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The Middle East’s poorest state, Yemen is a country in turmoil. While most of its neighbors have grown obscenely rich, fueled by giant oil deposits underneath their soils, Yemen has been forced to watch from the sideline as its own economy has grown increasingly stagnant. Decades of endemic corruption, dwindling resources, and a tyrannical government have left the country only a shell of its former self –with more than 45% of the population now living below the poverty line.

With its plethora of problems, Yemen’s future is unclear. There is little to suggest whether the country will be able to pull itself together after its recent revolution, quell rebellion in the South, or silence al-Qaeda. What is clear, though, is that while Yemen’s government grapples with the many problems on its plate, other issues such as human rights are being laid by the wayside. The consequence of this may come back to haunt
the country in the future.

“Al Akhdam”, meaning “The Servant” in Arabic, is a term in Yemen reserved for the lowest of the low. You can usually see these people, mostly consisting of Yemen’s darker skinned population, in the small alleyways of Sana’a, dutifully sweeping the streets of the day’s rubbish. Considered dirty and lazy, the Akhdam have held such jobs for as long as most can remember. Here they make up what would essentially be the equivalent of the untouchable caste in India. Ostracized by the general population in Yemen, they are forced to live and work in the shadows of one of the world’s oldest cities.

Yemeni flags fly over Tahrir Square in the country’s capital, Sana’a.

With the resignation of its dictator of the past thirty years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Arab Spring of 2011 brought high hopes to many in the country. Unfortunately, such optimism was short lived once it was realized that although Saleh was gone, his regime retained power. The result has been not just a failure on the government’s part to change, but also the creation of a power vacuum as players from both the military and government fight for influence in the new government.

A view of Sana’a from inside the capital’s old city during the evening prayer.

Sana’a is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, having been founded over two millennia ago. Today it is home to almost two million people as well as Yemen’s government, who chose the city as their new capital in 1948.

Sitting at the top of a hill on an uninhabited plot of land in central Sana’a, a member of the nearby Muhamasheen community chews qat in the early evening hours.

The Muhamasheen are among Yemen’s poorest and most marginalized people. Although the country’s caste system was mostly disbanded when Yemen gained independence in 1962, the Muhamasheen’s caste was not. Today the group work mostly as street cleaners in Sana’a and live in slums on the edge of the city.

At a hairdressing salon next door to one of the Muhamasheen communities in central Sana’a, a member of the community gets his face whitened and his hair cut.

Although not true for all the Muhamasheen, one of the caste’s distinguishing features is their dark skin. This has resulted in many having become painfully self-conscious and has even caused some to go to great efforts, both physically and financially, to hide this fact. One popular remedy is to use bleaching creams to try and lighten the skin.

Nadeen sits in her brother’s living room, in the home where she lives with her brothers and their families.

Nadeen is one of a few number of Muhamasheen who has been successful in raising herself out of the caste into which she was born. Nadeen used to be a cleaner on the streets of Sana’a, however after growing tired of people looking down on her, made the decision to better her life. After having gone back to school part time, Nadeen eventually earned herself a medical degree and now works as a doctor in one of the city’s hospitals.

Abdullah, a member of the Muhamasheen, sits in the house he shares with his brother’s family and several other relatives.

Abdullah has worked as a street cleaner in Sana’a for the last eight years. Street cleaners in Yemen earn roughly 25,000 Yemeni Riyals (US$125) a month, a sum not even large enough to pay for most families’ rent. As a result, Abdullah is forced to share his home with a brother and several other relatives. Although civil servants in Yemen are supposed to be granted contracts after six months, street cleaners have been exempt from this rule. One consequence of this is that Abdullah’s salary has not changed in six years.

A group of Muhamasheen boys play football against another team in Sanaa’s Tahrir Square.

Tahrir Square has gained iconic status in Yemen since becoming the centerpiece for many of the country’s protests during the 2011 Arab Spring. Today the square is mostly occupied by tribesman loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Most Muhamasheen have little support for Yemen’s former president, though they do not let this get in the way of a good game of football.

