers’ struggle, as well as evidence of a shift in popular perceptions regarding this menial occupation. These changes could also be observed when the new legislation was followed by a series of public campaigns throughout 2012, in which workers received honorary titles of “cleaning soldiers”, certificates of “best employees of the year” and were referred to as exemplary citizens, in stark contrast to the dominant narratives regarding the muhammashīn, built around idioms of dirt and deviancy83.

  • 84 Author interview, Sanaa, July 2013.

33However, these symbolic rituals of appreciation for the street cleaners’ contribution to Yemeni society were not followed by any significant improvements in the workers’ material conditions, which compels us to question the extent to which workers were actually able to alter relations of domination and exploitation. The street cleaners’ own answer was rather pessimistic, and after initial enthusiasm, they interpreted the state’s declarations as empty gestures, and an attempt by the new political elites to establish their own legitimacy. Thus, when, in early 2013, promises of formal employment had still not been implemented, the sanitation workers returned to strikes, proving, as the head of the syndicate put it, that they would pursue their own “revolution” until their demands were met84.

Public grieving

  • 85 Carapico, 2011.

34The fact that the muhammashīn were scarcely present at the protest sites does not mean that they did not experience the revolution. On the contrary, it marked their lives, for the muhammashīn lived it, like many other Yemenis, through their discussions, by sharing stories and rumors, and seeing tangible changes happen around them, such as increases in tensions and in prices. The immediate vicinity of the revolution also brought to the fore the idea that, even in death, the muhammashīn are less worthy. During the uprising, the deaths of peaceful protestors at the hands of the regime played an important role in cementing national feelings. Following the March 18, 2011 massacre in Sanaa, protestors killed by the security forces acquired the status of martyrs, and the outrage over their deaths saw protests spread from the urban centers to even the most remote rural areas85. At the same time, muhammashīn fatalities, as some of my interlocutors lamented, remained something mundane, rarely accounted for. In 2012 alone, I heard about a female domestic servant killed by her boss, a beggar shot by a bank guard and a cobbler killed by a wealthy sheikh. The families of the victims did not receive compensation through the traditional process of arbitration (takīm), and the customarily prescribed “blood money” was not paid to them. They were also neglected by the state as the court dismissed their cases, citing lack of evidence. Their inability to achieve justice was a tangible sign that violence against them was socially and institutionally authorized because their lives were of little worth.

  • 86 In May 2011, fighting escalated in al‑Ḥaṣaba between the republican guards loyal to Ṣāliḥ and the (...)
  • 87 Author interview, Sanaa, November 2012.
  • 88 Besides these demonstrations, it also became common among muhammashīn activists to make funerals v (...)

35In all of these cases, the affected families and communities responded to the injustice and neglect by taking to the streets and turning their funerals into small‑scale protests. While the dissatisfied Yemeni youth were protesting, the muhammashīn held their own demonstrations in Sanaa’s residential districts of al‑Ḥaṣaba, Ḥizyaz and Dār Salm. These protests were embedded in the locality, and while they were sometimes joined by muhammashīn from other communities, they were not assisted by larger organizational structures or by Yemeni revolutionaries. For example, on November 16, 2012, the muhammashīn blocked a busy street adjacent to al‑Ḥaṣaba market to protest the murder of a cobbler from their community. Those muhammashīn who lived in al‑Ḥaṣaba got to experience the brunt of the revolution, witnessing first‑hand how a peaceful uprising turned into war in May 201186. While many residents moved out of the area, the muhammashīn who had nowhere else to go remained in their open‑air shacks above the Sā’ila road through the entire fighting. On the day of their protest, a dozen men disrupted the traffic, silently standing on the street and holding banners reiterating their demand for justice as well as national belonging. “This is our homeland” read one of the banners next to others demanding “equal rights” and a “trial for the killer”. Rashīd, who chaired one of the muhammashīn’s local associations, explained the reasoning behind this spontaneous mobilization: “We know we mean nothing in this country and this must change. We are Yemeni citizens, like anybody else, our blood is not cheap”87. Through this, and other acts of “public grieving”, the muhammashīn sought to question the normalization of violence against them, and the state’s silence regarding these deaths88. They also made themselves visible, despite the fact that their presence in residential districts was undesirable. In a way, by demanding a state that would protect all of its citizens, and protesting against the perceptions of their lives as disposable, the muhammashīn inscribed themselves in the larger popular struggle for social justice and dignity. At the same time, the fact that their protests attracted little sympathy from passers‑by, and that their demands remained unanswered, attests to the limits of change in revolutionary Yemen. It also points to the limited transformative power of the muhammashīn, whose struggles to undo their marginalization continue to be an undocumented and neglected part of Yemen’s popular politics.

