The United States is a nation of common people from marginal environments. In spite of contemporary America’s preoccupation with coats of arms, few of our ancestors were the children of privilege. Nor did they come from lush plains or fecund valleys. More often it was the mountains and hill country they left behind, where stony soils, forests, or harsh weather made farming difficult and made them willing to tear themselves away and take their chances in far-off America. They were Irish from Kerry and Donegal, Italians from Sicily and Abruzzo, Romanians from the mountains of Transylvania and Swedes from the forests of Smaland and Dalarna.

Although they were poor, they were rarely subject. Most owned their own land, though these meager holdings were rarely enough to assure more than a bare subsistence. Exaggerated rumors of high wages, easy work, cheap land, and even gold in the streets made the United States an irresistible alternative for many such impoverished peasants.

Despite America’s glittering promise, few abandoned their native lands without regret, and most continued to maintain ties to relatives and friends back home. The hardships and humiliations of being strangers in a strange land sometimes reinforced these ties as immigrants came to cherish memories of what more and more seemed the carefree life of their native villages.

American life was seldom, if ever, adopted wholesale. Rather, each group attempted to maintain their old world traditions, customs and beliefs. In the end they usually settled on a compromise and, recreating the world in their own image, became Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Chinese-Americans and so forth.

While many migrants were content to fabricate a synthetic, hyphenated culture, others, more conservative, continued to measure their achievements within the cultural and even geographical context of the village. They nurtured the dream of one day returning home to build a large house and adopt the status and lifestyle of the local gentry. Quite a few successfully realized this ambition; others found it an empty one. For the latter, the serenity of their childhood recollections evaporated as responsibilities shifted to their now adult shoulders. They were struck as never before by the inconvenience, isolation and pettiness of village life. They discovered that they had accepted a new reality, however imperfect, which had bewilderingly transformed the familiar into the alien.

Although relative newcomers to America, the Yemenis fall squarely into this tradition of independent peasant immigrants. Their country is a relatively verdant patch of mountains in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula which includes the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south.

While Yemen is green, it is by no means lush. Most parts of the country receive no more than 12 inches of rain annually—about the same as Albuquerque, New Mexico. The bulk of this precipitation falls in March-April and July-August, but even this pattern is unreliable. The traditional subsistence pattern of Yemen centers around sorghum-millet and cattle, with milk and grains providing the bulk of the diet. The most important cash crop had been coffee; together with hides it accounted for the bulk of the nation’s modest trade surplus.

With the exception of the highland plateaus and lowland periphery, most of these crops are produced on terraces supported by elaborately engineered stone walls. Such fields climb the steep mountain slopes like so many giant stair steps; they slow runoff, conserve soil and permit the cultivation of land which in more favored regions of the world would be left to grazing animals. Often such fields are not amenable to the introduction of modern machinery, so that only with massive investments of hand labor can peasants wrest livelihoods from the unaccommodating environment.

 

Minimal subsistence and rugged terrain have combined to discourage would-be conquerors, thwart any strong central government, and promote fierce individualism. Yemenis, organized around locally autonomous tribal segments, occasionally coalesce to repel outsiders or conquer new territory; for the most part, competition for scarce resources has a centrifugal effect on social relations, which are characterized by truculence and pugnacity at every level.

In the past decade, the independence of the tribes has been eroded somewhat by the development of a comprehensive network of roads and the adoption of modern weaponry. Still, the irrepressible tribesman with his jambiyya (dagger) at his belt and rifle over his shoulder remains an everyday feature of the countryside, at
least in the North.

 

The same conditions which helped secure the region’s autonomy also encouraged many Yemenis to seek their fortunes in less austere environments. South Arabians have been going abroad for millennia, no doubt well in advance of the collapse of the dam at Marib which Yemeni folklore insists marks the beginning of the exodus. Today many people in North Africa and the Levant recognize South Arabia as their original home.

