Tribes and Tribalism: Yemini

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Yemeni tribes, rather than being mere vestiges of the past, are vital forces that continue to play determinant roles in the political, social, and cultural spheres.

Despite the tendency to characterize the highlands of Northern Yemen as "tribal" and southern Yemen as "peasant," tribes and tribalism are part of the cultural, social, and political landscape of nearly all regions of Yemen, even the Tihama coast and Wadi Hadramawt. For centuries, however, what has distinguished the northern highlands from the other regions of the country is the importance of the tribe as a unit of identification and action and the great extent to which tribes can be mobilized and organized into larger confederations when the interests of the tribe or tribal system are at stake. Although many residents of the southern uplands and the Hadramawt claim a tribal lineage, this often seems to be less important as a basis of personal identity than does place of origina village, valley, or regionor some other attribute. By contrast, many men of the highlands define themselves primarily in terms of their tribes, and many of these northern highland tribes with their present names were in existence at least a thousand years ago.

The majority of tribesmen in most parts of Yemen are sedentary farmers who grow sorghum, but the sparsely populated arid land on the edge of the Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter) and the Ramlat al-Sabatayn is home to nomadic tribes principally engaged in animal husbandry. These bedouin populations have declined in recent years, in part because they were forced to give up their traditional roles as guardians and pillagers of the old trade routes, and now constitute a tiny portion of the total population of unified Yemen.

robert d. burrowes