Power and class

Published : Oct 08, 2010 00:00 IST

An excellent anthropological study of the southern part of Yemen; the book can help one understand the roots of the current conflict there.

SOUTH Yemen surprised the Arab world and the rest of West Asia in 1967 when it threw off the British colonial yoke and declared itself a Marxist state, the only Arab country to do so. This uniquely interesting development in the annals of Arab national liberation movements deserves to be studied closely, more so in the wake of the current disturbances in southern Yemen, where former socialist military officers, dissatisfied with the unification of the country in 1990, openly talk of independence. The roots of their dissatisfaction lie in the unfinished agenda of the 1967 revolution, which, according to a revolutionary song from the early 1970s, wanted to support the workers, peasants, fishermen, the Bedouin and nomads, eliminate illiteracy, and liberate and arm women.

Although attention has generally been focussed on Yemeni history, politics, culture and anthropology by scholars such as Fred Halliday, Steve Caton, Anne Meneley, Engseng Ho, and more recently by Gabriele vom Bruck, Lisa Wedeen and John Willis (in a forthcoming work), the southern part of Yemen, formerly south Arabia, has remained off limits to scholars of Yemen, and close examination of it has been limited to one excellent anthropological study by Abdalla Bujra, the book under review. Those seeking to understand the roots of the current conflict in southern Yemen need to consult this book, first published some 40 years ago.

Bujra conducted his fieldwork on the then southern Arabian town of Hureidah in the Hadramaut region of Yemen. Though he admits that his study has been superseded by events (page xvi) meaning the 1967 takeover by the National Liberation Front he has dedicated the book to the people of south Yemen, clearly showing where his sympathies lie.

Hureidah is a typical Arab town beset by a vicious and unchanging stratification system. At the top of the pyramid are the Attas, who are the wealthiest, and jealously guard their privileges built upon accumulation and preservation of wealth by unscrupulous they claim divinely sanctioned means, which implies safeguarding not only their own interests but also those of their allies, and pre-empting any sort of challenge from other well-placed rivals like the Basahl.

So dominant are the Attas in Hureidah that they control the mosques and the schools, the best land awqaf and funds that should theoretically go to the poor (pages 67 and 87). They can do this because they are given legitimacy by the clergy and religious scholars represented by the Basahl, who in turn need legitimacy to be conferred on them by the Attas elite in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of the social hierarchy. Below the Basahl are the Qabail or tribes, who occupy an interesting space between the Basahl elite and the Masakin, the poor, the most prominent among whom are the Hirthan, who have prestige because they control land; and the Akhdam, occupying the lowest rung of the social ladder, the servant class (Chapter 2).

According to Bujra, this is a closed, self-absorbed world where mobility into the upper echelons of the Attas and the Basahl from below is tightly guarded, while anyone moving down the hierarchy loses their status. Some mobility among the ranks of the Masakin was noted by Bujra, when he found that opportunities in renting land had enabled the Akhdam to actually acquire land. The migration of labour as a result of Hadramaut's successful integration into the world economy also led many from the lower classes to migrate abroad in search of better job opportunities (Chapter 3). However, the latter actually ended up consolidating the stratification system already in place in Hureidah because the Attas elite monopolise the best jobs abroad on the basis of their education, religious clout and support networks.

It is not clear from Bujra's third chapter why the Attas, despite being so wealthy, choose to migrate abroad; the limited resources of economy (page 91) does not seem like a convincing explanation. Another interesting point mentioned by Bujra is the fact that despite the Akhdam also benefiting from the increased opportunities for renting land and migration, they are still unable to migrate and therefore shake off the ties of dependency on the elite (pages 91-92). Might this dependence be characterised as a type of feudalism? The author does not elaborate.

Apart from the distribution of wealth and equality of opportunity, marriage is a powerful marker of stratification in Hureidah (Chapter 4). The principle of Kafa'ah (equality of marriage partners) upon which the Islamic marriage concept operates is fine as long as one does not examine it deeply. For here, too, the wealth and power exercised by the Attas enable them to get the better of the social hierarchy in Hureidah by marrying as many women as they choose from their own group as well as those of lower status; yet they forbid their own women and men from the lower classes to marry outside their own class (page 95) This contrasts sharply with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad who believed in the concept of young people choosing their marriage partners even from outside their classes. The prevailing concept of marriage perpetuates the stratification pattern inside Hureidah.