Turning towards politics: concluding remarks

  • 89 Rancière, 2001, 2004.
  • 90 Schaap, 2011, p. 30.
  • 91 Focus groups with several members of the National Union for the Marginalized, Sanaa, November 2012 (...)
  • 92 See the footnote above. To encourage the muhammashīn to join the planned protest, members of the N (...)
  • 93 Author interview, Sanaa, August 2013.

36Irrespective of the outcomes, the concerted efforts of the muhammashīn to seek visibility and exert pressure on the transitional government attest to processes of “political subjectivization”89 among the Yemeni marginalized. For Jacques Rancière, the emergence of political subjects occurs when those who are not recognized as actors capable of speaking and articulating their demands assert their voice and become visible. Or according to Andrew Schaap’s reading of Rancière, “politics typically involves a struggle by subaltern groups to be seen and heard as speaking subjects within a social order that denies that they are qualified to participate in politics”90. The mobilization of the National Union for the Marginalized sparked by the announcement of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) captures these processes best. The NDC, scheduled for early 2013, was supposed to bring together all of Yemen’s social and political forces to draft a new constitution and, ultimately, restructure the country’s political system. Unlike the revolutionaries, who saw the NDC as part of the GCC initiative which favored traditional political elites, the muhammashīn perceived it as a transformative event that could allow them to partake in a formal political process for the first time in Yemen’s history, and to contribute to building a “new Yemen”. Using evocative terms, muhammashīn activists called it a “historic opportunity to claim rights”, and a unique chance to speak for themselves, after being “silenced for thousands of years”91. Between 2012 and 2013, the National Union for the Marginalized used a variety of means, from the organization of press conferences, to community discussions and street politics, in order to attract attention to their cause and secure their participation in the conference. In December 2012, they mobilized hundreds of Sanaa’s muhammashīn, in what was claimed by the organizers as the biggest protest event of the marginalized in Yemen’s history92. Chanting and carrying banners, the marginalized marched across Sanaa before converging on president Hādī’s house, demanding participation in the upcoming NDC as bearers of their own cause (qadiyya), like the Houthis and the southerners, rather than “representatives of the civil society”, as had been envisaged by the authorities. From exploiting opportunities afforded by the space and funding of the civil society sector, to street protests and attempts to join the mainstream political process, the trajectory of the muhammashīn’s Union clearly shows that subaltern politics do not exist beyond time and context, nor do they stem from a particular political culture. Rather, they evolve as the marginalized go from one type of action to another, not necessarily because of competing ideological stances but, as in this case, depending on their perception of what is possible and beneficial. As one activist, reflecting on the evolution of National Union’s strategies, remarked: “We haven’t changed, but Yemen is changing”93.

  • 94 Author interview with Nu‘mān al‑Ḥūdhayfī, Sanaa, August 2013. Despite its ambitious goals, the mov (...)

37When the NDC was launched in March 2013, the muhammashīn, to their disappointment, were granted only one seat, taken by the chair of the National Union for the Marginalized. As inconsequential as this participation may seem, it was nevertheless of considerable significance for the muhammashīn, who otherwise lacked access to institutional mechanisms of claim‑making, and whose demands and grievances rarely reached wider audiences, as the instances of community sit‑ins and protests have shown. The example of the muhammashīn is indeed a clear indication that collective action may be curtailed not necessarily by repression or organizational deficits, but by public silence around an issue, which pushes mobilization into a void and renders efforts to speak out futile. In this sense, participating in the NDC allowed the muhammashīn to join some institutional setting as political actors, and turned the slogans from their banners, the demands they would shout out and the statements from their seldom‑read website into recorded speeches, the subject of public debate. Speaking on behalf of “3 million black Yemenis”, Nu‘mān al‑Ḥūdhayfī, the representative of the muhammashīn, called for protective measures that would facilitate the group’s participation in society on an equal basis, and suggested adding an article to the constitution on positive discrimination, which would eventually lead to the disappearance of the muhammashīn as a phenomenon. Finally, encouraged by what looked like a growing interest in the issue, al‑Ḥūdhayfī announced in the summer of 2013 the establishment of the political movement “Akhdām Allāh”, which with time, he hoped, would turn into a political party and join the parliament94.

