The Sweepers: Fighting Centuries Old Isolation
Part 1 of 2
Sweepers or “Akhdam” as they are known used to live the lowest social level of life since the past 900 years in Yemen.
In the past they were oppressed. Today also they are oppressed but to a lesser degree. Today’s Akhdam are quite different in many ways.
In the past their entire conditions were tragic and heartbreaking. Today their conditions are better.
In the past the way they were treated contradicted with the teachings of Islam and even the human principles which call for human rights, preservation of freedom and dignity of human beings. Today these contradictions have reduced and their rights are preserved; at least as human beings and as Yemeni citizens enjoying their full civilian and political rights.
Have we preserved the rights of today’s rebel youth sweeper who wants to affect changes in his life. We always allege and keep calling for rights . But have we given any attention to the revolution of youth sweepers? We keep calling for peace, affection and unity in between us. Do these include sweepers?
What made the society in the past deny their rights? Do we still deny their rights today?
In the 21 provinces of present day Yemen, the conditions of akhdam differ from one province to another. If countrymen have moved to the capitals of each province in search of livelihood, this included the akhdam. Then we saw that Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeidah, Aden and Mukalla (Hadhramaut) became overpopulated due to the exodus. In other words, out of the 21 provinces only four to five provinces today bear the burden of overpopulation, including the akhdam.
For instance now in Sana’a they have five main and permanent ‘settlements’, (one in Bab-al-Yemen, another in Bab-al-Sabah, third in 45km Road, fourth in Sha’oub and fifth at Al-Mahareq in Asser area). In Taiz they have five (One in Oosaifra, another in Al-Shammasi suburb, third in Mafraq Maweeya, fourth in Al-Haseb and the fifth in Al-Janad). In Aden they have six: (one in Tawahi, two in Maalla, one in Crater, one in Mimdara and one in Little Aden). They also have their permanent settlements in Hodeidah at Al-Barhameiya, Labor City (Madinat Al-Ommal), Al-Baida, Al-Salkhana and other places. In Hadhramaut they could be seen at 14th October Zone of Al-Mukalla. In Shabwa their main settlement is in Al-Gol area.
Do all provinces with their capitals, districts, remote areas and ‘uzlas’ (hinterlands) need the akhdam to carry out for them the essential services connected with sanitation? In some areas people have their own way of life. Their latrines are open-air but ‘hidden’. Farmers use their fields. In coastal areas too citizens have their own way of disposing off their waste. Such being the case, we do not find any trace of akhdam in such areas.
However, akhdam have two genuine reasons for their exodus. First is that they detest the old professions of their forefathers, grand fathers and fathers who were engaged in very low ranking jobs. (Cleaning of latrines, removing blockages from drainages etc.) The second is that development has almost obliterated old system of sanitary. Sewerage system here and there has subsequently forced the new generation to find another source of living. However, a third reason for exodus could be attributed to the ‘swollen’ population of sweepers with difficulties of accommodation and livelihood.
Even the European and Arab as well as other states, cannot dispense with the services of sweepers, no matter their historical background and no matter how people there look at their sweepers. Our topic concerns sweepers of Yemen only.
In Arabic language, “Akhdam” is the plural of sweepers. The singular is “khadem”. The verb is “khadama” (serve). In the past Akhdam usually served their “Asyad” – masters. (The singular is “Syeid”). “Asyad” considered themselves higher in social rank. Today, hardly 5-10% of akhdam come under the mercy of their “asyad” but normally, today, they are independent. The importance of their presence and their cleansing works could be judged by putting a question to ourselves: “What would happen if akhdam go on strike?” In some cases we have reasons to believe that akhdams were able to dictate their conditions of service; their jobs being of different nature.
Until recently this off shoot of lowest class of sweepers have become extinct. Living in one area, the regime through the ruling machinery which included the municipalities, would divide them into groups. In the past they used to appear late hours at night going from house to house cleaning the “zawali” (latrines). They used to be seen carrying their tin canisters on their head with a bent iron strip used for collecting wastes from unpopulated areas where ‘homeless’ used to go for toilet. These jabartis are not seen in many areas as most of them are believed to have immigrated.
In The Service of The Imam
In Sana’a, before the 1962 Revolution, sweepers were housed in a place still known as “Samsra”, situated at Bab-ul-Sabah Gate. They are still there. The Imam could not deny their services; but would not tolerate their being homeless as they used to defy that time’s dusk-to-dawn “Sukat” (daily curfew); thus they were housed at “Samsra” which was a one-time shopping mall. The mall’s glamour was gradually drained into a permanent resident for 5-10 sweepers families.
Oosaifra & Shammasi
In Greater Taiz, sweepers lived in Upper and Lower Oosaifra. Sweepers of these two areas took active part in the arsons and riots which took place in December 1992 violent demonstrations in protest of the first price hike after Unification. After the conditions came to normal, the affected ‘capitalists’ avenged by arranging torching sweepers areas. As a result Upper Oosaifra was immediately vacated and sweepers moved to a new ‘colony’ in Al-Shammasi suburb. Lower Oosaifra still has few of these sweepers while Upper Oosaifra witnessed construction works in favor of the ‘capitalists’.
