The full moon over Mecca marked the end of the holy month of pilgrimage. Ten thousand miles away in California, a Yemeni work crew gathered around a pickup truck with its precious cargo of sheep destined for sacrifice. A group of cowboys looked on, bewildered. These farmworkers are part of a two-decade old migration of tens of thousands of workers from Yemen to oil-rich Persian Gulf countries and, in smaller numbers, to Europe and the United States.
Over the past decade, MERIP has examined and documented the migration of Middle Eastern workers in six special issues. We are now proud to present Sojourners and Settlers, a unique collaboration of artists, scholars and the workers themselves. This selection from the travelling photographic exhibit Sojourners explores both the ordinary circumstances and the special moments in the lives of the Yemeni migrants to the United States.
This special issue has three integral components. First is the photographs by Nikki Keddie, Ron Kelley, Tony Maine, Milton Rogovin, Jon Swanson, and migrant workers on their visits home. The incredibly vibrant colors of Keddie’s portraits of women in the emigrant towns and Swanson’s rich visuals depicting village and street scenes are reason enough to seek out the exhibit as it tours the US. The workers’ snapshots provide candid glimpses of family and habitat at a time of rapid changes, while Milton Rogovin’s masterful prints attest to the perseverance of Yemeni cultural identity in Buffalo’s multiracial First Ward. Tony Maine’ lens captured important aspects of American work culture in two Detroit neighborhoods, the largest concentration of Arabs and Arab-Americans in North America. Ron Kelley’s dedicated documentation of the Yemeni farmworker experience has produced a collective portrait of rare power.
Second, the texts of Jon Swanson and Ron Kelley elaborate the dignity and courage suffusing the lives of these workers and their families. Swanson’s years in the Yemeni countryside and in Dearborn lend his overview of Yemeni migrant lives a telling authority. Finally, the words of the workers interviewed by Ron Kelley express the irreducible humanity of these people caught up in a current of history stronger than themselves but incapable of vanquishing them. The photographs are not intended as illustrations of the texts. Nor are the texts commentaries on the photographs. Rather, each is a narrative in and of itself.
Many other people helped make Sojourners and Settlers possible. The greatest thanks goes to the workers and their families, for their cooperation, understanding and friendship. The von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Los Angeles, under the direction of Georges Sabbagh, Richard Hovannisian and John Hawkins, sponsored the travelling exhibit. John Brumfield, Sheila Pinkel and Lealan Swanson served as consultants from the outset and deserve much credit for shaping the exhibit’s final form. And we are grateful to Kamal Boullata for his inspired transformation of the exhibit into this photoessay.