Race and the legacy of slavery in Yemen

Magdalena Moorthy-Kloss

History and Anthropology
Vol 33/5
DOI: 10.1080/02757206.2023.2164927

In this article, I argue that racism in modern Yemen cannot be fully understood without considering the country’s long history of slavery. Focusing on two Black social groups known as Muhammashīn and ʿAbīd, I will show that contributions from historical slavery studies can deepen our understanding of their persistent marginalization. Sources from the medieval period prove that the association of blackness with slavery was already firmly established in the medieval period, largely due to a popular myth and the fact that most enslaved persons in medieval Yemen were of African origin. A love poem about a Black woman of slave ancestry will be analyzed in detail, as it reveals how racialized rhetoric was used to demarcate the borders of group identity, and how these borders nevertheless remained porous and contested. Finally, I offer a new interpretation of the status difference between the Muhammashīn and the ʿAbīd in contemporary Yemen, which has puzzled modern scholars.