  • 95 Author interview, Sanaa, August 2013.

38At the same time, al‑Ḥūdhayfī’s presence at the NDC crystalized internal divisions, differences and hierarchies among the muhammashīn. While many expressed pride, others condemned al‑Ḥūdhayfī for monopolizing their cause or reinforcing racist language and stereotypes, by using labels such as “akhdām” and “black Yemenis”. When, during one of the sessions, al‑Ḥūdhayfī appeared before the audience wearing the green uniform of street cleaners, the syndicate of sanitation workers protested, accusing the activist of appropriating the workers’ issues for his own purposes and impeding their struggle. Although al‑Ḥūdhayfī defended the strategic use of the label “akhdām” as a way of acknowledging the particular vulnerability of the group linked to their descent and skin colour, sanitation workers denied being “akhdām”, and explained their struggle in class terms, characterizing the muhammashīn as exploited and disesteemed workers95.

  • 96 I am grateful to Salwa Ismail for this observation.
  • 97 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.
  • 98 For the discussion on the revolutionaries’ visions of the “civil state”, see Porter, 2017.

39These disagreements demonstrate that the muhammashīn are not a homogenous group, nor have they managed to build a united social movement. They disagree over the reasons for their subordination, and the strategies for tackling it. However, even if the sanitation workers’ syndicate and the National Union for the Marginalized chose different loci for their respective claims‑making, their stakes are nevertheless interconnected96. They all reject the stigma ascribed to them, demanding their rights and recognition as equal members of Yemeni society. In these value struggles, the racialized marginalized have not acted as a community at odds with the state, nor have they renarrated their silenced past or articulated alternative senses of belonging. On the contrary, the aim of their various engagements seems to be an end to the difference that haunts them, and their incorporation into the body of the nation, as equals and “fully” Yemeni. A statement by ‘Alī from the ‘Umr wa ‘Uqbī association, echoed by many muhammashīn, illustrates well the rejection of identifications forced on them: “We do not want any special rights as a minority. The minority status was imposed on us. I hope that one day we are seen as just Yemenis, and not muhammashīn or akhdām. What should count is that you are a Yemeni and a Muslim, and not your family background”97. In this sense, the muhammashīn do not defy the logic of nationalism, but instead long for a more inclusive mode of national belonging, rooted in equality, tolerance and social justice. Despite the mutual distrust, their vision resonates strongly with the ideas of civility articulated by the revolutionary youth who fought for, among other things, the end of politics based on parochial identifications and privileges for the few98.

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Notes

1 Challand, 2011, p. 279.

2 Schielke, 2017, p. 208.

3 Bamyeh, 2013, p. 194.

4 See for example Ismail, 2011a; Tripp, 2013.

5 Bamyeh 2011, 2013; Challand 2011; Hanafi 2012.

6 Besides Sanaa, demonstrations and sit‑ins were held across the whole country in big cities and towns such as Taiz, Ibb, Aden, Hodeida, al‑Mukalla, Dhamār, Ḥajja, Laḥij, al‑Ghayḍa and Marib. Lackner, 2016a, p. 157.

7 “Clans and tribes forge new Yemen unity”. The New York Times, June 16, 2011. URL: <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/17/world/middleeast/17yemen.html>.

8 Author interviews and informal conversations with youth activists, Sanaa, August 2013. This material draws on my on‑going postdoctoral project, for which I have been collecting life stories of young Yemenis, in order to examine lived experiences of the revolution, war and migration, and their imprints on people’s lives, bodies and subjectivities.