Situated in between Al-Sab’een Hospital area and Taiz Road, this area is famous for its “Saeela” – water passage -, where rain waters block traffic always. The area is hardly ten years old with a population of 3014. It shelters sweepers and citizens who have built hollow-bricked small houses. The land on which these houses have been built have two different stories. Some people say that the owners are Yemeni immigrants who are out of Yemen at present. Others say that during the 1997 parliamentary elections the General People’s Congress, as a part of election campaign, ‘presented’ the land, said to be State estate, to the residents and allowed them build their residences. Therefore most residents here are sweeper GPC members. We do not know the real story but should the real owners reappear, problems will crop up. Of course, this will result in the demolition of sweepers’ temporary abode.
When the area ‘aakel’ was asked what would he do in case real owners of this land appear, he said: “We shall either buy these lands from them or pay them rental.”
They do not possess weapons and they do not carry “gambias”. Whenever humiliated, they succumb to their oppressors.
Studies differ in defining their origin. Some relate them as Ethiopians who arrived into Yemen during the sixth century following the Ethiopian invasion of Yemen.
One unconfirmed account claims that after the end of the Ethiopian rule, the remnants who could not flee Yemen remained trapped. They were turned into slaves and were forced to perform low-rank jobs which included cleaning of latrines and doing all works connected with sanitation. The account claims Yemenis avenged a one-time ruler. This makes us inquire: was not there any sweeper in Yemen before the Ethiopian invasion? Were Yemeni sweepers relieved of their job? Where did they go? Did they mingle in the Yemeni society? Did they migrate?
Perhaps their complexions assist in this assessment as they have, in most, African characteristics in as far as the color of their skin, snub nose and tough, short curly hairs are concerned.
Dr. Qayed Al-Sharjabi, in his research stated that they were outcast in Ethiopia itself. On arrival in Yemen they did not change.
Aged sweepers deny any relations with Ethiopia. They claim to be sons of Yemen. A Sinan Muhammed Omer Al-Wasabi confirmed that his grand father hailed from Wisab Al-Aali in Dhamar Province. When asked about his great grand father he said: “I do not know where from he came.”
In Yemen, Western Tihama Coast is considered to be their homeland. They do not have lands of their own. They prefer to live in deserts and abandoned areas.
They always lived in groups and formed their own ‘settlements’. As time changed their ‘settlements’ continue to exist with their locations changed but their old time tents, shack, huts or mud-straw-mixed houses have now been replaced by mud or stone-made houses. They usually live ‘sandwiched’ in their small houses.
The problem of small houses should be a separate subject as it concerns the Yemeni people as a whole. However, in sweepers life, small houses, congested with family members, have created immodesty.
Sweepers believe in Islam. Its teaching is that human beings are equal; but despite this we see the Muslim community today looks down at sweepers without any genuine reason. They harbor pent up antagonism against sweepers. They do not mention them in their discussions and never talk about their rights and duties. Haunted by discrimination, sweepers, in the past, used to perform their 5-time prayers at their homes . Few who cared to keep themselves clean, did attend mosques for prayers. Today we can see them in all mosques. Sweepers never felt the need to build their own mosques as if telling people that prayers never differentiate between the high and low rank people. It is not a surprise to find that at a certain mosque in Alhujarriyah-Al Zarraiqah area, the Imam of a mosque there is a khadem. In the past there were no preachers who, through their sermons, could draw the attention of people to avoid detesting akhdam but today, international, regional and local laws have tackled such a detest under human rights and other conventions. Akhdam did not even have learned-men or any representation in the State bodies (viz. parliament etc.) to advocate their case and demand justice in the face of discrimination.. They are ignorant of most important affairs of Islam. They are excluded from “Da’wa” (The Call).
Akhdam do not belong to any tribe of Yemen. Within their own society they have their own ‘grades’. In each of their settlements they have their own ‘aakel’ (aged learned man) who settles their disputes.
The fact is that one by one they start gathering in certain area. Then they marry inbetween them to form families. If one family comes from Aden, the second could be from Shabwah and the third from Hodeidah. It is the joint and common need – employment – which makes them assemble in one area. Actually they never belong to the area where they establish their settlement. As the number of families increase, they have their ‘aakel’ to look after their affairs.
In Wisab Al-Aali (Dhamar) sweepers’ settlement area stretched from one end to the other of this considerably large district. The number of ‘uqqals (plural of ‘aakel’) is around 12-15. In between them, these ‘uqqals’ have elected a Shaikh. His name is Qaed Muhammed Al-Kaboudi who does spend 2-3 months in Sana’a settling all pending issues of his fellow-clan-men. We do not know to which extent the official circles recognize his ‘sheikhdom’ but he is really a strong man with authority. His services are always needed during elections.
All police stations throughout the Republic have their own special ways and means to solve sweepers’ ‘special natured’ disputes such as bad language, daily scuffles and adultery etc.
Until recently sweepers used to be distinguished through their Tihama accent and phonation. Those who left Tihama area long ago, those who got merged in the society of different provinces and those at schools could not be distinguished easily now as their accent and phonation have changed.
To be continued next week..