The NYT publishes a story that highlights the low status of Black people in the Middle East and one of the least discussed histories of Africa and the Arab speaking world, Arab-led slavery. This particularly report is about the Black Yemenis locally referred to as “Al Akhdam” [the root khadama to serve] a derogatory name which means servant. Black Yemenis are thought to have been soldiers originally from modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea during 600AD and settled after a failed invasion and have been slaves and servants ever since.
Set apart by their African features, they form a kind of hereditary caste at the very bottom of Yemen’s social ladder.
Degrading myths pursue them: they eat their own dead, and their women are all prostitutes. Worst of all, they are reviled as outsiders in their own country, descendants of an Ethiopian army that is said to have crossed the Red Sea to oppress Yemen before the arrival of Islam.
The Black Yemenis face discrimination on the basis of their African descent and are subject to massive human rights abuses, forced to live in segregated areas and only able to work in certain jobs.
I intend to return to the subject of Arab-led slavery particularly as it still exists today in Mauritania and the Sudan. Secondly Arab-led slavery and it’s present day legacy, is one of those discussions which is uncomfortable for some Africans and Arabs and one that has largely resulted in an unwritten conspiracy of silence. The discussion in Africa on whether to name the violence in Darfur as genocide has to some extent it’s origins in the historical relations between Arabs and Africans and how these are viewed by each group. A number of articles in Pambazuka News last year exemplified these relations – Professor Mahood Mamdani’s “The politics of naming: genocide, civil war, insurgency”, the response by Professor Kwesi Prah “The politics of apologetics: genocide denial, Darfur version” and “Dafur again“….. by Eva Dadrian and also on Black Looks, Andile Mngxitama’s article (also in response to Mamdani) “There is no genocide in Darfur“. One comment accused Mamdani and the responses to his piece as a “distraction from the real issue” as if African and Arab relations and the naming of the violence are not part of the “real issue” in Darfur and Sudan.