Hadhramaut and Its Diaspora: Yemeni Politics, Identity and Migration

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By: Noel Brehony, Editor

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

London and New York: I. B. Taurus & Co. Ltd., 2017. 320 pp. $99.00. ISBN: 9781784538682

Volume: 5 Issue: 7

July 2017

Review by:

Calvin H. Allen, Jr. Ph.D

Shenandoah University

Winchester, VA

Noel Brehony, a retired British diplomat and author on Yemeni affairs, has joined with eleven other specialists to present an examination of the Hadramaut, Yemen’s eastern province, and its many emigres dispersed throughout the Indian Ocean basin. The collection of articles seeks nothing more than to “illuminate many aspects of Hadhramaut, Yemen and the diaspora” while showing that research “is still comparatively underdeveloped” (p. 14), and has in common with much of the literature on the Hadhramaut foci on the Hadhrami diaspora and the traditional social stratification that divides Hadhrami society among the sada (s. sayyid, i.e. religious elites claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad), mashayikh and qaba’il (tribal elites and tribemen), and the masakin (common people). However, two common themes, the close relationship between the Hadhrami homeland and the diaspora and an effort to establish a theoretical basis for the examination of Hadhramaut and its diaspora, distinguish the volume.

The book is divided into three sections, covering Hadhramis in Yemen, Hadhramis in the Diaspora, and Research Issues. The introduction by Editor Brehony and Abdalla Burja, Director of the Institute for Cultural Heritage at the Muslim University of Morogoro (Tanzania) and a leading scholar on Hadhramaut, provides general historical background.  Brehony and retired Yemeni politician Saadaldeen Talib then turn to the limited role, with a few noted individual exceptions, that Hadhramis have played in Yemeni politics, economics, and culture since 1960. Yemen specialist Thanos Petouris analyses Hadhrami identity, arguing that Hadhrami “exceptionalism” grew from tribal and territorial attachments to a sense of nationalism under the influence of anti-colonial and nationalist movements in Yemen and the diaspora. Helen Lackner, an expert on rural development in Yemen, concludes this section with an analysis of the land redistribution enacted under the South Yemeni government and subsequently undone after unification in 1990, which served to exacerbate the traditional social divisions mentioned above.

The six articles on the Hadhrami diaspora begin with Professor Nico Kapstien’s, Leiden University and a specialist on Indonesia, examination of the Indonesian Hadhrami Sayyid Uthman bin Abdallah al-Alawi (1822-1914) and his Atlas Arabi, a collection of three maps (world, Arabian Peninsula, Hadhramaut) and a stylized representation of a Hadhrami village, that drew the attention and admiration of both Hadhramis and Dutch scholars and colonial officials. Kazuhiro Arai, Keio University in Japan, continues the focus on Indonesia with a study of the expanded contacts between Hadhramaut and Indonesia since the unification of Yemen in 1990. Professor William Clarence-Smith, University of London and a widely-published specialist on the Hadhrami diaspora, analyses Hadhrami activities in the economic, political, and religious life of Spanish and American colonial Philippines. James Spencer, a consultant on the prevention of and recovery from conflict, discusses Hadhramis as foreign mercenaries throughout the Indian Ocean. Iain Walker, a Senior Researcher at the Max Plank Institute in Halle, Germany, examines the issue of identity as expressed in citizenship among Hadhrami residents of Kenya. Philippe Petriat, Sorbonne, examines non-Sayyid Hadhrami merchants in Jeddah and their development of commercial networks that went beyond intra-Diaspora linkages.

The final section comprises two articles. Professor Leif Manger, Bergen (Norway), discusses research problems derived from his own work on Hadhramaut and the Hadhrami diaspora, identifying the conceptual challenges associated with the terms diaspora, globalization, and agency. Burja concludes the book with a call for more research on the history of Hadhramaut, itself; more in depth analysis of the causes of migration, the choices of destination, and integration into those destinations; the impact of emigration on Hadhramaut; and Hadhrami relations with the rest of Yemen.

As observed in both the introduction and conclusion of the book, the scant literature on Hadhramaut has largely focused on the Hadhrami diaspora, a fact due in large part to the region’s isolation and only exacerbated by Yemen’s current chaotic political situation. While some effort is made to address that deficiency with the three articles focusing on internal conditions in Hadhramaut, the overwhelming majority of the articles in this collection focus on the wide-spread Hadhrami expatriate community. However, a distinguishing factor of these writings in the conscious efforts to link the diaspora with the homeland. For example, in describing the Atlas Arabi, Kapstein observes that, “Through its maps, travel to and within Hadhramaut was facilitated” (p. 96). Spencer observes that throughout the long history of Hadhrami mercenaries abroad, it was not uncommon for those identified as Hadhrami to have originated from elsewhere in South Arabia and to have used their newfound status to “break back into Hadhramaut” (p. 159). More recently, Walker documents the transnational identity of Hadhrami-Kenyans who hold dual nationality and sometimes even claim a kind of tri-nationality with papers from the old Hadhrami Sultanates. Even in the chaos of modern Yemen, strong ties continue to exist between Hadhramaut and Indonesia as documented by Arai.

The second main theme is the effort to establish a theoretical basis for an examination of Hadhramaut and its diaspora. These are not case studies written by narrowly focused specialists on the Hadhramaut. Instead, the various authors bring wide-ranging theoretical and territorial perspectives to their work and present their studies within that broader context. For example, Walker’s discussion of Hadhrami-Kenyans draws on the much broader question of identity while Petriat’s article on Hadhrami merchants in Jeddah draws on broader theoretical discussions of diaspora and network analysis, a discussion reinforced by Manger, most specifically in his analysis of the concepts of diaspora and agency.

Given the paucity of publications on the Hadhramaut, almost any new work is a welcome addition to the literature. However, Hadhramaut and Its Diaspora stands out by expanding our knowledge of the recent history of Hadhramaut, if only briefly, and focusing on the linkages between the Hadhrami homeland and the diaspora within a much more rigorous theoretical framework.

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