Modern emigration from the region began at about the same time the British established themselves at Aden (1839). The most recent phase was initiated by hikes in the world price of oil. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other nations on the peninsula invested in massive housing projects and other development schemes that created labor demands exceeding their domestic resources. There are an estimated 500,000 Yemenis now working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. During the second half of the 1970s, migrants regularly sent home more than a billion dollars a year. Increased consumption had swallowed this surplus by 1979, however, and it now appears that declining demand and increased competition in the foreign labor market has led to a decline in the level of remittances.

The migration boom came shortly after the end of the civil war (1962-68) which secured the Republic and expelled the last imam. Together these two events ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity. Consumption levels rose dramatically, as did wages and prices of some locally produced goods. The government built schools, clinics and a network of rural roads, making formerly remote villages accessible to hospitals, schools and markets. In the countryside automobiles became commonplace, along with diesel irrigation pumps and electric generators which not only illuminated homes but powered television sets as well. Urban areas expanded at a dizzying pace as returning migrants sought to settle their families in the more convenient cities or cash in on the expanding commercial opportunities in the towns. Land prices soared everywhere as new houses were constructed in village, town and city.

Not all of the changes have been for the better. Increased labor costs and cheap imported grain have forced a decline in agriculture. An enormous amount of new wealth has been dissipated on consumer goods and unimaginative, unprofitable investments. Diet has also changed: while more meat is eaten, children have begun to consume large quantities of soft drinks and cheap imported sweets. A more serious nutritional problem has been the replacement of breast milk with powdered baby formula. Town and country have become cluttered with plastic bags, bottles, tin cans and other detritus of the modern world. Finally, increased prosperity has reduced the need for mutual aid, cooperation, and interdependence as social ties are weakened, income differentials widened, and traditional obligations ignored or superseded by new priorities. Still, in spite of occasional expressions of nostalgia, few people would return to the old days when flour was ground by hand, water raised by camel or donkey, and people died for want of antibiotics, transportation and hospitals.

 

It was the earlier stage of the exodus which brought Yemenis to America. The British coaling station at Aden steadily increased the demand for labor in the colony after 1839. At first the British employed Indians, but in time more and more Yemenis found their way down the wadis, the dry river beds which served as the main transportation arteries. This period of migration involved primarily what is now the western portion of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and the provinces of Ta‘iz, ‘Ibb, and al-Bayda in the Yemen Arab Republic.

In 1884 the French purchased the port at Djibouti, across the Arabian Sea, and soon it too was attracting Yemeni laborers. Yemenis began working as stevedores, sailors, watchmen and small-scale businessmen throughout East Africa, Madagascar and Vietnam.

No one knows exactly when Yemenis first arrived in the United States. Mary Bisharat has suggested that they probably began to make their appearance shortly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1860. Almost certainly a handful had come by 1890 and a few acquired US citizenship by fighting in World War I. Yemenis continued to enter the US in small numbers throughout the 1920s, usually illegally.

Since there were no radios in those days and most Yemenis were illiterate, few people knew that there was a United States, let alone where it was located. Going to America was like traveling to the moon. A would-be migrant might board a ship in the harbor at Aden under the pretext of selling fruit, vegetables or other items to the crew. He would stow away, and later ask for work, hoping to make himself useful enough so that the captain would allow him to remain on board. Some hired on as legitimate sailors. But almost all of these pioneers arrived in the United States without papers, jumping ship in New York City and blending into the local Lebanese or Palestinian communities. One can only marvel at the tenacity, courage and desperation of these peasants who were willing to fly headlong into the unknown in search of a chance to improve their conditions.

Once in America, many headed inland, where they accepted the most back-breaking sorts of jobs—notably on farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley and in factories and foundries in Detroit, Buffalo, Canton and Weirton. When the depression struck in the 1930s, many returned to Yemen to wait out the hard times. Others were rounded up by immigration authorities and deported. Even today one meets old men in the villages behind ‘Ibb who remember a smattering of the English they learned 50 years ago in America. The few men who managed to remain in the US through the depression crossed into Canada and returned as legal immigrants during the labor-short years of World War II.

