Friday, March 28, 2014

Pecking Order on the Zabid dig, 1996.

Pecking Order at the Zabid dig, 1996.
After a few weeks of excavating in my trench just outside the Citadel’s wall in Zabid our ‘dig season’ was well underway. Acclimatizing was tough because the temperatures bordered on unbearable. Daytime temperatures could easily be over 40 degrees Celsius and this was further aggravated by the dusty afternoon wind that accompanied them. Nor did it help matters that the mudhir proclaimed another edict that we would be allowed only one shower per day. Considering that we had no fans or air conditioning, and that I completely soaked my clothes in sweat at least three times a day, this did not sit well with me nor especially with Kathy, who took umbrage at another of the mudhir’s typical unilateral decisions.
Naturally, there was your typical weird group dynamics amongst our ‘western crew’ where everyone tends to get on each other’s nerves with their various peccadilloes.
The mudhir was proving to be a tyrant supreme at all times much to the discomfiture of Kathy, me and others. Our group dynamics were challenging at the best of times and in way, we felt like we were prisoners of this old Ottoman citadel which had indeed at one time been a prison.
Luckily for me, the mudhir was leaving me to my own devices and I only saw him once a week or so. Visitors to my trench just outside the citadel's east wall were few and far between. In working with my local workers, one day I recognized a definite group dynamic amongst them. What intrigued me was the pecking order they had established.
Some of the tension between my twenty workers might be attributed to work experience and either racial or tribal affiliations. Even though everyone was local, individually they were as different as chalk and cheese. Nevertheless, my workers were an amazing lot—a real mish-mash of ethnicity.
'Eddie Murphy with his wheelbarrow
However, the darker-skinned workers, who were of African origins, were relegated to doing the most menial of jobs, such as hauling mounds of dirt that had been created by the pick men, or running the wheelbarrows, or carrying the rubber dirt buckets.
One of my wheelbarrow guys was a dead ringer for the African-American movie star, Eddie Murphy, so that was the name we called him.
Eddie Murphy at our trench
He did not seem to mind and he probably had no idea of who the movie star was but maybe enjoyed what little status it brought him. At any rate, I was surprised by the number of black workers we employed, about one quarter of my work force.
Given the proximity of the African continent which borders the Red Sea, it’s only reasonable to assume that African seafarers, from time immemorial, had plied their trade up and down the Tihama Coast, and had no doubt contributed to the gene pool through assimilation. Also, it was during the time when the Axumite Empire controlled most of the south-west Arabian Peninsula (c. 325-702 AD) that the conquering Abyssinians (Ethiopians) had undoubtedly mixed with the indigenous Arab blood.
The Ziyadid dynasty (818 to 989 AD) controlled the coastal plain of the Tihama, and had established trade links, including the slave trade, across the Red Sea with Abyssinia. Some of these slaves, originally from the Jazali tribe in Abyssinia, rose up and killed the last Ziyadid ruler and by 1021 AD had established a new dynasty—the Najahid dynasty, which lasted until 1158 AD. During the later thirteenth century, Zabid was a center for slave-trading.
The social hierarchy of Zabid was just as complex. The ruling elites at the top of the pyramid were referred to as al kabir or ‘eminent nobles’. They came from bayt kabir, noble house. The ‘top’ families, who were rich and influential and called the sadah and kibar, were the next class. They were followed by 'freed slave' families. At the lower end of this hierarchy were the abid or ‘ex-slaves’ called mazayanah. At the very bottom were the darker skinned akhdam or ‘min al-Habasha’, who referred to themselves as ‘Ancient Abyssinians’ and they worked as servants or, as on our dig, did menial and hard-labour jobs. No doubt, the man we called ‘Eddie Murphy’ and our other ‘black’ workers were direct descendants from these earlier African slaves.

Another of these abid men who ran a wheelbarrow was called ‘Jonglei’ by the other pick men who, no doubt, thought they held a higher position over him. I had heard this term ‘Jonglei’ on a dig last year in Jordan where workers referred to one guy by this name. Moreover, I was familiar with the term ‘Jonglei’ because it was used to describe the massive swamp in southern Sudan that I had traversed on an overland trip in 1982. The ‘Jonglei Canal’ was a huge program undertaken by Chevron to cut a route through the swamp and speed up the flow of the Nile and provide an easier passage.

