The emergence of modernist poetic idiom in Yemen is typically linked to the poetic works and persona of Muḥammad Maḥmūd al-Zubayrī (1910-1965), Yemen’s celebrated revolutionary-era poet and composer of ardent nationalist and pan-Arabist odes. Al-Zubayrī’s poetic works are frequently likened to those of other neo-classical, nationalist poets from elsewhere in the Arab world such as Aḥmad Shawqī in Egypt and Ma’rūf al-Ruṣāfī in Iraq, and as such, al-Zubayrī’s works are understood to represent a new direction in the development of popular Yemeni poetry. Without contesting the key role of al-Zubayrī’s poetry in the awakening of a national-political consciousness in Yemen, it is important to recognize the ways in which al-Zubayrī’s work is rooted in tradition and precedent.
Yemen enjoys a robust tradition of popular poetic engagement that is centered in non-cosmopolitan milieus and directed towards rural histories and cultural practices. Like its nabaṭī neighbor to the north and east, the Yemeni tribal ode has historically remained undocumented in deference to the literary poetics of the cultured elite. One exception stands out: Shaykh ‘Alī Nāṣir al-Qarda’ī (d. 1948), an iconic figure of tribal resistance to Imām Yaḥyā (d. 1948) whose poetic works were preserved and published in written form, in addition to being orally circulated amongst his kin and their descendants. Analysis of the poetic dīwān of al-Qarda’ī allows for an exploration into the tribal poetic foundation of Yemeni poetic neo-classicism and modernism. At the same time, a close reading of the works of al-Qarda’ī suggests ways in which a subsequent generation of nationalist poets such as Muḥammad al-Zubayrī, Zayd al-Mawshikī, and Aḥmad al-Shāmī, developed a new framework for poetic socio-political critique based on popular authority rather than personal grievance. In short, my presentation will serve to introduce and explore the poetic craft of ‘Alī Nāṣir al-Qarda’ī, one of Yemen’s most famous proto-nationalist poets.