Yemeni migration resumed after the war, when the US established formal diplomatic relations with the Imam’s government. Most had relatives or acquaintances among the earlier migrants to the United States. Many of this early postwar group did not migrate directly from Yemen, but instead came by way of Vietnam where they had worked as watchmen in warehouses, shops and on the docks. By obtaining their visas in Vietnam, they avoided the requirement that they be literate in their native tongue. As the Vietnamese revolution against French colonialism began to take shape, many of these men were anxious to escape the growing uncertainties there. Typically, after establishing themselves in the United States they sent for their relatives and friends. Soon there was a steady trickle of Yemenis arriving in the United States every year. This flow increased sharply after 1965, when a new law abolished the quota system.

 

In America, the migrant divides himself among his home, his coffee house and his job. Rarely is he without the company of his countrymen. His life may be so insulated from the rest of American society that he can live for years in the heart of the city and gain no more than the most superficial understanding of the culture of which he is a part. As one migrant put it, he had lived in the US for eight years without ever really “tasting it.” But the longer he stays, the more estranged he becomes from Yemen. In the end, he is at ease neither in his adopted home nor in the world he left behind.

Home in America is often a single furnished room or low-rent apartment shared with other men from the same family, village or district. If the men have especially low-paying jobs, they may even sleep in shifts so that two men can use a single bed. The rooming house or apartment is usually in a working class or marginally poor neighborhood, an area of heavy industry and consequent pollution. Furnishings are spare and shabby, and the places have an air of dingy utility. Food is one area where these men don’t stint themselves; they consume huge quantities of lamb, steak and freshly killed chickens.

The coffee house is not a Yemeni institution, but one adopted from the Lebanese and Palestinians. It too is austerely furnished, with worn formica-topped tables and unmatched chairs, frequented by men from the same or adjacent districts in Yemen. On the grimy tobacco-stained walls are announcements of a concert of Arabic music, a benefit for Palestinian refugees, or an income tax service. There is a counter, a refrigerator for sodas, and a stove for brewing ginger-flavored coffee and sweet tea. Men play cards, usually handrayman, a kind of two-deck Russian rummy, and, less often, poker. On weekends, when every table is occupied, the air is thick with cigarette smoke and filled with the buzz of conversation punctuated with laughter and occasional shouts as someone slams a winning card to the table. More than a recreation center and club, the coffee house is a clearinghouse for information about the local job market as well as political, personal and economic conditions in Yemen. Someone has always just returned from home with mail or gossip, or had a recent phone call from Ta‘iz or Sana‘. Any news more than two weeks old is stale.

 

Yemenis today still hold many of the same kinds of jobs their grandfathers had in the 1920s. In California they continue to work as farm laborers. In Detroit and Buffalo they are freshwater sailors, steel workers, auto workers and restaurant employees. In recent years some have gone into business for themselves; with their brothers, cousins or fellow villagers, men have purchased small grocery stores, newsstands or candy stores. Often in the poorer, rundown sections of New York City, Buffalo, Detroit or Oakland, these are labor-intensive businesses requiring 12 to 14 hours of work a day. And every year one or two Yemeni shop owners are killed in the course of an armed robbery.

Yemeni-Americans measure their success according to old country values and within the physical context of Yemen itself. The desire to maximize savings to buy land leads the $25,000-a-year auto worker to live in a sleazy, $60-a-month rented room. His experience in Yemen, where electricity, plumbing, and even roads were absent until recently, makes such stark conditions unexceptional. Yemeni immigrants have tended to view America as a means rather than an end, a temporary stopping place rather than a permanent home.

Because of this, they draw a sharp, almost schizophrenic distinction between their lives in America and their lives in Yemen. For example, Yemen’s peasant society is divided into a system of occupational strata which do not intermarry. In Yemen, no self-respecting tribesman would ever consider working as a servant or a sweeper. Yet in the United States these same men will readily accept work as custodians, porters and busboys with no loss of face. Similarly, men who own liquor stores in San Francisco would never dream of selling alcohol in Sana‘.

