by Rachel Furlow
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 1. DISORIENT
New groups are co-opting Yemen's poetic tradition to strengthen their political messaging.
In 2011, Yemen was hit hard by the wave of regional revolutions. Those calling for the fall of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime frequently invoked traditional poetry in their protests. By appropriating verse, anti-government groups could persuade fellow citizens of their allegedly legitimate relation to traditional Yemeni values. Even Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s local branch of Al Qaeda, has taken advantage of the seemingly inherent sense of cultural authority that poetry can convey in the country by using the medium to spread its message across much of eastern Yemen.
Poetry’s political legitimacy stems mainly from its traditional use in tribal mediation—a long history in the territory now known as modern Yemen. Especially now in the face of civil conflict, the country suffers from a corrupt and unreliable justice system, which has caused the population to rely increasingly on these local mediation processes. Verse used in them is linked to the political in Yemeni daily life: many see the judicial and political systems in Yemeni tribal territories as intertwined. Due to Yemen’s long poetic tradition, certain types and uses of poetry have been established as inherently Yemeni.
As Yemen’s civil war drags on and the fault lines between government forces and the Houthi rebels (among many other groups with political aims) deepen each day, poetry becomes a stronger tool for groups vying for authority in the eyes of the population.
Poetry in Daily Yemeni Life
While countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon were the frontline of al Nahda (cultural renaissance) in the 20th century and were able to disseminate their literature across the Arab world, Yemen’s political divisions and economic stagnation kept the nation in a state of relative cultural isolation. As a result, the works of many Levantine and North African poets eclipsed the work of their southern neighbors.
Before the mid-twentieth century, poetry in Yemen was passed down almost exclusively through oral recitation. The challenge to tracking and documenting specific poetic trends pre-1960 is mainly due to lack of written records. Beginning in the 1960s, however, it became popular to record poetry recitations on audio cassette tapes. Although radio broadcasts of poetry recitation existed before this proliferation of cassette recordings, anthropologist W. Flagg Miller explains that tapes—relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of radio technology—facilitated wide access to poetry. These cassettes often allowed poets to escape government regulation and censorship, birthing a more political, or at least critical, theme to Yemeni verse. These themes, writes Miller in The Moral Resonance of Arab Media, emerged in the poetic verses used by tribal members in the Yemeni Arab Spring protests.
The communities in which poetry recitation is most common are primarily rural towns in the northwestern highlands and southeastern plains, which have the lowest levels of literacy in the nation. Its popularity among the Yemeni people is far greater than that of poetry in other Arab countries. For instance, Elisabeth Kendall, a renowned literary scholar and Yemen expert, found that 74% of 2,000 Yemenis surveyed in 2012 felt that poetry was either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in their current culture. A similar survey that Kendall conducted in 2011 found that only 6% of Egyptians read or listen to poetry on a regular basis.
Verse in the Tribal Context
Yemen has always been, and remains, one of the region’s most tribal nations.* Yemen’s diverse tribes have often played a unifying role in a country that has had consistently weak national political structures. Since the unification of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic—in the south and north, respectively—in 1990, the government of the unified Republic of Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh co-opted tribal structures as patronage networks to ensure stability and exploit their popular traditions among the Yemeni people. This political strategy of ‘divide and rule’ further deepened tensions among various groups in the country, strengthening tribal identities over a unified national identity.
Although there are differing traits, customs, and political goals of tribes across Yemen, there do exist unifying characteristics, including the use of poetry in ritual and daily life. Rather than a simple literary pastime, poetry and its recitation in these regions is a ‘constitutive social practice’ performed at conflict mediations, weddings, funerals, and other social gatherings. This can take the form of a single recitation by one poet, a verse mediation from the tribal sheikh, or bid’ wa jiwab (call and response) between various poets. The three main categories of verse in Yemen are the qasidah, zamil, and balah, all of which take different forms and address separate themes. The qasidah is the most well-known outside the country, as it most often addresses political issues and is the only genre that is consistently recorded through writing. Zamil and balah poetry are, on the other hand, most often spontaneous and performed in a ritualistic manner.
