With great pain, I still remember an elderly speaking proudly about his recklessness and adventures and how he, once upon a time, killed an expatriate from Taiz in cold blood while the victim along with his wife and their two children was just returning from outside Yemen in the mid-1980s, and then buried them in one grave. The killer then started to describe the moments of his return to his tribe carrying his spoils (the stolen car and money), which he later spent on building a house and four times of pilgrimage.
I met this bandit early in 2000 during my compulsory teaching service at HarfSufyan district to the south of Sa’ada. The man, with pale face, yellowish-white thick beard and a black past being full of bloodshed and vengeance, recounted how members of his tribe left the areas of HarfSufyan and Barat decades ago settling in Ibb and Taiz. Surnames of Sufyani and Barati they carry are an extension of his tribal origin he boasted of.
I went back to historical references, looking for any relevant details chronicling this migration. Finally, I found what I was searching for in a book under title "Yemeni annals" written by an unknown Zaidi historian. The book touched on a great famine Bakil tribe experienced in 1823, portraying how it forced the remaining residents to leave at once in the direction of Sana'a where they committed horrendous crimes such as murder and looting. Then they went to the "lower Yemen" where they gradually forgot about their original home, settled, married, seized high fortresses and fertile lands, and turned the original landowners into mere daily wage workers.
Looters coming from “plateau” (high Yemen)
Prior to their final settlement, they used to invade lower Yemen and come back to their original places with huge loads of spoils. Their most notorious invasion took place during the reign of Imam al-Nasir Salah al-Din bin Ali at the end of the eighth century AH when he was able to unite them and led them towards lower Yemen and Tihama to wage futile wars aimed at nothing but looting and plundering and destroying urbanized areas. 150 years later, another bad Imam called al-Nasser al-Mutahar Sharaf al-Din adopted the same brutal approach- if less horrifying.
During the reign of Imam al-Mansur Al-Qasim (1559-1620), religious fatwas were misused. Under a fatwa issued by the then ruler, followers of the Shafi'i school became infidels whose lives and property had to be taken for the sake of Allah. Sufism’s orders (tariqa) spread at that time as a result of support and patronage of Rasulids (1229-1454), and then of Tahirids (1454-1517) and Ottomans. This was the entrance through which the founder of Zaidi kingdom, Imam al-Qassim, who personally killed one of Sufi sheikhs in Sana'a and issued a fatwa whereby Sufism’s followers and supporters would be seen as infidels.
Zaidi Imams worked to consolidate class differentiation and empty arrogance among the plateau’s tribes whose minds were carefully adapted by Zaidi imams to despise agricultural professions, crafts and business activities in order to use the tribesmen as fuels for Imams’ holy expansionist wars and battles. Therefore, a person who resorted to robbing, looting and plundering was highly respected and seen as a brave tribesman.
If a person decided to quit practicing such shameful and criminal actions in order to engage in commerce, agriculture or any other profession instead, he was treated with contempt and considered not to be a respectable tribe member. The Zaydi imamate exploited and reinforced this savage nature of tribes using deceptive religious justifications. It justified their despicable actions and the ugliness of their conduct.As a result, they moved towards areas of "Lower Yemen" and "Tihama", looting, plundering and destroying in the name of Jihad and in order to uphold the banner of the imam.
In the era of al-MutawakilIsma'il, who strengthened his father's fatwa by issuing an another fatwa allowing to strip disciples of Shafi’i School of their property, the tribes of the wild plateau resumed their invasions aimed at looting lands and humiliating humankinds. The same thing was repeated by al-Mansour Hussein bin al-Qasim, his son al-Mahdi Abbas and grandson al-Mansour Ali under whose era the actual application of all previous fatwas was embodied.
Many of the historians have shed light on these invasions, but implicitly. The tribes of Sufyan and Barat were associated with their painful events. For example, the historian Abdullah bin Ali Al-Wazir, in his book "Tabaq al-Halwa and Sehaf al-Mann waAssalwa”, hinted relevant details when wrote about some events that occurred in the era Almtawakil Ismail in 1668, saying: “In those days, drought intensified, causing the emergence of bandits in Sufyan and Barat; in the roads leading to lower Yemen”. He also accused the two tribes’ members of waylaying passengers and looting their property, including more than an example in his book. In 1702, tribesmen loyal to al-Mahdi Mohammed abused the people of Rima and Wassab so that they cut off the ears of women motivated by the desire to strip them of their gold and silver earrings. The same thing was also repeated by other tribes in the area of Beit al-Faqih and different areas of Tihama.