Ramsey, a mentally disabled twelve year old, is washed with the help of a cousin and his mother.

Poverty, combined with dirty working conditions and a lack of access to basic healthcare facilities, means that healthcare for the Muhamasheen is well below that of the national average. Ramsey, who suffers from a mental condition, is just one of those affected by
poor access to adequate health care. Due to a lack of any external help, Ramsey’s family is forced to chain him up outside the house each day as they go off to work.

A group of children sit around their teacher, Mohammed, as he teaches them various lessons in addition to those they learn in school.

With almost 80% of the Muhamasheen illiterate, education is one of the group’s largest obstacles in being able to integrate further into society. While most Muhamasheen children in Sana’a do attend school, discrimination within the education system still occurs. As a result, some communities have taken it upon themselves to educate their children further at home.

A group of young girls sit together in a small group around a lamp during one of Sanaa’s frequent power cuts.

Generally speaking, most women in Yemen are afforded fewer rights than their male counterparts. This is particularly true of Yemen’s marginalized women, who experience a much higher rate of physical abuse than the national average.

Two men have a conversation on the edge of Sanaa’s old city.

Due to its strong Islamic culture and a somewhat tumultuous political system, which has kept foreigners out of the country, little has changed for decades in Yemen. While this may have protected Yemen from many destructive foreign influences, it has also meant that there has been relatively little foreign pressure on the government to try and influence public attitude toward the country’s minorities.

Yasser is a street cleaner in Bab al-Yemen, one of Sanaa’s busiest shopping areas.

Many of the Muhamasheen begin working at a very young age in order to support their families. While child labor is officially illegal in the country, a deteriorating economy has meant that almost 20% of children in Yemen now hold some kind of job.

Men walk past political posters advertising Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi, Yemen’s new president who replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh after he was forced to step down from power after thirty years in office.

After having experienced a revolution of sorts during the Arab Spring of 2011, Yemen’s government promised the country’s first free elections in almost thirty years. Not due to be held until 2014, however, the path towards true democracy has by no means been secured yet and will likely be rocky.

In a quieter alley in Sanaa’s old city, two young boys sweep up dust and refuse that have accumulated over the course of the day.

Being high up on a mountain plateau, in an environment with little vegetation, Sana’a is often covered with a cloud of dust. When this settles it is essential that it be swept up on a regular basis so that it does not accumulate to an unmanageable degree.

Solomon rests on the steps of a mosque in the old city of Sana’a, after a night of sweeping up other people’s rubbish.

Each sweeper, or team of sweepers, is assigned a certain area of the city to sweep. Each night it is their responsibility to make sure they clean their area of all rubbish and dust.

Taking a break after sweeping the streets, a sweeper in Bab al-Yemen has a smoke and chews some qat before heading out to sweep the streets again.

Most sweeper’s monthly salary is 25,000 Yemeni Riyals (US$125). Often a substantial portion of this is spent on qat, though, meaning that there is little left over at the end of the day to pay rent, buy food, and take care of their families.

At twelve o’clock each night a team of sweepers descend on Bab al-Yemen, one of the old city’s main squares, in order to sweep up the refuse left there by the hundreds of street vendors.

The disposal of waste in Sana’a is a constant battle. Rather than throw rubbish into bins, most simply throw theirs on the ground for the Muhamasheen to sweep up each night. Poor working conditions and low pay, however, have recently resulted in several strikes by the street cleaners. This has caused rubbish to pile up on the streets for weeks at a time.

Three young boys sit in a small group during a power outage in Sana’a, as they listen to a story told to them by their teacher Mohammed.

One common criticism often raised against the Muhamasheen is that the group has done little to help themselves and have simply accepted their lot in life. In order to try and prevent the internalization of their status, some communities are now trying to teach their children that this no longer has to be the case.