Zamil poetry is the style preferred during rituals of conflict mediation—the most popular venues for recitation in tribal contexts. Such mediation is a crucial aspect of urf (customary law) in Yemen. Due to the failures of Yemen’s national judiciary system, customary law is often perceived as a more reliable way to resolve disputes in most areas, especially the northwestern and southeastern regions. Focused on addressing antagonisms between local communities, tribal law avoids the punitive, coercive character of institutionalized law. The ceremony of customary law is not a trial, but rather arbitration by the tribal sheikh between the opposing parties. Each party presents oral arguments. Rather than a speech, the sheikh will often compose his final decision in verse. Due to the elevated moral status and rhetorical power that this verse holds, writes Miller, it is a more suitable medium than normal speech for reconciliation.
A common issue at these mediations is that of land ownership. The following excerpts are from a poem recited after the mediation of a land ownership conflict in the governorate of Mahra in southeastern Yemen:
Atop the peak of Tarbūt // at the place of the paths of the winds // when they blow furiously and are joined together.
Sometimes (there comes) the sea breeze // between the stars of Dōṯer and Rbē // (when) the first season has come [or finished, lit. “happened”].
Now I’ll compose a habbōt // atop a well-crafted melody // if the rhymes fit together.
Now the tribal arbiters // have smoothed the wood of its roughness // and even the obdurate is satisfied.
The tribesman doesn’t hold forever to his position // unless he has seen to his non-tribal dependents // and his column and then he carries them on his upper back.
I beseech the Heavens // after the fury has quieted down // and the owner has had his property restored.
And the landowner whirls a flag over head // calling to every channel in the wādī // and (even) the one living high above desires (to respond) in earnestness.
Powerful natural imagery symbolizes the conflict at hand and its mediation process. Through these images, writes Kendall, the sheikh harkens back to the pre-Islamic period of poetry in the Arab world. Such imagery transcends the barrier between the earthly and the spiritual or religious, conveying religious authority. In Metaphors of Commerce, Miller explains that a less orthodox tradition holds that poetic words come from God. More common are metaphors and symbols linking speech to natural processes. “Al-ashja¯r tathmar wa-l-qabı¯lı¯ min kalimatuh” (as the trees bear fruit, so the tribesman holds to his word). Strong words are often depicted as thunder, storms, or even destructive floods, while amorous words are a fragrant zephyr or rustling breeze. Nature, then, bestows historical and religious legitimacy on the sheikh and the decision resulting from his mediation.
As Yemen’s political and judicial institutions continue to erode, the tribal structure and its accompanying customs remain central in daily life. As a result, poetry plays a larger role than that of other artistic media. Since the time of the 2011 uprisings that ousted long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, various groups within Yemen have attempted to take advantage of the cachet of verse in order to advance their own message and gain sympathy from the general population, with varying degrees of success.
Art has been well-documented as an impactful medium during the 2011 uprisings that swept the Middle East, ranging from film to graffiti to rap music. Poetry was no exception. In Tunisia, Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi’s poem ‘Will to Live’ was the soundtrack to many of the Tunisian protests, as the following lines were sung on the streets, scrawled across banners, and even spoken on television during the broadcast that declared the end of the rule of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali:
If one day, a people desire to live,
then fate will answer their call,
And their night will then begin to fade,
and their chains break and fall.
The rhythms of chants heard on the streets were influenced by poetic tradition. Lines like ‘Ya Mubarak! Ya Mubarak! Is-Sa‘udiyya fi-ntizarak!,’ ("Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!") or ‘Idrab idrab ya Habib, mahma tadrab mish hansib!’ (Hit us, beat us, O Habib, hit all you want—we're not going to leave!) are arranged in the pattern of poetic couplets, as catchy as they are witty.
