15 June, 2007

Hadhramout's Social Structure

Hadhramout's social structure is based on a tribal system. The tribes are classified into levels of nobility based upon genealogy and responsibility. Most tribes are ruled by a 'sheikh', who is considered an 'expert' in Islam and in relating to the outside world. His responsibilities include: administering justice, protecting the tribe, sustaining tribal status, and providing grazing territory for the herds. Their territory is staunchly defended, partly by monitoring all of the goods and persons that pass through it. Normally, when a 'sheikh' passes away - his son takes over.

Yemen's social structure is very much similar to that of Hadhramaut; but, Hadhramis take it much further. I do not know anywhere else, even in the Arab world, where people are so clearly classed as here in Hadhramaut. Most Hadhrami surnames start with Ba or Bin or Al; and it's mainly in that last name whereby a persons social status is defined. At the top of the Hadhrami society are the Sayyids who are also referred as Sharif's, for ladies Sayeddah or Sharifah. They are not rulers or tribal chiefs but are families in which special qualities of supernatural kind in nobility, and powers, the title has been given to them in honour of being the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). Due to mainly their being considered as descendants of The Prophet, people here - in Wadi Hadhramaut in particular - revere them and have given them special status and privileges; and as the Sayyids for centuries have monopolized knowledge, especially religious, this gives them even more respect and dignity. Sayyids are not 'shaikhs' nor do they have a 'sheikh' as their head, but elders. The power of the Sayyids is so strong, that in some mosques in Wady Hadhramout - during prayers, the Imams are only Sayyids and even the line of those praying immediately after the Imam are to be only Sayyids. It's also common for people to visit elderly Sayyids or tombs of venerated past Sayyids - to 'seek blessings'; some visit the Sayyids, for the 'blessings', when in some kind of trouble or when sick - believing that when 'blessed' by a Sayyid, their situation would improve.

*After the Sayyids are the 'Shaikhs' (not the tribal leader 'sheikhs') but a tribal group of people who, like the Sayyids - are considred to be more knowledgeable, especially in religion. Both the Sayyids and the 'Shaikhs' have dominated Hadhrami society with their sheer power over knowledge. After the two, comes the 'Gabails' or 'warrior' tribes, whose power comes almost wholly from their being considered as the bravest in warfare and their possessing the most armaments. It's the 'Gabails' who are headed by 'sheikhs' and it's they who have always fought each other - in the past - for supremacy. 'Gabails' too, are rarely interested in knowledge or education, believing more in the power of the gun. After the three comes the 'Masakins' or the 'poor' - not poor in material possessions but meaning 'poor' in knowledge and armaments; I, a Barsawad, falls in this category. Last are the 'Abids' or the 'slaves' who are descendants of former slaves, mainly African. Wherever Hadhramis are found - be it in Africa or Asia, this social structure is adhered to.

Even in marriage. For instance - Sayyid women can only be married to Sayyid males and never any one else - but their men can get married to females of any of the other classes; the 'Shaikh' males can get married to any women of their 'lower' classed Hadhramis and their own but never to Sayyid women. And the 'Gabail' males can marry any females from their own and the other 'lower' classes, but never to Sayyid females. But all this, now, is fast changing.

Before, the Marxist lead former Southern Yemen did forcefully try to eradicate all this social structure of classifying people; they pronounced all people as 'equal' with equal opportunities and privileges and it is mainly through that - that the Hadhrami society was changed. Most people became literate and most people, under communism, became economically, more or less the same. Still, it is interesting to note that - even with Marxism and communism - the top most political leaders from Hadhramout, even then, were Sayyids and the top most military commanders from Hadhramout were 'Gabails'. Then came Yemen's unity in 1990. And with that - rapid economic development. And this is now causing Hadhramout's social structure to even more rapidly disintegrate and to change, too. Fast.

Since I was just a small boy, I used to ask my late Dad about all this and why Hadhramis are so keen in this classification of people (their own) and why they firmly held on to it wherever they were. His answer, till his death, was always the same and he would always tell me: "Go after Knowledge. It's knowledge that is always supreme. And the greatest and best shield and weapon one can have, always, is the power of Words and the Pen. And: the greatest and best of men is that man who is honorable - who never lies, who never cheats, who is a good husband, parent and neighbor; and who is kind and considerate to children, the weak and the needy, and to animals." To his death, this would always be his answer; and he would always point out too - that, his father taught him the same. At times, he would say - "Look around. Don't you see that Barsawads believe in the power of Knowledge, Words and the Pen?" And that's a fact: very few as we are, wherever I go, I see and find Barsawads - both males and females - at the forefront of knowledge. Still, it will take a long time for Hadhramout's social structure to truly change.

*Footnote: traditionally, in the social structure, the 'Gabails' are considered to be next - after the 'Sayyids'. And the 'Shaikhs' come after the 'Gabails'. But when it comes to knowledge, the 'Shaikhs' are higher. I would like to point out too, that: here in Mukalla - it's the 'Shaikhs' who dominate the economy and businesses.

After writing this article, I spent some times with an elderly 'Gabail' friend of mine; I told him what I had wrote. He said: I got it all wrong and that it is the 'Gabails' who are the first in the social structure. According to him, it is the 'Gabails' who have always given protection and security to all the other groups, and that - the others can never have security without the 'Gabails'. He also pointed out that - how come the others never have a 'Sheikh' as a head except the 'Gabails'? I, in turn asked him - how come 'Gabail' men can never marry 'Sayyid' women and yet the 'Sayyid' men can and do marry women from all the other groups? Well, in the end we didn't reach an agreement except to both agree that we are all from God and are equal and the same. I know, we might have agreed but deep down, he an old - man would find it hard to ignore those old Hadhrami traditions.