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“The Words Pierce Hearts”: Affect, Nationalism and Congruence in the Houthi Zamil
The zamil (plural: zawamil­) boasts a long history in Yemen and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. According to legend, Yemenis first encountered this poetry genre in the third century when a group of tribesmen heard the jinn chanting as they battled one another. The sound of the poetry prompted the tribesmen to emerge from a cave, where they were hiding from Roman warriors, to resume their fight. Yemenis have composed their own zawamil ever since (al-Baraduni 1998; Harithi 2004). Regardless of the truth in this legend, the presence of this story among Yemenis indicates that they understand the zawamil as a long-held tradition. In the context of the current conflicts in Yemen, the zawamil flourish. Zawamil have gone viral on social media, with some boasting over a million views on YouTube. They are part of the daily soundscape in Sanaa, heard in the marketplace, at military checkpoints, and at tribal events; children sing them while at play. Some listen to zawamil on MP3s at home, and many play the zawamil from their cell phones. Previous scholarship characterizes the zamil as persuasive rhetoric, a powerful weapon in times of war, particularly in the context of tribal disputes (Caton 1990; Miller 2007; Harithi 2004). This paper analyzes conversations with a Yemeni family living in Sanaa about their daily experiences with the Houthi zawamil, not so much to disprove the idea that the zamil is a kind of persuasive rhetoric, but to explicate how individuals experience the phenomenon of persuasion and what kind of action it inspires. Taking cues from this Yemeni family, this paper is a phenomenological account of the zamil as a nationalist practice; as a cultural form that is congruent with (yunasib) the listener; and as an affective force. Through these three lenses, the paper traces how the zamil interacts with Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (1972) to animate a myriad of embodied practices. The varied responses this family claims the zamil inspires, with some rushing to join the Houthi army, and others simply humming along to it while they do their daily tasks, speaks to the flexibility of habitus and the ways in which cultural forms work productively in relationship with it. By examining the dissonances in one Yemeni family’s experience of the zamil, this paper offers a novel approach to Yemeni poetry, its force in everyday life and the current political landscape.
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