Why Are Yemenis Killing Their Names?

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

A short while ago, I ordered an item to be delivered to my residence, but I did not have a credit card. I contacted a friend to receive it on my behalf, but I faced problems upon receipt of the order because the company informed me that the name I had given was not the same as the name on my friend’s ID. After many calls and a lot of frustration, I found out that the surname that I had known my friend by was not only different from the one written in her official documents, but it was a name from an area that is currently on the side fighting against her governorate in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. My friend did not need to explain any further as the tampering with Yemeni names has been widespread for a long time. As was common, the family name had been changed to protect the family from a crackdown after her father escaped from one governorate to another, then out of Yemen, escaping with his life four decades ago. Despite the relative triviality of this incident – discovering that my friend’s family was using a fake family name – it is another small detail of Yemeni conflicts, old and new, that brings up an important question that Yemenis are asking today: why did the hiding and changing of names become a widespread practice?

The body of war, the shadow of the state

To talk about the role of tribes in Yemen is a very long conversation, one that many people might never reach the conclusion of, and most one dimensional sociological and political studies that are couldn’t haveprovided a neutral information piece that addresses the role of tribes in Yemen over the vast geographic areas that they are in, throughout the long and troubled history.

However, a matter that cannot be overlooked in this regard, is that seeking shelter with the tribes, fleeing the tribe, has always been a Yemeni characteristic, especially because of a fragile state that could never stand for long in the face of the changing balances, greed, conflicts, and historical and geographical considerations.

Tribes have had great influence in mobilizing fighters and dictating agreements, while regular Yemeni citizens were responsible for protecting themselves from ferocious changes and ‘indiscriminate strikes’. The regular Yemeni citizen must find ways to survive the victors of these conflicts who take control or the calamity of those defeated, and there have been many different kinds of ways to survive. The easiest one, however, seems to have been to change a part of oneself, a name, a family name, or the name of a certain grandfather, by adding, subtracting, or amending it in some way. During times of war, this meant escaping death; during times of peace, this could mean a certain position or gain in the new authorities.

Nevertheless, we are not here to analyze the role of tribes and their relationships with the state, but to address a phenomenon that has come about as a result of this relationship that links individuals, tribes, and the state.

The political conflicts in Yemen have not only affected the physical existence of Yemeni civilians, they have also affected their symbolic existence: their names and family names. For them to survive, a part of them has to die – and is there a worse death than leaving behind a part of yourself?

Abdulbari Taher, an intellectual, says: “There is no single reason for the phenomenon of concealing names in Yemen. There are a number of reasons, including, for example, trying to escape from vendettas and revenge. This is what happened to one of the executioners of Imam Ahmad bin Hamid al-Din, whose family concealed their names out of fear of being persecuted. There are also dozens of Hashemite families who changed their names out of fear of revenge with the increasing hatred against them at the time. There are also reasons for this change related to moving from rural areas to cities, and the political and economic changes that result from this move. Like I said, there are a number of reasons, but big events, like revolutions and wars, remain the biggest causes.”

A political researcher, Maysaa Shujaa al-Din, says: “People in Yemen still assess each other based on their origins, and this is something that most modern societies have overcome. Describing someone as being from a great lineage, or being from a good family, is still important in the Yemeni social consciousness. This is something that has been going on for a long time, and it is complicated. I actually do not think that it is a negative thing, because, through the family name, you can learn a lot about people. In the end, differentiation based on families or origins is very old, and it has many different contexts.”

Artwork by Sara Othman

Muhammad Abdulwahab al-Shaybani, a writer and poet, says: “Yemeni society is still governed by the relationships from before the formalized state and citizenship, I mean the various traditional relationships (tribalism, and clan-based or Bedouin relationships) that have reenacts their tools on a clear regional or class basis in the successive waves of conflict in an unstable country. For this reason, it is no wonder that a lot of the people are entrenched behind their identities, including their family names. These identities provide, for individuals and groups, different kinds of social and political protection. On the other hand, other people hide their names and affiliations so that they are not harmed by them in times of score-settling and bloodshed. There are also a third kind of people who make these changes, and they are the ones who try to gain a new affiliation for their families in order to benefit, which they would not have been able to do if they had not made this change.”

This opinion is supported by Dr. Adel al-Sharjabi, a sociology professor at Sana’a University, who says: “The phenomenon of changing names is an old practice in Yemen. It happened during the time of the Imamate, when the Turks withdrew from Yemen, and it also happened during the period after the 1994 war between the north and the south. It shows that we are still living in a traditional society, where individuals are assessed on a personal basis, and their social status is determined based on their familial or traditional affiliations.” Dr. al-Sharjabi adds: “There are whole areas where concealing family names has become widespread, like Tehama, Ibb, and Taiz, because there is a large number of intellectuals and political activists in these areas. These individuals were active in secret political parties, and they would hide their family names so that no one would know the area that they were from. We would use our three names (first name, father’s name, and grandfather’s name), without using the last name, like Muhammad Abdoh Saleh, or Farea Muhammad.”

Escaping from the burdens of the social ladder

Yemeni society adheres to class divisions, from the top down. This is an old system of division that was established in north Yemen by force during the reign of the imam. The republican state was not able to end this system, despite its constitution stating that it came to “remove the differences and gaps between classes”.

While at the top of this social ladder there are the Hashemites and the Hashid and Bakil tribal federations in the northernmost areas, at the bottom, before the akhdam or the muhamasheen class, there are whole professions, like butchers, smiths, and barbers, and they are called mazaynah. The issue is even more complicated as different areas of Yemen do not agree on the status of these professions. For example, being a smith in Saadah is not considered to be a lowly profession, while the people of Hadramawt do not agree. If we add to this the fact that Yemen has been in the midst of war for half a century, we might well imagine what life in Yemen does to its people.