9 Schielke, 2014; Porter, 2017.

10 Bayat, 2015, p. S 37.

11 For a similar point, see for example Winegar, 2012.

12 Trouillot, 1995.

13 As I discuss later, the label muhammashīn was introduced relatively recently and is often considered as a politically correct term for the historically stigmatized group, the akhdām. However, both labels are controversial and contested to different degrees by group members. Some activists have recently re‑appropriated the derogatory term akhdām to articulate their specific claims, while others argue that the two categories should not be conflated. In the absence of better alternatives, I tend to use the term “marginalized” or muhammashīn when discussing contemporary events, and speak of the akhdām only when referring to the terminology used by others, either in the literature or by my research participants. Finally, by “street cleaners” and “sanitation workers”, I refer only to those who perform these particular occupations, and not to the category as a whole.

14 As the category of the muhammashīn does not figure in any official registers, exact figures are difficult to assess. The task is further complicated, as I discuss later in the article, since there is no consensus on who exactly constitutes the category and what its boundaries are.

15 References to caste‑based social hierarchies can be found, among others, in works of Walters, 1987; Vom  Bruck, 1996, and Seif, 2003. The language of “caste” is used in particular by advocacy and rights groups, such as for example International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). IDSN describes the situation of the akhdām as a caste‑based discrimination, equivalent to the discrimination faced by Dalits in India.

16 Following on from a preliminary research conducted with the muhammashīn in 2008, this article draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Sanaa with muhammashīn activists, slum dwellers and sanitation workers between 2010 and 2013 for my doctoral studies. The main data collection methods included informal conversations, semi‑structured interviews and participant observation within the realms of everyday life, their workplaces and muhammashīn organizations. The research was complemented by discourse analysis in which I studied documents produced by the muhammashīn, such as their website, leaflets, manifestos and petitions. In addition, I carried out interviews with politicians, civil servants of Sanaa’s municipality and representatives of NGOs that dealt with the muhammashīn. As my research was conducted only in the capital, it speaks mostly to the localized struggles of the muhammashīn in Sanaa, and does not necessarily reflect the experiences and engagements of the muhammashīn in other parts of the country. However, the two organizations I discuss in the paper have a nationwide character and aim at coordinating the marginalized at the national level.

17 The idea of how power operates to exclude and silence certain voices from history is discussed by Michel‑Rolph Trouillot (Trouillot, 1995).

18 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.

19 Politics of belonging refers to drawing and maintaining boundaries by making some individuals more national than others (through laws, institutions and popular discourses), the sense of belonging on the other hand speaks to people’s “emotional attachment”, “feeling at home”, or “yearning to belong” (YuvalDavis, 2006).

20 Among positive exceptions, see two unpublished doctoral theses, by Walters, 1987 and Seif, 2003.

21 See for example Meneley, 1996; Dahlgren, 2010.

22 See, among others Achilli, 2014; Mahmood, 2005; Chalcraft, 2005; Ortner, 1995.

23 See Mahmood, 2005, p. 14.

24 The black feminist historian Tina Campt describes the concept of “fugitivity” as based on outward acts of opposition as much as on daily “creative practices of refusal that undermine the categories of the dominant”. Campt, 2014.

25 For the conceptual discussion on negotiation as a political strategy, see the special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 45, 2015, and in particular the opening article by Uday Chandra, “Rethinking subaltern resistance”.

26 O’Brien & Li, 2006; Comaroff & Comaroff, 2006; Von Schnitzler, 2014.

27 Chatterjee, 2004, 2011.

28 It is necessary to bear in mind that the mode of governance in Yemen is very different to Chatterjee’s case of postcolonial India. As I demonstrate in the following pages, citizenship for the marginalized in Yemen comes with few entitlements and expectations. The experiences of the state among the marginalized are not so much that of biopower but rather are marked by a sense of neglect and abandonment.

29 Mundy, 1995, p. 6. See for example: Bujra, 1971; Dresch, 1989; Caton, 1990; Stevenson, 1985; Serjeant, 1977; Walters, 1987, for more recent work on the Yemeni social order, see: Meneley, 1996; Mermier, 1996; De Regt, 2008; Seif, 2003.

30 Despite important regional variations in the status system, a generalized hierarchical structure is usually traced, distinguishing between the strata of the religious elites (al‑sāda), judges (al‑quā’), tribesmen (al‑qabāil), service providers (al‑mazāyna) and finally, at the bottom of the social ladder, slaves (‘abīd) and even further below them al‑akhdām. See for example Carapico, 1996; Meneley, 1996; De Regt, 2008.