Typically for the Akhdam, their women frequently opt for second-class status by agreeing to marry non-Akhdam men as second wives (page 102). Bujra does not tell us about the state of women's rights in the Hadramaut or Hureidah, but judging from the anecdote provided later in the book (page 181) about Attas widows wanting to support the revolution in Sana'a because it would bring them freedom to marry non-Attas men, one can say that the former did not have too many rights with regard to marriage or property.

However, even elite women resisted this pattern, wherever they could, as has been so masterfully depicted in Zayd Mutee Dammaj's novel of pre-revolutionary Yemen, The Hostage, where the protagonist a hostage of the ruling Imam enters into a short-term sexual relationship with a sharifa from the Governor's family. The tensions between the local and diasporic visions of what counts as lawful/unlawful marriage (page 94) would later serve as a harbinger for greater tensions in Hureidah.

Politics of stratification

The second part of the book refers to the politics of stratification in Hureidah in the wake of a political change there, in that the British colonisers re-organised the region administratively and ended the tribal monopoly over arms and protection there. However, the political system introduced by the British relied on the acquiescence and willing collaboration of the Attas and Basahl elite, and did not result in any democratic or political freedoms. Political parties and trade unions were banned. It merely gave the Attas more opportunities to manipulate the British and their appointed satraps in the south.

Cases of the growing power, corruption and high-handedness of the Attas, even under British tutelage, began to erode away at the base of the elite consensus in Hureidah as the Attas began to re-assert themselves politically and economically vis-a-vis the growing challenge to their monopoly from the Basahl, who felt left out of the power game (page 138). The conflict between the two began over an old-fashioned struggle over money and influence but quickly turned into a struggle for survival.

Bujra's portrait of the ambitious Attas potentate Abu Bakar in Hureidah is enough to give one the idea of politics playing out similarly at the national stage in Sana'a. What created resentment from would-be rivals was not only the rehabilitation of the Attas under the British, on top of the historic dominance of the former in Hureidah, but also the unchecked power and high-handedness with which this was made possible.

However, by this time, other forces in the international arena and in wider West Asia region conspired to give the struggle an ideological, albeit secular, flavour: the rise of Arab nationalism led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. In a fascinating ethnography of the dynamics of the Yemeni revolution in Hureidah, a study which has yet to be surpassed, Bujra gives one an idea of the high stakes involved (Chapter 7). A possible future without the Attas in power led Abu Bakar to speak the language spoken by many bourgeois populists in West Asia later: Abu Bakar was trying to gain non-Attas support whilst at the same time keeping his own position of power. In this attempt Abu Bakar used the language of nationalism because it is now the prevailing idiom throughout the country and because the non-Attas justify their opposition to the Attas in this language (page 178).

Bujra's study of the stratification in Hureidah thus becomes an ethnographical study of the Yemeni revolution of September 1962, when the Imam was assassinated in Sana'a and the old pre-modern order buttressed by the al-Sauds in Arabia was thoroughly shaken. Try hard as Abu Bakar and his like might, the revolution led to the politicisation of the Akhdam, who saw it as a form of deliverance against the corruption and authoritarianism of the Saadah/Zaidi elite, in a sign of things to come in the Yemeni south as well.

The book thus remains a valuable guide to the conditions that led to a revolution not only in the north of Yemen but also, more relevantly, in the south of the country in 1967. It is difficult to understand Bujra's contention that the Hadrami system is obviously not a class system (page 190), especially in the light of events in Aden and Hadramaut in 1967.

Only a class society could have produced the contradictions leading to the National Liberation Front takeover in the south. Bujra's other contention that the argument of caste is not very relevant (page 191) also needs further concretisation because the behaviour of the Saadah, especially their rigid insistence on marrying their women solely to fellow Saadah, in many parts of the Muslim world, does resemble elements of the privileges accruing to Brahmins in the Hindu caste system, and to the Ashkenazi Jews in the Zionist enterprise in Israel.

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