Even friendships forged between Yemenis in America may not be transferred back to Yemen. The likelihood of such relationships enduring appears to be inversely proportional to the distance between the men’s villages. The distances involved are not great—often only 10 or 12 miles. Still, men who have lived and worked together for two or more decades have never visited one another’s villages. Common problems and shared hardships draw men together in America, while in Yemen traditional rivalries and competition for scarce resources have a centrifugal effect.

 

With the arrival of more and more families in the 1970s, cultural segregation has become increasingly difficult to preserve. As families mature, the strains of convergence almost invariably intensify, causing enormous pain for both children and their parents.

Whatever his occupation in America, the emigrant male is an important person when he returns to his village after two, three, or five years abroad. He is never the same man who went away. If his adjustment in America was unsuccessful, he may be relieved to go back to family and friends. Such men often return to Yemen permanently after one or two sojourns in the United States. Other men, after dreaming nostalgically of their villages for several lonely years, find that the reality does not live up to their expectations. Or their new attitudes and ideas may engender resentment among relatives and friends. They may arouse resentment by insisting that their homes be kept cleaner than those of their fellow villagers. Jealous neighbors may resent their efforts to reintegrate themselves as men of some property into the political and social life of the community. Even their families, who benefit most from their emigration, may harbor anger at the long years of enforced absence. This is the tragedy of the migrant: he leaves home for the sake of the family he rarely sees, and after years of loneliness and hard work he returns home to find his wife and children strangers, closer to his father or brother perhaps than to him. The younger migrant may find the village petty and boring, and the pace of village life agonizingly slow. Some may even go back to the states early.

The prestige the migrant enjoys during his visit does not come cheap. He is expected to bring gifts and money to his family and lavishly entertain neighbors with food and qat. He will also build a house, buy some land, finance a marriage, or make some other type of major investment while he is home. All of this creates the impression that money flows like water in the United States. The villagers have no idea of the long hours migrants must work to foster this illusion. The dollars are spent quickly, and usually within three to six months the migrant is forced to borrow his air fare back to the United States. When he arrives back in America, friends will stop by to catch up on the latest gossip from the district and collect the mail he has brought. Each will leave him $10, $20 or $50 to tide him over until he gets back to work.

 

During the 1950s and 1960s, when the United Nations estimated Yemen’s per capita income to be only about $56 per year, the emigrant to America could return to his village and live like a potentate. Land then was still only $25-50 per qasabah (a unit equal to 18.5 square feet). Agricultural labor was less than 25 cents per day. A
house could be built for $5,000 and a man could get married by paying a bridewealth of less than $1,000.

By the early 1970s, agricultural land had jumped to $220 per qasabah and there was little available for sale. Labor was $1.00-1.75 per day and sharecroppers were demanding a larger share of the crop and refusing to farm all but the most productive fields. With the onset of large-scale intra-peninsular migration, daily wages jumped to $7.50 in 1977 and to $10 in 1980. Grain prices did not advance at the same rate, but were held in check by the import of cheaper Canadian, Australian and American wheat.

Except for a few areas where pump irrigation facilitated the cash cropping of qat, agriculture, the traditional investment of the emigrant, ceased to be viable. The number of alternatives was limited and most Yemeni-American returnees found themselves helpless to counter the head-spinning erosion of their relative economic positions. The house that cost $5000 in 1968 cost $50,000 or more in 1979. Bridewealth jumped from $1000 to $20,000 or more. Almost overnight the Yemeni-American found himself reduced from being fabulously wealthy to being just a little better off than average.

This deterioration of the migrant’s economic position, coupled with the insurgency movement in the Central Region, contributed to fundamental changes in the immigration pattern and the structure of the migrant community in the US. From 1975 onward, there was a sharp increase in the number of women and children joining their husbands and fathers in America. This gave added stimulus to a growing Islamic conservatism, as men sought to preserve their families’ cultural integrity in the midst of American life.