This trend was just as prevalent, if not more so, in Yemen’s revolution to oust long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh. Steven Caton, who studied tribal poetry in northern Yemeni tribes during the 1980s, writes of watching the 2011 protests in Ta’iz and Sana’a,
The degree to which the tribes of Yemen were part of these revolutionary events is one of the great stories of this period, and it has yet to be told…It was stunning to hear the poetry I had studied more than thirty years earlier being chanted loud and clear in the protest marches…Tribal poetry, far from being squashed politically, has turned out to be perhaps the voice of the Yemeni revolution.
When Yemeni tribes showed up en masse to city centers across the country—whether in support or opposition to then-President Saleh—many protest slogans centered around their political poetry, developed in the past decade. As early as Johanna Ihle’s 2009 documentary Men of Words, shot north of the city of Aden, Yemenis can be heard reciting poetry as a warning to the government: If grievances are not addressed, there will be an uprising among the population.
As protesters camped out in Sana’a’s “Change Square” in the winter of 2011, poets migrated between tents to recite verses of politically charged poems. Although many of their audiences were in large part tribal, poetic themes more often emphasized a Yemeni identity. One such poem, The Land of Yemen, Its People Revolted, evokes a national convergence:
Tell our government I have a new one
Injustice has crossed the line, and the land of Yemen, it’s a nation revolting
We are here to tell you to leave, we are here to say Saleh leave
Listen to me, don’t be stupid and dialogue will not work with us
Listen to my advice and obey, no we will not fear your bombs
Even if machine guns rain
This is an order you must obey, your people command and you must obey.
This is just one of many examples of how political poetry spread from tribal members to other revolutionary groups. Yemeni poet Ibtisam al-Mutawakkil explains,
Yemeni society is still an aural society. For this reason, the spirited rhythm and phrases move the people... In the history of the Arab revolutions, poets have always been at the forefront of awareness leading the revolutionary action, and this action is still present in Yemen today as it was since the revolutions of 1962 and 1963.
Poetry’s use as a tool of persuasion and conflict mediation has extended from the tribal sphere to the national. As the country operated without the sense of a true national identity, the Yemeni tribal character, communicated in verse under the protesters’ banner, became a unifying force for much of the population.
The Bards of Al Qaeda
The 2011 protestors have not been the only ones to recognize poetry’s mobilizing power. In the eastern provinces of Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) retains significant influence and various patches of territory. As the Yemeni civil war drags on and the erosion of the infrastructure of southern Yemen devastates the population, AQAP has been able to recruit new members and win loyalty through the distribution of goods and services. In addition to these patronage networks, AQAP’s extensive propaganda projects target specific parts of Yemeni society.
AQAP’s media channel—al-Malahem—consists of a bi-monthly Arabic language magazine as well as the infamous Inspire, an English language periodical touting AQAP’s ideology and recent attacks.
Sandwiched between praise for ‘lone wolf’ attacks in the West and instructions on how to detonate pressure-cooker bombs, poetry playing to both the emotions of the audience and AQAP’s core ideology dominates the page. Respect for verse, especially in AQAP’s target recruitment areas in the tribal southeast, facilitates processes of indoctrination or radicalization.
AQAP’s propaganda poetry also uses natural imagery to evoke the divine. A March 2009 periodical featured this poem extolling martyrdom:
I will fasten my explosive belt,
I will shudder like a lightening bolt
and rush by like a torrential stream
and resound like stormy thunder.
In my heart is the heart of a volcano.
I will sweep through the land like a flood.
Although not composed in traditional verse form – according to Kendall, only 11% of poems published al-Malahem are – the poem still conveys historical legitimacy through its ties to classical poetry’s use of natural parallels to human emotion. Not only that, its composition also takes a classically religious format.
