Politics and Poetry in Yemen

Yemeni literature has not had an easy time of things. As Yemeni poet and journalist Fatima al-Ashby told the Yemen Observer last year, “Yemeni literature’s status is no less shaken than the political, economical, social and security status in the country.”

Although Yemen does have contemporary novelists of note (Ali al-Muqri, Wajdi al Ahdal), for the most part, the form languishes. Yet poetry, in its various forms, plays an important role in Yemeni society. This year’s Prince of Poets was  Yemeni scholar Abdul Aziz al Zoraei. A televised “Yemen Poet” competition had more than a hundred participants.

Also, in a tweet from Yemen:

yazamka Yazeed Kamaldien
amidst bloodshed + tragedy a young poet in #yemen just handed me a copy of her first published collection of poems. book launch postponed.

Harvard professor Steven Caton wrote about the many roles of Yemeni poetry in his book Peaks of Yemen I Summon. According to an interview with the professor in the Harvard University Gazette:

He [Caton] examined the thriving market for cassette-recorded poems. Citizens recorded and sold salvos that were often highly critical of the government.

“The government would have its own poets, who would reply to these challenges,” Caton says. “So you had a fairly lively debate going on about national politics.”

Poetry continues to be a medium for communication, and perhaps also for social control. In an article in Yemen Today, the head of the judging panel for Yemen’s Poet said that their show is different from other poetry contests because, “The Yemen’s Poet Show will help in deepening senses of national loyalty, national unity, and condemning extremism and terrorism. ”

Further, in 2006, poet Amin al-Mashreqi told the Christian Science Monitor that poetry had an important political role to play:

Other countries fight terrorism with guns and bombs, but in Yemen we use poetry. Through my poetry I can convince people of the need for peace who would never be convinced by laws or by force.

Arguably—although his poetry was not political in the same sense as Egyptian competitor Hesham al-Gakh’s, the 26-year-old Yemeni “prince of poets” also won with a political poem. His final poem used a dialogue between a plant and the sand to illustrate themes of moderation and understanding.

Of course, not all Yemeni poetry is a means toward an ends. Banipal 36 showcased a wide variety of Yemeni poets in translation. Among the featured poets, Shawqi Shafiq was one of the most engaging and original. He writes vividly about physical pleasures, and also, enjoyably, of “the alleged poet” and “the alleged poetess.”  The excerpt below was translated by Sinan Antoon:

1 The Alleged Poetess

The poetess who was fixing her braids

and combing her body with perfume

and heavy makeup

in an attempt to sweeten her poem,

when that alleged poetess ascended

to recite what she alleged

to be her poem

the poem fell.

Her braids, makeup and lipstick remained,

the alleged poetess remained

a poetess


Read on

More about Yemeni literature:

Dammaj’s The Hostage was listed at 45. The novel was very ably team-translated by May Jayyusi and C. Tingley and published by Interlink. I found it enjoyable, vivid, and moving.

Wali’s Sana’a: An Open City was listed at 58, and is not available in English translation. However, his  They Die Strangers was translated by Abubaker Bagader and Deborah Akers and published by the University of Texas Press.

  • As noted above, Banipal 36 was dedicated to Yemeni literature. The issue, I’m afraid, was not as compelling—for instance—as Banipal 37, which was dedicated to Iraqi lit; the poetry was definitely the highlight. The issue also featured the prose of Habib Abdulrab Sarori, Ali al-Muqri, Nadia AlKowkabani, and Wajdi Al-Ahdal. Al-Ahdal’s, I thought, was the most successful of the group.