Some of the people who are described as ‘mazaynah’ have purposely concealed their family names, or have taken up the last name of a well-known Yemeni family, so that their affiliation with this family is not questioned. They use kunyas (teknonyms) even in the names of their businesses. “From here, some of the families who are in the ‘mazaynah’ class, like butchers and barbers, name their shops using kunyas, and not their actual names. This is why there are shops with names like Abu Ahmad, Abu Sami, Abu Nizar, etc.” explains Dr. al-Sharjabi.

Muhammad al-Shaybani believes that the division of society into classes is linked to the distorted cultural awareness. “Barbers, butchers, cuppers (those who perform cupping therapy), vegetable farmers, and coffee sellers are considered by these people (meaning the people who believe in the importance of these class divisions) as having been created to carry out these jobs. These are jobs that ‘the sayyids’, or masters, would never do, and this is why many of the people who are working in these kinds of professions would hide their names and leave these professions to avoid the contempt against their children in schools and in the streets.”

There were also many people who lived during revolutions or, seeking to help modernize their society, got rid of their last names, which linked them to their tribes and the areas they were from as a reflection of their support for the civil state they desired. This theory is supported by Taher and al-Shaybani.

It is also worth mentioning that seeking protection might also mean moving down the social ladder, especially in cases of vendettas. There have been tribesmen who have escaped death in a vendetta by starting to work in professions that are looked down upon, and their opponents believe that they are too good to take revenge against a person who is lower than they are on the social ladder.

Artwork by Sara Othman

Getting closer to new authorities

After each military conflict in Yemen, name changes comes top of a long list of social changes that affect specific areas or specific social groups. This happens so that they can enjoy the benefits that are provided by a victory, which is usually temporary. The fact that a large number of Yemenis do not have birth certificates, especially in the northern half of Yemen, has made it easy for people to change their names, take on other names, or merge their names, alongside widespread bribery.

Dr. al-Sharjabi mentions the phenomenon that took place after the 1994 war, when some university professors changed their names and added last names that were from areas in the northernmost parts of the country to benefit from the military victory at the time. He talked about the phenomenon of ‘tampering’ with names, saying that it “differed from one historical period to another, and that it depended on the ruling class that was in power. Hashemites tried, after the September Revolution, to protect themselves by changing their family names. In the 1980s, the people of Taiz and Ibb tried to conceal their names, or their family names, and there are even some families who changed the way that their last names are pronounced so that they are not considered to have certain traditional affiliations. During this ongoing war, there are people who have used old last names that they had not used before, or people have announced themselves as belonging to one area, even though they are living in other areas. People do this either to protect themselves or to benefit from the situation. There are some families in one of the central governorates in Yemen who bought Hashemite last names, which were granted to them with official certificates, from the Imamate!”

The political researcher Maysaa Shuja al-Deen says: “The fact that the parties to the Yemeni conflict do not have political projects is what is fueling the issue of identity. If we look at the Houthis, for example, what is their political project? Nothing. Therefore, they are fueling the conflict based on the Hashemite identity. The same thing applies to the side that says that it opposes the Houthis and supports the republican system. This side also does not have a political or economic project, and therefore it does not manage its battle in a way that is different from the Houthis, so they rely on the idea that the conflict is because the Hashemites have taken power from Yemenis and that they have been in power for a thousand years. They are only increasing hateful rhetoric. In general, there has been an escalating identity crisis since the 1986 war in the south, and it is going on today. The political conflict, by its nature, intersects with the social and regional dimensions of the conflict.”

Al-Shaybani notes: “After the September 1962 Revolution, many members of the Hashemite families hid their family names out of fear of being punished or oppressed. Someone, for example, who was distantly related to the Hamid al-Din family would shorten their name to Hamid, or people would use Sharaf instead of Sharaf al-Din, and so on. With the Houthi phenomenon, however, some people have begun to show their lineage and last names, and they are racing to be affiliated with them, because these same names now give them social and political benefits under this authority, which is increasing this phenomenon. I know many people who, for many years, have had very common and run of the mill names, and now, after the Houthis took control of the state in northern Yemen, they are affiliated with large Hashemite families, like al-Mahdi, al-Mutawakil, and al-Shami. They did this so that they can gain some benefits, the least of which is to fit in with this new power.”

He adds: “After the events in January in the south of Yemen, many of the people from the Abyan and Shabwa governorates, for example, had to hide their identities so that they would not be harassed by the victors of that conflict. But, after the disaster of the south in 1994, their names became a source of power and authority for them in the areas that were brought under the control of the war coalition. Before that, the sons and relatives of the sultans and sheikhs hid their names so that they could adapt to the new situation imposed by the revolution, but after the north–south unification, they returned and demanded the return of power and wealth that had been nationalized by the government, relying on their last names and affiliations to do so.”

Three deaths in a single life

While writing on this issue, I talked with many Yemenis, but the story that affected me the most was from a man who was almost 80 years old. He asked for anonymity, saying that he changed his name three times, once for social reasons, once for political reasons, and once for religious reasons. For the first occasion, he concealed his non-Arabic name so that he could adapt to the rise of Arab nationalism; on the second occasion, he added a last name to his official identification documents that is from one of the central governorates in Yemen, so that he could escape being killed and so that his family could leave south Yemen, which was under the rule of the Socialist Party. He did this so that he could go to north Yemen, and from there to a neighboring country. He did not mention the third change for personal reasons. This man has been subject to many embarrassing, painful, dangerous, and humiliating situations, but he says that he no longer feels the pain of these three events, because his survival, and the survival of his family, is worth more than anything else.

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Huda Jafar

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