Through an interpreter, this ‘Jonglei’ chap told me he got this nickname from his great-great grandfather who had originally came over to Yemen from Sudan, perhaps even as a slave for the Ottomans. I preferred to call him ‘Sudani’. He was a sturdy looking chap and I would not want to mess with him. Luckily for the other workers, he had a good sense of humour about their playful joking.
My interpreter--Turki at his home.

The next group going up the pecking order were the men who used the large picks and shovels. My favourite worker named ‘Turki’ belonged to this group. ‘Turki’ looked quite different from the others perhaps because of his Turkish ancestry. He had lighter skin, soft grey eyes, a humourous disposition and one important advantage he enjoyed over the others—his excellent command of English.

Of course, I made him my interpreter, and when I asked him where he had learnt English, he answered with pride that his father had taught him. His lineage was probably connected to the short period when the Ottoman’s ruled this territory 1530-1536 AD when the minaret was built.

The men who used small geological picks and trowels were at the top of the pecking order. They were uniformly of Arab stock not African. They were the ones who had worked their way up the ladder for the mudhir on earlier digs and now they got to order the other workers around. They also tried to create as much dirt and heavy lifting work as possible just so they could sit and smoke a cigarette while ordering others around during their lull in work. Now and then an ambitious young buck from a lower group tested the waters by trying his hand at troweling, but this usually ended in mayhem with a strong rebuke from the trowel man. At any rate, there was constant chatter in our trench between different workers and a lot of joking around.
At the top of this pecking order were my two Yemeni junior archaeologists.
My ‘Yemeni boys’, as I called them, were from the two dominant North Yemeni tribes: the Bakil and the Hashid. One of my duties as ‘Site Supervisor’ was to teach my ‘Yemeni boys’ who had university degrees the finer aspects of archaeology—how to survey a site, set up control points so that we could correctly measure how far we had dug and also for giving the provenience of found artifacts and other material culture. To a certain degree, my ‘Yemeni boys’ took satisfaction in being able to order these Tihama workers around, no doubt proving to them at least that the North Yemenis were superior to these coastal bumpkins. I suppose one could say that I was at the top of the pecking order but the mudhir had tasked me with this job. Regardless of their social standing, I always treated everyone with respect, otherwise they might not work for me.
Near the end of the dig season, there was some excitement on the dig one morning. At any one time, I might have three trowel men picking away at something in three different locations. Since one of my duties was to carefully label and bag any artifacts found plus record their provenience, through surveying I had not been paying attention.
The older worker and 'Eddie Murphy'.
Suddenly there was some shouting going on when my back was turned and I wasn’t sure what was going on. Apparently, when one of the older and frailer bucket men had turned his back to load his wheelbarrow and Abdul, who had been working next to him, threw a small clod of dirt at him which exploded upon impact. When the workman turned around to see who had committed the act, Abdul would pretend that he was working. This went on a few times and it was funny up to a point as everyone was laughing but the workman was clearly getting fed up with being the butt of all the joking.
My workers and the 'Yemeni boys' supervising.

The others finally told the older man who the culprit was, there wasn’t much he could do

 because if he threw something back at Abdul this would have led to some kind of further

 abuse or maybe his firing. Things settled down and while Abdul was busy doing some 

troweling, I decided to exact some kind of revenge for the bucket man. 

While Abdul’s back was turned towards me, I winged a big clod at it, then I too pretended to

 feign working as he looked around for the culprit. The whole place roared. As Abdul was

 bellowing, I threw another clod at him. The entire crew erupted again but Abdul, realizing

 that it was I who was the culprit, even joined along so that was the end of that childish 

prank. Since I was the mudhir of the trench—he who must be obeyed—Abdul could do

 nothing. Things cooled down after this and there was no more dirt throwing by anyone,

 thank god! 

The only place to be in a pecking order is at the top.


  1. I just made some thoughtful comments and got them et up by the computator. Here's the shorthand: Kickass narrative. Let's have more of this!

    1. Please try again as I would appreciate any comments on this and other stories.

  2. Excellent description of the complicated web of relations on an archaeological project. I found it interesting that there was such diversity within a small dig crew within a small town. Yemen clearly was a very important crossroad between Africa and Asia, warring empires, religions and trade goods (sadly including slaves). Well written and I look forward to the next installment,