Yemeni Tribes: Origin &Factors in Their Survival [Archives:2001/28/Reportage]

July 9 2001

Imad Al-Saqqaf,
Farouq Al-Kamali,
Yemen Times

What is a Tribe?
Dr. Qaid Al-Sharjabi defines the tribe as a socially and economically independent community. Its threat to the country lies, therefor, in the fact that it can divide it into semi-independent communities, each having its own land, meadows, water resources, etc.
History of Yemeni Tribes
It is difficult to trace the earliest phases of tribalism in Yemen. Dr. Al-Sharjabi believes that it dates back to the pri-Islamic period.
Three extensive tribal families were known before the emergence of Islam. These were: Himyar, Hamdan and Madh-haj, all of which ultimately stemmed from the same ancestor, Qahtan b. Aber. These families subsequently split up into several smaller tribes. “The political existence of the Yemeni tribe goes back to 500 BC, during the reign of the Sabaean kings,” says Dr. Fadhl Abu Ghanem in his book ‘The Tribal Structure in Yemen’.
The scarcity of information on tribalism in Yemen makes it extremely difficult for researchers to definitively trace the emergence of tribalism in the country. Dr. Fadhl Abu Ghanem, the Minister of Education who is originally from the Arhab tribe, has a number of books on tribes to his credit. However, since very little information exists on tribes and tribalism in Yemen, he was forced to travel to Germany, France and Austria to gather relevant material from Yemeni historical sources.
Tribal Survival: Factors
Despite all the political and social changes which Yemen has been through, tribes have still managed to maintain their strength and vitality. Tribesmen, until now, adhere to a set of tribal norms independent of, and distinct from the state’s laws and regulations. A number of political, social, and cultural factors have helped tribes maintain their prevalence and power. “The lack of political stability and the weak role of the state in the affairs of the tribes has helped augment and strengthen tribal norms, biases and solidarity, all of which have played a pivotal role in ensuring the survival of the tribal structure in its present condition,” says Al-Sharjabi. It appears as though the relations between the tribes and the state have been governed by one overriding principle: tribes get weaker when the state becomes stronger and vice versa. Other factors relate to the preference for independence, loyalty to the tribe and tribal leaders, as well as the prevalence of ignorance, illiteracy, and limited contact with the outside world and recent developments there etc.
The Social Hierarchy in the Tribe
The Sheikh is the highest and most important figure of rank in any tribe. He is the leader of the tribe, the symbol of its strength, its spokesman, decision maker, judge and idol. He also represents the tribal state and its laws. He possesses bodyguards, prisons, followers, etc. Houses like that of Sheikh Abdullah b. Hussein Al-Ahmar act as a meeting place for numerous high ranking officials, political leaders and other Sheikhs. Conferences are frequently held there, helping to solve many difficult governmental and tribal problems.
In second place, come the judges and the Sadah (a group of people who claim descent from the Prophet (PBUH) and so do not permit outsiders to marry their women). Then come the farmers and members of the tribe whom the Sheikh has assigned the task of following up people’s affairs. After that comes people classified as craftsmen, such as barbers, blacksmiths, butchers, etc, who are looked down upon by other members of the tribes. At the very bottom of the hierarchical social ladder comes the Jews and Akhdam (descendants of former black-African slaves).
Tribes and the Revolution of September 26.
The Yemeni revolution of September 26 was a significant turning point in the history of the country. The war that followed the revolution (lasting from 1962 to 1972) revealed contradictory standpoints on the part of the tribes. Dr. Abu Ghanem refers to the dual role of some of the northern and eastern tribes in the civil war between the republicans on the one hand, supported by Egypt, and the monarchists on the other, supported in the main by Saudi Arabia and the British colonial forces. “The revolution has found in tribalism a real danger to its existence, a hurdle along the path of establishing a modern, centralized state, and a factor which gnaws at the country’s political unity, opening up doors to external interference in Yemen’s internal affairs,” says Abu Ghanem.
Following the eruption of the revolution, the Imam Al-Badr and his family fell back on the tribes for protection. This policy triggered a civil war that continued for over 8 years. However, some Sheikhs played an important role in consolidating the republican system and supporting the fledgling revolutionary government. Among these Sheikhs were Abdullah b. Hussein Al-Ahmar, Mohammed Ali Othman, Sinan Abu Luhum, Amin Abu Ras, Mutee Damaj, and Ahmad Numan, etc.
Sheikh Abdullah b. Hussein Al-Ahma
Leader of Hashed and one of the country’s most eminent personalities, he won the respect of numerous people who always sought his advice. He was appointed Minister of Interior in the government of Ahmad Mohammed Numan in 1965, and it was he who convened and chaired the Khamer Conference, which aimed to chase down the monarchist forces. He also played a significant role in achieving political stability in the second half of the 20th century. He currently holds the chair of parliamentary speaker.
Sheikh Mohammed Ali Othman
He is the undisputed political leader of Taiz; an honest, well-educated and humble man. He is a patriot who fought for his country and sacrificed his own blood in its defense. Unfortunately, he was cruelly assassinated in June 1972 after Al-Fajr (dawn) prayers in a mosque.
Sheikh Amin Abu Ras
He is one of the most outstanding personalities in Yemen, and had been a captain in the army, in charge of the Gheilan area. His experience in fighting the monarchist forces led presidents Al-Sallal and Al-Iryani to rely on him to put down other government rebels.
Among other Sheikhs who defended the revolution, whom Abdul Malek Al-Taib mentions in his book “The Revolution and the Dark Tunnel” were Mutee Damaj, Sinan Abu Luhum, Ahmad Mohammed Numan, Al-Habari, Al-Bukheiti, Al-Qawsi, Naji Al-Shayef, Al-Rwaishan, Dweid, Mohammed Ahmad Mansour, and Amin Abdul Wase Numan, to name a few.
Is the period of tribalism over?
Have the revolution and the unification of Yemen changed tribal society and integrated it into the mainstream social and political life of the country? Is the education of the tribes’ children a definite sign of progress, given the fact that they still attend classes in traditional tribal dress? Can we regard the integration of the sons of sheikhs in trade, industry and banking etc a sign of progress despite the fact that they practice these according to tribal norms? Can we consider tribes to be civilized communities while they still practice revenge, kidnapping, etc.,? Has the era of tribes and sheikhs disappeared in the winds i globalization, information technology and local pluralism?
We sincerely hope that tribal virtues will never fade. What we hope to lose, however, is the negative phenomena of tribalism.