Tribal Poetry, the Beat of Yemen

By Steven C. Caton

When I went to Yemen in 1979 for dissertation fieldwork on Arabic tribal poetry, I had not been a lover of poetry. The novel, the short story, the play, yes, but poetry? It seemed esoteric and too inward-turning for my tastes. Yet it is something that Arabs love, whether literate or not, rural or urban, upper class or working class. As my dissertation in anthropology, linguistics, and Middle East studies had to combine my interests in language and culture, I chose poetry, albeit ambivalently, as the focus of my research.

I had not anticipated discovering a poetic tradition so different from my own. Tribal poetry is oral in that it is composed in the course of a performance, often from scratch, and requires great presence of mind and wit because one never knows when one might be challenged in verse and need to reply. Moreover, it is performed for key ceremonial occasions, such as weddings and religious festivals, as well as being a part of such social institutions as dispute mediations, where it is thought to have an effect in persuading the litigants to come to a peaceful solution to their differences. In other words, oral poetry is at the heart of public life. I had not expected it to be so politically edgy either, with everyone from sheikhs to the country’s president criticized directly for their missteps. The greatest poems were taped so that they could circulate more widely in the Yemeni public sphere, and they often dealt with issues of national and international import. Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Peace Accords, for instance, were very much in the news those days and were hotly discussed in the poems I collected.

It was difficult research, not the least because of the linguistic challenges. I had studied Arabic formally in graduate school and spent two years before beginning my fieldwork living and working in Saudi Arabia, where I learned spoken or conversational Arabic. But Yemeni, and especially tribal Arabic, was a different beast and nearly untamable at the start. Thankfully, I made friends with tribesmen, who helped me understand the vernacular, and with poets, who taught me the forms of their poetic art. But the language turned out to be the least daunting prospect. Living in a tribal district of Yemen known as Khawlan al-Tiyal seemed unimaginable to my Yemeni friends, who warned me that the tribes were violent people. Indeed, while I was there a war broke out over an abduction of two tribal women, centered in the village where I was living because the alleged abductor came from there. But the dispute was settled through a lengthy mediation process, from which resulted a treasure trove of poetry. Before I followed this event, I had not really understood how deeply poetry is implicated in tribal political life.

I came back to the University of Chicago after nearly three years of fieldwork and wrote my dissertation (which later became a book), “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe (1990). I had a newfound respect for verse, which I didn’t have before I went to Yemen and which various cultural trends in the United States at the time heightened. None was more closely related to the tradition I had studied in Yemen than rap.

In the years since I completed my fieldwork, I wondered what had happened to this lively poetic art form. Education had spread to Khawlan, a good thing, for illiteracy was an appalling problem in the country, but I suspected that with writing and the standard language would come prejudices against oral communication and dialect that would erode the oral tradition. And the introduction of a Salafi Islam into regions like Khawlan since the 1980s militated against nonreligious performative verse.

Then came February 2011, when people in Yemen, like those in other countries, began to demonstrate against the country’s long-term president. I was mesmerized to see on television hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets of the capital, Sana’a, and the country’s second largest city, Taiz, and among the crowd I recognized many tribesmen. The degree to which the tribes of Yemen were part of these revolutionary events is one of the great stories of this period, and it has yet to be told. Many came at the command of their sheikhs, but many others came to heed the call of freedom and to transcend their factional interests for the sake of national goals. They laid down their guns before entering the city and linked arms with the youth of Yemen to join in common protest. Many tribesmen died from police fire. It was stunning to hear the poetry I had studied more than thirty years earlier being chanted loud and clear in the protest marches.

You can hear this poetry on the Internet, though be warned: what you hear and see are slick studio versions of the originals, adapted to a media-savvy audience, and not the performances that occurred in the streets and the tents. But that’s okay. Artistic traditions are living and dynamic and this one is no exception. Even on the Internet, however, one can come across in situ performances captured by cell-phone videos and posted on YouTube. Tribal poetry, far from being squashed politically, has turned out to be perhaps the voice of the Yemeni revolution. Not coincidentally, perhaps, rap poetry is now at the forefront of protests against the government in Dakar, Senegal. Although social media are being vaunted as the communications backbone of street revolutions in the world today, oral poetry is their flesh and blood.

Steven C. Caton is Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies in the Department of Anthropology, Harvard University.

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