Individuality vs Tribal Authority: A Delicate Balance

Faiz al-Dhubaibi
The tribe is a fundamental Yemeni structure that dates back millennia. While its firmly established history offers a source of stability, unbending traditions sometimes lead to exclusion and discrimination. This can result in distress and alienation among a tribe’s rank and file.
The sign reading al-Dhubaibi’s Butchery, which was subsequently removed. © Faiz al-Dhubaibi / Arabia Felix Magazine

A member of the Bani Alyan family caused a stir when he placed a large sign over his meat shop in Sana’a. The sign read simply “al-Dhubaibi’s Butchery,” but the al-Dhubaibi tribe, related to the Alyans, was outraged. 

In keeping with tribal custom that degrades certain vocations such as leather tanners, barbers, and butchers, the Dhubaibis were insulted to see their name associated with one of these professions. They staged a smear campaign against the Bani Alyan family in response to what they felt was a provocation.

Residents of Bani al-Dhubaibi’s tribal areas for more than 200 years, the Bani Alyans had long enjoyed respect and appreciation of the entire tribe. Once tension was triggered, however, an insular dynamic took over. It was the first time I experienced the exclusionary side of tribalism.

Despite my allegiance to the Bani al-Dhubaibi tribe and its chieftains, I could not support such prejudiced, discriminatory behaviour. I posted a Face-
book commentary to criticise my tribe’s conduct and faced heavy pushback from tribespeople who ostracised me when I refused to delete what I’d written. By contrast, members of the Bani Alyan family commented favourably, and I received support from other followers both within and outside the tribe.

While tribalism is often frowned upon, the tribe as a macro-structure is not harmful to society. Some practises, such as helping members pay fines in accidental homicide cases or settlements reached by chieftains, are beneficial.

To be born to a tribal society means growing up in a large, extended family made up of smaller, individual families whose children are named after their founding ancestors. 

“This is how individuals are linked to a tribe, and their loyalty to it grows,” said Hameed Mahdi al-Dhubaibi, 70, one of Raymah’s chieftains. The descendant of a family that inherited the chieftainship of Bani al-Dhubaibi for hundreds of years, he named his children after their forebears: Ghamdan, Maeen, and Balqis.

To be born into a tribe means to grow up in a large, extended family.

In tribal community tradition, grandparents, children, and grandchildren live in the same building, sharing meals and pooling finances. Relatives stay in close, loyal contact; the younger generation is obliged to show obeisance to elders and their norms. A first-born son usually becomes head of the family after his father dies. And the tribe typically intervenes in the choice of a spouse, who is often a relative. 

“There is no room for love between men and women before marriage,” writes Adel al-Sharjabi in his book, The Palace and the Sultan. Moreover, marriage outside the tribe is avoided – “for fear the lineage may be mixed with alien blood or families in a lower position, without prestige,” according to Faisal Mabkhout, 45, a chieftain of Raymah. 

This type of class discrimination divides Yemeni society with negative impacts that pass from one generation to the next. 

Some men and women marry outside the tribal system, but such cases are rare.

Individuals remain committed and bound to tribal norms; those who deviate from them face not only the wrath of their families or tribal groups, but expulsion. To avoid such drastic consequences, the Bani Alyan family took down their sign a few weeks later. 

That incident occurred a little over two years ago. Relations have been tranquil ever since.

Living in a tribe amounts to a permanent struggle to reconcile one’s individual interests with tribal conditions. For better or worse, it is the tribe that exerts supreme authority and has the final say in most matters.

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