As single males, it was a simple matter for Yemeni-Americans to insulate their families from the profane world of their migrant experience. Bringing their families here forced them to confront the problem of maintaining the sanctity of their Arab and Muslim traditions in an alien environment. More specifically, the challenge has been to create a social framework in America which will ensure that Yemeni children marry within their community.

Like other ethnic groups before them, Yemenis have turned to religion as the principal vehicle for preserving their cultural integrity. This in itself has involved a break with tradition. For unlike most churches, the mosque is a place of prayer and occasionally of education but not an institution. From its beginning, Islam emerged not merely as a system of belief and ritual but as a total design for living, embracing belief, ritual, and law institutionalized in and enforced by the Islamic state. Recreating such an all-embracing system of behavior control is impossible in secular America. Still, some Yemenis, isolated in parochial communities, seem oblivious to the sociopolitical realities of their new home. Their efforts to maintain a “pure” Islam in this more restricted context have in some cases brought them into conflict with other American-Arab Muslims with a longer tradition in the United States.

In Detroit, for example, the local mosque was largely a second-generation Lebanese phenomenon. In 1975 Yemeni attendance increased sharply, creating tensions, for the Yemenis insisted on the practice of a more conservative brand of Islam and rejected as heretical many of the compromises the Lebanese had made with their adopted milieu. The Yemenis especially objected to the fact that the basement of the mosque, like that of most American churches, was used for social events such as wedding receptions. Although no liquor was permitted, the dabke, a traditional peasant line dance of the Levant was occasionally performed. In Yemeni eyes, this was a direct assault on the sanctity of the mosque and an affront to the faith. By 1977 dissension between the two groups reached a breaking point when the Yemenis, together with a small group of Palestinian allies, seized control of the mosque and transformed it into a bastion of cultural and religious conservatism.

This conservative religious revival parallels a similar trend in Yemen. There, religious fundamentalism has been fueled by anxieties arising from increased affluence, rapid urbanization, and disillusionment with Western secular and materialist ideologies. More recently, in both Yemen and America, this shift toward Islamic fundamentalism has been given added impetus by economic reversals.

 

Yemeni-Americans, especially those in the industrial Northeast, have also suffered economic setbacks. The near-collapse of the auto industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted in large-scale layoffs of Yemeni workers; many have never been called back to work. A significant number will probably never again be employed building cars and trucks. In Buffalo, reduced steel production and plant closings have hurt the Yemeni community. In both cities, sailors have suffered not only because of recession but also from the introduction of new boats which carry 50 percent more tonnage with one-third the crew.

Besides increasing their religious commitment, Yemeni-Americans have responded to the recession in a variety of other, more immediately practical ways. Many have abandoned the factories and attempted to go into business for themselves. Men with less capital left Detroit and Buffalo and migrated to the fields and orchards of California, often for less than half the pay. Still others, like their grandfathers before them, have drifted back to Yemen to wait out the hard times. In the spring of 1984 there were scores of Yemeni-Americans from the Central Region who had, after months and even years, given up the search for work and gone home to their villages. Finally, the recession has temporarily slowed but definitely not halted the immigration of women and children to the United States.

The history of America’s Muslim Lebanese provides a useful reference for understanding the present and future of the Yemeni-American community. The first-generation Yemenis’ attempts to preserve their religious and cultural heritage intact are nearly certain to fail. The inevitable compromise with American attitudes and values will not be accomplished easily, probably not until the third generation. During the intervening years, while this Americanization is taking place, families will become battlegrounds of generation set against generation. As one second-generation Lebanese woman observed, “When the children start school they are forced to be Americans by day and Yemenis by night.”

How to cite this article:

Jon C. Swanson "Sojourners and Settlers," Middle East Report 139 (March/April 1986).
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