31 The akhdām are usually believed to be descendants of Christian Ethiopians who invaded and ruled Yemen between the fourth and sixth centuries CE and who, after eventually being defeated, became servants.

32 The akhdām until today are unanimously identified as “black” even though the members of the group deny having African roots, and though some, being of various backgrounds and phenotypes, can hardly be distinguished from “white” Yemenis. This ascribed “blackness”, as Seif states, served to confirm the group’s difference, rather than constituted it. Walters, who conducted ethnographic research in the PDRY in the 1980s argues in a similar manner that “color or race is conferred on individuals as an indication of their family background — not the other way round. Therefore, physical appearance does not predetermine a person’s virtue”. Walters, 1987, p. 352.; Seif, 2003.

33 Seif, ibid.

34 Until the 1960s, the presence of akhdām communities in the North was minimal. Adra, 2006.

35 Bujra, 1971.

36 Carapico, 1996; De Regt, 2008.

37 Seif 2003.

38 Carapico, 1996; De Regt, 2008; Lackner 2016b.

39 Stevenson, 1985.

40 Stevenson, 1993.

41 The northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen merged into the Republic of Yemen in May 1990, under the leadership of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ.

42 De Regt, 2008; Lackner, 2016b.

43 These informal settlements are commonly referred to by Yemenis as mahwāa, a word which often translates as “slum” or “camp”, but which, according to many muhammashīn, connotates a place where dogs are kept.

44 Shobargi, 2008.

45 Hashem, 2007, p. 263‑264.

46 One of the examples often evoked by the muhammashīn was that of Yemen’s former Minister of Finance, Ṣakhr al‑Wajīh. According to my interlocutors, the man was originally from an akhdām family from Zabīd, yet because of his political career and wealth, his origins were “forgotten”. The example was used to argue that the category of “marginalized” existed only as a social relationship, and the difference between them and other Yemenis was merely material (maddī) and thus, on rare occasions, negotiable.

47 One of these is the Samsara compound, adjacent to Bāb al‑Ṣabāḥ market and donated to the earlier mentioned group of akhdām from Zabīd in mid‑1960s as a waqf (religious endowment) in exchange for their services for the municipality. The other settlement assigned to muhammashīn is a housing project for low‑income families in the eastern part of the city, known as madīnat Sa‘wān, or madīnat al‑‘ummāl (workers city), to which some families of muhammashīn were first relocated in 2005.

48 For example, domestic work, which used to be the domain of akhdām women, has been overtaken by migrant workers. See De Regt, 2008. There is also some competition within the sanitation sector and many of my interlocutors complained that they could not even get jobs as street cleaners.

49 Some among my research participants worked also for local associations, or as taxi drivers, and a few had retired from the military.

50 See for example shadow reports submitted to the various UN Committees by the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN, an advocacy network working on issues of caste discrimination) and a Yemeni NGO, All Youth Network. All the reports are available here: <http://idsn.org/countries/yemen/>.

51 CERD/C/YEM/16.

52 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2010.

53 Fraser, 2007, p. 28.

54 Fraser, 2000, p. 110.

55 Bayat, 1997.

56 As the following sections reveal, the muhammashīn’s efforts are often dependent, for example, on more powerful actors, and are typically instrumentalized by the political class and NGOs.

57 The demarcated period starts with the beginning of the popular revolution and lasts until the launch of the National Dialogue Conference, the cornerstone of Yemen’s transition process, which signaled the return to institutional politics.

58 Author interview, Sanaa, October 2012.

59 Carapico, 2002; see also Carapico, 2014; Abu Lughod, 2013.

60 Bonnefoy & Poirier, 2009, p. 11.

61 Carapico, 2002, p. 380.

62 One of the examples recalled by the slum dwellers was a campaign organized by a French NGO meant to teach residents hygiene and encourage them to clean their surroundings.

63 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2010.

64 The National Union for the Marginalized was first registered under the name “The National Union for the Development of the Poorest”.

65 The manifesto was retrieved from the website <http://www.mohammash‑ye.net> before it shut down in early 2016 (Last accessed 9.12.2015).

