A Yemeni activist and I were talking while walking in downtown Sana’a one hot morning. An old man kept turning back to look at us and eventually asked him with curiosity: “where are you from?” my colleague simply responded with a smile. “Ethiopia, Somalia?” asked the old man.
Anyone who has navigated the streets of Yemen will ultimately experience the friendly curiosity of its inhabitants. People are often inquisitive, welcoming, and honest. Political “correctness” does not exist here.
So the question that the man asked can be seen as an example of this curiosity. Yet for 37-year old Khaled Shanoon, who was born in Sana’a to a Yemeni father from Mareb province and an Eritrean mother, questions like these are often accompanied by negative connotations and memories of numerous incidents of discrimination.
Despite the long history of Yemeni traders travelling abroad, immigrating, and forming cross-cultural families, the term “Muwalad” is still used today to describe children born to one parent of another nationality.
The term itself is defined in an Arabic dictionary as “an Arab who is not purely Arab.” While the term applies to children of Yemeni-Russian, Yemeni-Vietnamese, or Yemeni-Egyptian couples, it is most often used for children of an African parent or a parent with African descent. According to an article by activist Hussein Musleh this term is used for humiliation, as a way to remind the person that he/she is not “pure” Yemeni.
Such attitudes are exacerbated by today’s obsession with light or white skin in the Arab region, which is in sharp contrast to the famous poetry and music where artists and poets wrote and sang about tan women.
Today, Arabic satellite channels broadcast the very negative “Fair and Lovely” commercial, that insinuates that the darker you are, the less successful/beautiful you are.
Unfortunately, in Yemen such attitudes to skin colour have recently moved from bad TV commercials to state institutions through the passing of the a decree on citizenship rights.
Relationship between Yemen and the Horn of Africa
Arabian-African relations date back to ancient times, when the kingdom of Axum, ruled both the southern Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia). Because of the two civilizstions’ integration over the years, intermarriage resulted in Yemeni and Ethiopian mixed blood.
In modern times, Yemen provided a safe haven for Ethiopian refugees and Ethiopia in turn accepted Yemeni immigrants during times of political upheaval or seeking a better economic future. For example, many Yemenis remained in Ethiopia since Italy’s 1936 invasion, when they were brought by the Italians to work as builders and became rich.
Dr Hussein Fouly, an Ethiopian researcher specialising in Yemeni-Ethiopian relations explained that Yemenis and Ethiopians intermixed first because of “Yemenis’ ability to integrate and second, because of the Ethiopian civilisation’s welcoming attitude toward foreigners in their land throughout the 20th century”.
Strangers here and there
You do not know how it feels to be a stranger.
Children of Yemeni immigrants who have returned from the horn of Africa often share positive memories of nations that treated them well. Yet despite how welcoming many were, some complain that they never felt either purely “African” or purely “Yemeni”.
Locals in both countries often treat them as citizens of the other country. They have deep connections in both places but do not fully belong to either country. “When I’m in Djibouti I’m called the Yemeni, and when I’m in Yemen, I’m referred to as the Djibouti,” said a 26- year old artist with whom I spoke recently.
This lack of belonging is a common feeling that many children of mixed backgrounds feel around the world. The late novelist Mohammad Abdul-Wali, a Yemeni diplomat and a prominent writer of Ethiopian descent who died in 1973, tried to portray these feelings in his novel They Die Strangers where he wrote: “Yes it is us, we are in search of a nation, of citizens, of hope. You do not know how it feels to be a stranger.”
Social and cultural discrimination
Yemeni citizens with links to the Horn of Africa often face cultural and legal discrimination on a daily basis in Yemen. Whether it is the name calling they encounter at schools, the obstacles they face when wanting to marry a “pure” Yemeni, or the daily struggles to convince authorities of their “Yemeniness”.
If they can, a majority of children and adults hide the fact that one of their parents is from the Horn of Africa because of the “shame” or ridicule it could bring them. AT the same time, children from a Russian or Western parent would often boast about their “beautifully light” family.
“I ignored my grandmother for ten years when I was young, I wanted to disassociate myself from her,” remembers Khaled sadly. “When I grew up, I visited her in Eritrea and quickly felt ashamed of my actions as a child. She’s an incredibly kind woman. I wish I could write a letter to all the African mothers to apologise that we were once embarrassed from them,” he added.
Khaled has transformed his regret into a positive campaign by creating the first NGO in Yemen, Sons of Immigrant’s Organisation, which seeks to promote equal citizenship by highlighting discrimination against the Muwaladeen and demanding equal rights.
While cultural and social discrimination are unfortunately found around the world, many Muwaladeen feel that discrimination complaints often fall on deaf ears. In fact, Muwaladeen accuse government officials of institutionalising this racism.
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Many complain that the state often neglects them and only uses them before an election. “Yemen only recognises us when they need our voice in the election, which means we are Yemeni citizens for only two days in seven years,” wrote Ali Salem in article published in Al-Hayat newspaper.
These Muwaladeen are often denied identity cards or passports by officials arguing that they do not have sufficient “evidence” to prove their “Yemeniness” due to their darker skin and sometimes-imperfect Arabic. They are also sometimes looked at as “newcomers” in the country they were born and raised in, and hence treated as such.
Recently, this type of discrimination was legalised. On March 3, 2014 a decree was passed by the Civil Status Authority, which stated:
“1) It is strictly forbidden to grant identity cards for Muwaladeen born outside Yemen, especially to those born in the Horn of Africa, who do not have proof of Yemeni nationality. 2) Excluded from this, are Muwaladeen born in the Gulf countries, Europe and Asia, provided that their parents are born in Yemen…”
While it goes without saying that proof of citizenship should in fact be a requirement to obtain an identification card, the mere fact that the decree differentiates between people from the Horn of Africa and others, illustrates the innate racism in government institutions against “black” people.
On January 25, 2014, Yemen‘s National Dialogue Conference concluded and resulted in a 300-page document filled with recommendations, many of which emphasise demands of equal citizenship and justice.For example, recommendation number four of the state-building working group states, “All citizens shall be equal in rights and duties before the law, without distinction based on sex, race, origin, colour, religion, sect, doctrine, opinion, or economic or social standing.“
Yet the recent decree that was passed after the end of the NDC makes citizens worry that these recommendations will merely remain ink on paper.
Atiaf Zaid Alwazir is a researcher and blogger based in Sanaa. She is also a co-founder of the media advocacy group SupportYemen.