GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The performance of Hadrami identities in Saudi Arabia
Paper Proposal Text :
As the future of Yemen begins to take shape, and propositions for a federal system emerge from the National Dialogue, it appears that regional identities, rather than attenuating, are becoming more acute as different factions (Hadramis, Houthis) attempt to ensure that they are granted their own state in the new formation. In this paper I look at Hadrami identity from an anthropological perspective, situating the personal, subjective and affective aspects of Hadrami identity in Saudi Arabia in the context of, on the one hand, (hypothetical) political possibilities that range from a unitary Yemeni state to an independent Hadramawt within the GCC, and on the other, the parameters for belonging, both formal and social, for Hadramis in the kingdom.

The distinct socio-cultural character of Hadramis, and of Hadramawt, remains strong despite clumsy initiatives such as the numbering (rather than naming) of governorates during the socialist period in the PDRY or, more recently, the semi-official disapproval of the use of the name Hadramawt in, for example, sociological studies of the region and its people. This is particularly true of the Hadrami community in diaspora who have a well-documented cohesive identity that depends on various forms of affiliation with the homeland, of which most notably genealogical ones; and if Hadrami identity in East Africa (for example) has been subsumed within a general “Yemeni” identity, based on both the name of the successor state to the British protectorates and the small number of non-Hadrami Yemenis in the region, in Saudi Arabia Hadrami identity in counterpoint to Yemeni identity is highly relevant.

Hadramis in Saudi Arabia construct their identities according to a number of parameters: an identification with the independence movement in the homeland, an identification with Saudi culture, a parallel distancing from northern Yemenis; and while these identitarian claims are often overtly political or economic in character (and may thus be viewed through a functionalist lens: Hadramis without Saudi citizenship face a number of very real restrictions on their activities in the kingdom), they are also affective and processual as individuals both express and perform different facets of their identities according to the social context. An individual may express claims to belonging as a Saudi in daily practice but be required to renegotiate these claims when confronted by the fact of his non-citizenship; he may express Hadrami identity during a poignant return to the village of his grandfather’s tribe but be required again to renegotiate when interacting with villagers who see him as a Saudi.

Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Erving Goffman, I put forward the hypothesis that individuals have a single identity that is robustly constituted and provides a basis, a social toolkit that enables a certain way of interacting with others, with being in the world. Decisions are often explicitly made when deploying a particular expression of identity, a persona, even if the embodied character of habitus and the expectations of others constrain the freedoms with which the individual is permitted to act. Different aspects of identities are brought into play contextually: expressions of Hadrami identity are therefore dependent on a variety of constraints and obligations – often contradictory – that Hadramis are required to negotiate in order to perform their Hadrami-ness. Based on fieldwork in Jeddah and Riyadh, this paper is an exploration of how Hadramis perform their identity in Saudi Arabia in order to interact in different fields of practice: dealing with Saudis, supporting the independence movement in Hadramawt, confronting northern Yemenis in the street. It develops the concept of partial belonging to analyse expressions of Hadrami identity in Saudi society.