66 Author interviews and focus group with several members of the National Union for the Marginalized, Sanaa, November 2012.

67 Informal conversations with members of the National Union for the Marginalized, Sanaa, Summer 2013.

68 The most common requests related to health issues, and several of my research participants kept neat files documenting the histories of their diseases, attached to copies of requests sent to the Ministry of Public Health and Population, and to the responses received.

69 The beginnings of the organization go back to the early 1990s, when the first initiatives were carried out in two villages in the Zabīd region, ‘Umr and ‘Uqbī, after which the organization was named. It was registered with the Ministry of Labor in 1996, and since then has been engaged in projects oriented at youth education and empowerment, and improving living conditions. The association has relied largely on funding from international organizations, such as Oxfam, as well as the financial support from foreign embassies in Yemen.

70 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.

71 Author interviews with members of ‘Umr wa ‘Uqbī and the Yemeni Organization against Slavery and Discrimination, Sanaa, 2012–2013.

72 Walters, ibid.

73 The official name of the syndicate is the General Union of Municipality and Housing Workers (al‑niqāba al‑‘āmma li‑‘ummāl al‑baladiyyāt wa al‑īskān).

74 As claimed in the booklet produced by the syndicate, since the first country‑wide strike in 1993, sanitation workers have managed to negotiate increases in wages from less than a dollar per day to almost four dollars per day.

75 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.

76 Author interview, Sanaa, September 2012.

77 Focus groups with sanitation workers, Sanaa, October 2012.

78 In the interviews I conducted in 2010, sanitation workers spoke mostly of the injustice they endured, heroic and proud narratives were much less present.

79 Ismail, 2011b.

80 Winegar, 2011.

81 Porter, 2017.

82 Author interview with Muḥammad al‑Marzūqī, Sanaa, July 2012.

83 For example, on December 12, 2012, as a joint initiative between the municipality and civil society groups, a first “National Cleaning Day” was held in Sanaa, in which hundreds of people took to the streets with brooms and brushes to clean the capital. In the words of ‘Abd al‑Qādir Hilāl, then Sanaa mayor, the national celebration was meant to encourage residents to keep their surroundings clean, but was also a tribute to sanitation workers: “It is time we recognize the hard work of sanitation workers (…), that they bring civilization to our cities. We must end prejudice and salute them” (Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012). See also Alwazir, 2012.

84 Author interview, Sanaa, July 2013.

85 Carapico, 2011.

86 In May 2011, fighting escalated in al‑Ḥaṣaba between the republican guards loyal to Ṣāliḥ and the tribal militias of sheikh Ṣādiq al‑Aḥmar, leaving over a hundred people dead.

87 Author interview, Sanaa, November 2012.

88 Besides these demonstrations, it also became common among muhammashīn activists to make funerals visible, for example, by posting pictures on Facebook, thus going against the dehumanizing depictions of the muhammashīn as unable to mourn.

89 Rancière, 2001, 2004.

90 Schaap, 2011, p. 30.

91 Focus groups with several members of the National Union for the Marginalized, Sanaa, November 2012. The same terms were used in meetings between leading members of the National Union and representatives of all the muhammashīn communities in Sanaa, organized between November and December 2012 (author field notes).

92 See the footnote above. To encourage the muhammashīn to join the planned protest, members of the National Union for the Marginalized travelled to all the muhammashīn settlements in Sanaa and discussed with their residents the issues of political transition, and the opportunities this period brought (author field notes).

93 Author interview, Sanaa, August 2013.

94 Author interview with Nu‘mān al‑Ḥūdhayfī, Sanaa, August 2013. Despite its ambitious goals, the movement of “Akhdām Allāh” existed largely on paper, and a majority of the marginalized I talked to were not aware of its existence.

95 Author interview, Sanaa, August 2013.

96 I am grateful to Salwa Ismail for this observation.

97 Author interview, Sanaa, December 2012.

98 For the discussion on the revolutionaries’ visions of the “civil state”, see Porter, 2017.

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Bogumila Hall, « “This is our homeland”: Yemen’s marginalized and the quest for rights and recognition », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 9 | 2017, mis en ligne le 13 juillet 2018, consulté le 22 juillet 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/3427 ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.3427

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Bogumila Hall

Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, Italy

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