Yemeni community in Ethiopia: A history of integration

By Mahmoud Assamiee

(Yemeni Times) — Yemeni-Ethiopian relations date back to ancient times. References such as wall inscriptions confirm that the kingdom of Saba extended throughout Yemen to Ethiopia, known at that time as the kingdom of Axum, which later ruled Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia) and the southern Arabian Peninsula.

The Axumite kingdom’s rule continued until Himyarite King Saif Bin Dhi Yazan drove the Axumites out of southern Arabia. However, despite this upheaval, some relations remained between the two kingdoms.

Because of the two civilizations’ integration over the years, intermarriage resulted in Yemeni and Ethiopian mixed blood.

Yemen and Ethiopia enjoyed extensive trade relations during medieval times. Yemeni merchants exported incense, luban (natural frankincense), gemstones and animal skins to Ethiopia, while Ethiopians exported clothing, farm equipment, weapons, spices and cattle to Yemen. Trade relations between Yemen and the African Horn at that time were stronger than those between Yemen and other Gulf countries.

In times of crisis, Yemen provided a safe haven for Ethiopian refugees and Ethiopia in turn accepted Yemeni immigrants during times of political upheaval.

Dr. Hussein Fouly, an Ethiopian researcher specializing in Yemeni-Ethiopian relations, noted at a lecture this past February in Sana’a that there is a rich but under-explored history between the two countries.

Because he had a difficult time obtaining information about Yemeni-Ethiopian relations, Fouly did his own research based on a few fragments of information and much personal effort.

He explained that Yemenis and Ethiopians intermixed for two main reasons: first, because of Yemenis’ ability to integrate and second, because of the Ethiopian civilization’s welcoming attitude toward foreigners in their land throughout the 20th century.

Yemenis became the largest Arab community in Ethiopia, boasting the most speakers of Ethiopian languages such as Amharic. Yemenis rooted themselves in the country during the 1920s by becoming shopkeepers, sweet sellers, launderers and butchers. Additionally, the Yemeni community founded Arab schools that graduated scholars like Sheikh Abdullah Taher, who later was appointed governor of Jijiga and eventually led a military coup in eastern Ethiopia in the 1930s.

Fouly also mentioned those Yemenis who had a role in spreading Islam in Ethiopia, like Abdulrahman Ba-Wazir, who financed building Addis Ababa’s oldest mosque, Al-Noor Mosque.

During Italy’s 1936 invasion of Ethiopia, the Italians brought in numerous Yemenis to work as builders. Yemenis became rich through trade during this time. One of them, Sheikh Hussein Al-Amoudi, was the first to bring the qat trade to Ethiopia.

Yemeni people’s departure from Ethiopia is attributable to two specific incidents, the first of which occurred in 1969 when a bomb was discovered on an Ethiopian plane, which had been placed there by Ethiopian liberation forces in Syria. Arab communities were blamed for the bomb, which led to a wave of anti-Arab sentiment.

The second incident was the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, which implemented a program of nationalization that seized private assets and companies, turning them into state-owned enterprises. Because of this, Yemenis were forced to exit the country, leaving their possessions to the Ethiopian regime.

Despite this, Yemeni immigrants who have returned from Ethiopia still have positive memories of the nation where they were treated as citizens.

Sana’a University history professor Abdullah Fadhl says the Yemeni community was forced out of Ethiopia in the 1970s for political reasons because they were spreading Islam among the Ethiopians against the wishes of the new regime.

However, these Yemeni-Ethiopian mixed peoples who returned to Yemen face discrimination, either because of their Arabic or their skin color, and locals of both countries treat them as outsiders. For example, Yemenis call them Ahbush, the plural of the Arabic word Habashi or Ethiopian, while they are called Arabco, or Arabs, in Ethiopia.

These mixed Yemeni-Ethiopians sometimes are denied identity cards because of their darker skin and imperfect Arabic, a matter that causes them many problems.

Because Yemen’s history is intertwined with that of Ethiopia’s, these so-called Yemeni-Ethiopian ‘newcomers’ actually aren’t new at all; rather, they share our lineage and they deserve to be recognized as such.