Monday, August 24, 2009

class and race as factors in squatting

A fascinating article in Yemen Times introduces the concepts of class and race into the debate over squatting.

Several decades-old squatter communities in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, are dominated by people who are part of "a minority group in Yemen known as “al-akhdam,” which literally means, “the servants.”

"Despite the fact that akhdam communities are Muslim with a Yemeni heritage older than Islam, they are often isolated, discriminated against and live in slums that are short of water, sewage, healthy food, available education and security," the article notes, adding, "An ancient, fading class system unites the akhdam as a group. Their collective identity appears to originate from Ethiopians who conquered and settled in 6th Century Yemen. They have, however, been in Yemen as long as any other group, and self-identify as Yemenis."

So, North Africans whose presence in the country dates from before the spread of Islam now live in squatter neighborhoods called mahwa and are denied access to municipal improvements and title to their homes.

Despite being denied services and living at the precarious end of the economic spectrum, the residents appear to have improved their community and, as the picture shows, build their homes with brick, stone, and concrete.


b.wevera said...

Land and legality seem to be the most pervasive issues when referring to squatters' rights. There must be a way to change the concept of 'property' from what Western ideology deems fair to a solution that grows from the community's roots.

rn said...

b.w.: Well said.

It's necessary to try to change the concept of property. But this can be difficult. For instance, in Yemen, you undoubtedly have to delve back decades, and perhaps centuries, to find a time that the al-akhdam were not forced to live as squatters and in sub-human conditions. Whose community? Whose roots? How far back do we go? These are thorny questions.

Recognizing possession as a kind of right is a start. But only a start.

On a meta level, it remains puzzling why we find it so hard to share this globe equitably and responsibly.

b.wevera said...

rn: You are absolutely right. Finding a subjective point in time to use in reference to property rights is difficult. In fact, there are still abuses in human's rights as a result of re-introducing traditional tactics.

But, I couldn't help but wonder if we could consider an organic synthesis of the two different worlds? Perhaps integrating 'Modern' theory with traditional practices.

For example, the Bani Hassan in Yajouz still try to use land transfer agreements that are based on honesty and integrity. If the buyer is not satisfied with the land, he gives the land back to the owner and is reimbursed. However, the State sees the hujja as illegal. Could there not be a movement to preserve and protect these perfectly legitimate land transfers? Or is it too late in the game?

Sorry to be so prodding. These types of discussion fascinate me.

rn said...

Sounds like the hujja functions as a sort of honest broker. Why does Jordan find this objectionable? Well, from what I understand, the government claims it owns the land in Yajouz. So it sounds as if it's a political struggle, though it is exacerbated by Jordan's history, in which various customary, Islamic, Ottoman, and modern forms of land tenure have been laid down over each other.

The tensions between these different systems can sometimes be very creative. It's not too late (though it is later than we think) to fight to preserve traditional ways of organizing land tenure while seeking to include whatever is good in the modern or western approach.

One caveat, though: just because something is traditional doesn't mean it's fair.

Do you know if there are any elements to hujja that involve cooperative control? I'm interested in finding out about traditional approaches to property and trade that involve communal organizations or cooperatives. Any ideas where I might look?

b.wevera said...

rn: I got the information from:

Razzaz, O. 1994. Contestation and mutual adjustment: The process of controlling land in Yajouz, Jordan. Law and Society Review 28, no. 1: 7-40

I used it in a paper that I wrote in my last year of school. Although it is 15 years old, it highlights some interesting issues that are still relevant today.

Interesting questions to consider. I think that some perversions of some traditional methods could also be monitored by Modern practices. However, like you said, it is always tricky territory.

Here's to the pendulum!

rn said...

Here's the problem: where is the center point of the pendulum's swing? The modern 'private property' regime seems to yank the pendulum out of plumb....with grave consequences for the survival of traditional forms of land holding.