Yemen's Houthi rebels turn to poetry in country's cultural battle

Yemen's Houthi rebels turn to poetry in country's cultural battle
Zawamil poetry is a popular traditional artform in Yemen but it has also become a weapon of choice for the Houthis.
4 min read
Yemen's Houthis have weapons other than just guns [Getty]
Yemen's Houthi rebels, whose austere interpretation of Islam outlaws most forms of music, are increasingly turning to traditional poetry to woo support in a "soft war" against the Saudi-backed government.

Short-form poems, known as zawamil, are a much-loved part of Yemen's tribal heritage, played or performed at weddings and other social occasions.

In the hands of the Houthi rebels who control the capital Sanaa and most of the north, they have become a vehicle for martial music and propaganda against the government's Gulf Arab and Western supporters. 

Zawamil are popular across Yemen - in the government-held south as well as the rebel-held north.

But the rebel administration in Sanaa has invested greater effort in their production for propaganda purposes and has stepped up its output in recent months.

Six years after a Saudi-led military intervention pushed impoverished Yemen into a protracted war of attrition, the ground fighting has intensified with a bloody battle for the city of Marib, the government's last significant toehold in the north.

Read more: Famine, secession and bloodshed: Six years of war in Yemen

The Iran-backed rebels believe their capture of the city and its surrounding oil fields would give them vital leverage in negotiations on ending the war - talks that US President Joe Biden says must start soon.

As the casualties have mounted, so too has the rebels' production of patriotic-themed zawamil to inspire supporters to head to the front.

From Marib to Jerusalem

Earlier this year, they released a song called "Marib is ours," composed by one of their most famous poets, Issa al-Laith, and recorded by their own production company.

"Marib is ours, not for you hypocrites, who sold your religion and nation for [Saudi] riyals," the lyrics say.

It and similar anthems lambasting the government as a puppet of Yemen's wealthy Gulf Arab neighbours dominate the air waves in rebel-held areas.

In addition to the millions of views on YouTube and SoundCloud, such compositions are regularly performed at weddings and at the traditional afternoon gatherings where Yemeni men chew the narcotic qat and talk politics.

According to Ahmed al-Arami, executive director of the Arabia Felix Center for Studies, zawamil are "the only form of music which the Houthis can allow."

Since the current conflict erupted in 2014, the rebels have seized large swathes of the country in which they have imposed their strict rules on dress, gender segregation and entertainment.

The Houthis are followers of the minority Zaydi faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that incorporates elements of Sunni jurisprudence, and prohibits all other forms of music as un-Islamic.

"This art form is to a large extent similar in its role and purpose to the spirited anthems of jihadist and Muslim groups in general, such as [Lebanon's] Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and [Palestinian Islamist group] Hamas," Arami said.

'Intercontinental weapon'

A number of composers and vocalists in the rebel-held capital declined to speak to AFP about their poems.

But the propaganda value of zawamil is not lost on the rebels. A long article published on the website of their Al-Masirah television station described the short poems as an "intercontinental weapon" in their "soft war" against the government and its allies.

"A thousand Beethovens could not come up with [zawamil] whose words are sonnets that a thousand Shakespeares could not come up with," it said.

In their lyrics, rebel poets often take up popular Arab causes, like the Palestinian claim to east Jerusalem and its revered al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site.

In the song "Marib is ours," the vocalist urges listeners to "protect lands to the west and east, and liberate al-Aqsa from the [Israeli] occupation."

Washington is a frequent target for the poets' anger because of the surveillance and refuelling support it gave until recently to the Saudi-led bombing campaign against rebel-held areas.

"Who else but America has supported strikes on homes?" one popular poem asks.

"Who else has rung the bells of war? How often has it fought us with signals and remotes and, today, it comes to us with Arabs as its guards."

Supporters of the government have responded with compositions of their own, although Arami said their output has been less well organised than the rebels'.

Their anthem, "Free people of Marib," which was released late last year, also appeals to Yemeni nationalism, but portrays the rebels as unpatriotic for taking their ideological lead from Iran.

It refers to the rebels as "grandchildren" of Iran's late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and promises that the Yemeni army will "teach them a lesson."

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