Besides frequent interjections of what AQAP interprets as Allah’s will or plan, most poems encouraging jihadists are also vocalized, meaning they include short vowel marks. Although formal Arabic always contains short vowels marks within the structure of the word, vowels are often only written out in the most formal of settings. The most recognized example of written short vowels is the Qur'an. By mimicking the structure of the Qur'an, writes Kendall, AQAP’s poetry can boast religious legitimacy.
In Spring 2012 al-Malahem media disseminated a publication called “In Remembrance of Usama,” referring to Osama bin Laden. The document was a comprehensive collection of his quotes, essays, and poems from bin Laden’s time as a leader in Al Qaeda. Several pages featured collections of his poetry – recorded in cassette tapes – that utilized natural images and historical or religious references present in AQAP’s poetry. By portraying bin Laden as a bard, AQAP drew a direct parallel to him as a local leader, similar to sheikhs who compose poems to conduct tribal mediations.
AQAP also uses verse in their online recruitment videos. In a recent video, posted on June 15, Khalid Saeed Batarfi – a senior member of AQAP and often the face of the organization online – finishes his address with a fourteen-line poem in classical form, discussing the situation in Syria and the necessity of jihad against the West. By mimicking the Qur'an in written poems and also producing oral recitations of jihadist verse, AQAP capitalizes on poetry’s deep connection to the Yemeni social imagination.
The powerful, authoritative aura that poetry has acquired from Yemen’s religious, political, and cultural past plays an important role in the AQAP’s ability to recruit new members and win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni population. Conveying these persuasive messages in a medium that is still extremely popular among Yemenis today only further adds to the validity of AQAP’s standing in the eyes of the populace.
The power of the poem, though often more associated with Shakespeare than the Arab Spring among those in the West, should not be underestimated nor relegated solely to literary studies or anthropology. Wielding the power of poetry, jihadists and liberal revolutionaries alike can sway public opinion. To either counter this new wave of jihadist propaganda or simply better understand the culture of one of the Middle East’s most forgotten countries, we should be listening to the poets, not just the politicians.
- Mazen Hassan, Elisabeth Kendall and Stephen Whiteﬁeld, ‘Media, Cultural Consumption and Normative Support for Democracy in Post-Revolutionary Egypt’ (forthcoming publication).
- Rabi, Uzi, ed. Tribes and States in a Changing Middle East. Oxford University Press, 2016.; Note that there are conflicting views of what constitutes tribal identity and, therefore, what it means to be part of a tribe. This article mainly focuses on tribal status when referring to tribal affiliation or membership and how it defines social standing in Yemeni society. For a counterargument, see Abdulghani al-Iryani’s views in Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2011/03/201131612514814636.html.
- Steven C. Caton "Peaks of Yemen I Summon": Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe. University of California Press, 1990
- Caton "Peaks of Yemen I Summon": Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe.; W. Flagg Miller, The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture In Yemen. Vol. 38. Harvard CMES, 2007.; Shelagh Weir, A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen. Vol. 23. University of Texas Press, 2007.
- Caton, "Peaks of Yemen I Summon": Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe.
- Werbner, Pnina, Martin Webb, and Kathryn Spellman-Poots, eds. The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest: The Arab Spring and Beyond. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
- Najwa Adra, "Tribal Mediation in Yemen and its Implications to Development." Austrian Academy of Sciences, Working Papers in Social Anthropology (2011): 1-19.
- Elisabeth Kendall, "Yemen’s al-Qa'ida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad." Twenty-first Century Jihad: Law, Society and Military Action. London: IB Tauris (2015): 247-69.
- W. Flagg Miller. "Metaphors of Commerce: Trans-valuing Tribalism in Yemeni Audiocassette Poetry." International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, no. 1 (2002): 29-57.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Uuk5H-dzGs&feature=player_embedded (Note: this is an unofficial translation and exact wording of the phrases may vary).
- Sada al-Malahem 8 (March 2009): 29.
- Kendall, "Yemen’s al-Qa'ida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad."
Rachel Furlow is an independent Middle East analyst focusing on Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, currently based in Amman, Jordan. She is an alumna of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.