Barnaby Rogerson

How the Houthis wage war through poetry

It is through verse that the Houthi regime asserts its legitimacy, confounds its enemies and rallies its supporters

The zamil oral tradition speaks not of emirs, but sits the listener with the farmers and shepherds of the Yemeni highlands. Tuul & Bruno Morandi

Poetry is politics in the Yemen. When the last Imam of Yemen, who was also the hereditary ruler, was deposed in a coup in 1962, it was a local poet who announced the change of regime on the radio, in verse of course. And the current al-Houthi regime in the north of the country, like all its predecessors, asserts its legitimacy, confounds its enemies and rallies its supporters through poetry.

As an aspect of their cause, they have consciously avoided high-Arabic poetry – a literate, urban cultural form – and have made use of the zamil tradition, which immediately speaks not of the palaces of emirs and princes, but takes the listener to sit beside the farmers and Bedouin shepherds in the villages and hills.

Zamil poetry shapes the great events of life – from weddings to war

Zamil oral poetry is, under a variety of names, an Arabia-wide practice. Banish any memories you might have of poetry recitals here – the small gathering of shy writers reading myopically from their slim volumes. Instead imagine a vast tent in which a cocksure young warrior, one hand on his sword, the other puncturing the air, is chanting his verses to a striking rhythm set up by a drum and supported by the melancholic melody of a flute, the entire audience excitedly singing along to the refrain-like couplets.

This is zamil (plural zawamil) which, unlike the literate traditions of Arabic poetry, is not governed by precise rules of metre and internal rhyme, but is ready to be shaped for any of the great events of life. It might be used to celebrate a wedding – and to generously introduce the two families to each other; there might be duels between rival poets brandishing rival politics with humour or deadly zeal (zajal); there can be eulogies for the dead (madih), praise of the tribe (qitah), denigration of the enemy (hija’) and hamasah, calls to war.

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