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Revoicing Resistance in Yemen

Panel VI-8, sponsored byAmerican Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS), 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, periods of political upheaval and revolution gave new impulses to popular expressions of resistance in Yemen and sparked a thriving production of oral, poetic, and literary forms of resistance challenging prevailing relations of power and hegemony. In a deeply stratified country, a multitude of actors and groups have turned to poetic and literary genres in efforts to challenge existing and emerging regimes, renegotiate their relationship to dominant social and cultural orders, and better realize their hopes for justice, participation, equality, and dignity. The panel “Revoicing Resistance in Yemen” aims to explore the opportunities as well as challenges of mobilizing resistance in 20th and 21st century Yemen through recourse to indigenous forms of orality, poetry, literary expression, and dissemination. It investigates forms of popular poetic expression such as the tribal ode and the zāmil and their roles in the awakening and communication of political consciousness and resistance in times of upheaval and transition. Another integral part of Yemen’s protest cultures is political slogans that play a central role in the dissemination of the Southern Movement’s counter-narrative as they seek to re-establish an independent Southern state. A further focus of the panel is biography and life writing, for biographical production has long mirrored the changes at the heart of power structures and elite constellations in Yemen, and after 1962 life writing emerged as a powerful means to communicate protest and express resistance to dominant political conditions. Finally, the panel enquires into entanglements between resistance and publication strategy: it shows that at a time marked by the rise of repression, political authoritarianism and the militarization of faith, the publication strategy of a publishing house can make a difference in advancing the multivocality and diversity of Yemen’s vibrant intellectual cultures.
Political Science
  • 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.
  • Biography and life writing have long mirrored prevalent power structures and elite constellations in Yemen. Before the 1962 revolution, biography primarily featured the sīrah and ṭabaqāt genres, both of which served to elaborate and strengthen existing discourses of legitimacy and domination. After the 1962 revolution that ended a millennium of sayyid rule in Yemen’s north, this shift in power structures was also reflected in biographical production, for it contributed to a new prominence of non-sayyid, non-saintly, non-elite persons, who had not previously been the focus of biographers, and brought them into the spotlight of biographical production and thus the focus of cultural memory. In the decades after the revolution, life writing began to focus on the lives of non-elite persons who in one way or another represented the new ethos of the northern Republican state, which derived its legitimacy above all from Qaḥṭanism (South Arabian tribal heritage) and its opposition to the ancien régime. This paper discusses the biography of a such a non-learned, non-elite person in rural post-republican highland Yemen: The life and the times of a tribal leader (shaykh) from Sufyān in ʿAmrān province, as recorded by the author. The special feature of this biography is that it retells Yemeni history from the vantage point of one who was in constant opposition to the regime of ʿAlī ʿAbdallāh Ṣāliḥ (r. 1978-2012; d. 2017). The shaykh’s firm opposition and associated status as outsider and “unperson” in the political system of republican Yemen render his life story a kind of alternative discourse that retells the recent history of northern Yemen from a suppressed, “peripheral” point of view. As the grand themes of his life, the motives of resistance (muʿāriḍah) and “proud refusal” (ibāʾ) to prevalent power structures run through his narrative, produce his life story, and enable him to offer a complementary view of recent Yemeni history “from the margins.”
  • The Southern Movement was born in protest in 2007 against the marginalization of South Yemenis since Yemeni unification in 1990. The movement aims at reestablishing an independent state on the territory of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which united with the Yemen Arab Republic in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen. Since its emergence, the Southern Movement has challenged official state versions of the past, concentrating attention on the suppressed South Yemeni experiences and taking over the role of reprocessing the past as well as allowing remembrance from below. As a result, a counternarrative has formed that opposes the national unity narrative of the Republic of Yemen. Slogans are an integral part of the protest culture in South Yemen. They are ideological bricks in the structure of resistance of the Southern Movement and the means for transmitting the major claims of the movement to the outside world. Their content touches upon the collective memory, reminding protesters of their common objectives as well as common enemy, in turn having effects on the dissemination of the Southern Movement’s counternarrative. Using specific examples from my ethnographic research on the Southern Movement, I illustrate that slogans are significant sources of the movement’s counternarrative and are used in very different circumstances – not only during protests of the movement but also in school gatherings – to strengthen the desire for independence.
  • This paper will examine contemporary currents of literary formalism that are being mobilized through a grass-roots, active publication industry in southern Yemen. In stride with efforts to bring about restorative justice, Yemeni publishers, along with their authors and audiences, are renewing enquiry into the histories and dynamism of literary genre in efforts to resist the ongoing perils of neo-colonial domination and militarized nation-states. Coordinating their work with post-graduate research universities across Yemen as well as with welfare organizations and non-government organizations, a handful of publishing houses in Aden in and Hadramawt, especially, have succeeded in producing dozens of volumes annually focusing on such genres as historical narrative and its regional inflections, the print-news obituary, the art of the essay, the biographical memoire, the encyclopedia, tribal poetry and its social media uptake, and Western Orientalist historiography relating to Yemen. Renewed attention to the formal demands of genre, I argue, provides Yemenis with a way to recognize past violence while also seeking to circumscribe its effects. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with Yemenis in Cairo, I focus, in particular, on literary and heritage activism sponsored by Dar Al-Wefaq, a distributor that was founded in approximately 2014 to help develop Yemen’s academic publishing industry. Special attention will be given to the distributor’s use of social media to engage Yemenis in the diaspora as well as Arabic readerships across the Middle East in re-envisioning what the literary arts can bring to political reform efforts in the country.
  • In a crowded, smoke-filled coffeeshop of a middle-class neighborhood of Cairo, a military commander in Yemen’s Civil War laughed and sipped herbal tea as he narrated to me how he blared a Ḥūthī zāmil from his military vehicle when ambushing his enemies. The zāmil is a form of chanted folk poetry composed by tribes of the Arabian Peninsula; the Ḥūthī zāmil is a rendering of this poetry on mass media. It is enormously popular and constitutes the backbone of the group’s recruitment campaign. Its popularity stretches beyond Yemen and has become a transnational sensation on social media platforms such as YouTube and Telegram. The paradoxical practice of listening to Ḥūthī poetry while fighting them confirmed what I had already heard several times over: some of the Ḥūthīs’ enemies find the poems compelling enough to raise the morale of their own men. As such, it is a form of ḥamāsah (excitement) poetry. This paper investigates the term qūwah —"strength” or “force”— that is often ascribed to the Ḥūthī zāmil. It combines a close reading of the zāmil, “To the Frontlines My Lord Calls Me,” and analysis of ethnographic material and social media content to better understand the zāmil's salience in the Yemeni Civil War. I approach qūwah through the prisms of performance and affect, which shed light not only on how the zāmil is perceived as forceful in the Yemeni and Arab context, but also on how power is culturally and contingently constructed. Performance also allows room for the ways in which listeners, readers, and watchers of this poetry negotiate with power in the process of resisting, subverting, or embodying it. By centering affect, I move beyond a paradigm where the primary emotion associated with ḥamāsah poetry is excitement on the battlefield. Instead, I read it as an affective force that circulates, passing by and affecting those on the margins of its practice.