Photographic Source: اليمن الجمهوري
by Emily Sumner
Graduate Student in Arabic Literature, Culture & Media
Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
College of Liberal Arts
University of Minnesota
In the celebrated Yemeni novel الرهينة (The Hostage) by Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj, the protagonist, a hostage of the imam, is greeted by the soldiers living in the governor’s palace with verses of a zāmil:
يا دويدار قد أمك فاقدة لك.
Oh Duwaydar, your mother misses you
Her tears are like rain
The inclusion of zawāmil in a Yemeni novel is indicative of their place in Yemeni life. Zawāmil accompany Yemen’s poignant historical moments, such as the fall of the imamate and establishment of the Republic. They are a lively component of Yemen’s cultural heritage, shedding light on its people’s social, political and literary history.
The footnote to the above zāmil in The Hostage defines it as a “traditional communal chant,” نشيد جماعي تقليدي. A reductionist definition, yet it does get at the heart of what scholars have consistently said about this poetic genre: it expresses communal feeling and is performed by a group in response to a social occasion. In the case of The Hostage, the arrival of the Duwaydar prompts the zāmil; other moments that may inspire Yemenis to perform zawāmil are as divergent as the joy of weddings and the trials of war.
In his book Folk Literature Arts in Yemen (1988), ‘Abd Allāh al-Baraddūnī suggests that the zawāmil were dwindling at that time for a variety of reasons, chief among them the advent of modern weapons, which he claims stifle the zāmil’s pervasive sounds and rhythm. He contrasts the days when lines of men marched to battle while chanting a zāmil, their voices echoing in the air and overtaking their surroundings, with soldiers’ voices contained within moving cars. He concludes by asserting the zāmil is being reduced to “merely moral incitement, or the extension of a declining practice.”
Yet the proliferation of zawāmil during the current war indicates their continued salience in Yemeni life and the ways in which Yemenis adapt cultural forms to suit novel circumstances. Al-Baradduni is not wrong—the zāmil is “moral incitement,” but perhaps the term “merely” is misplaced. The various sides of the current armed conflict, whether Houthis, pro-government forces, or supporters of the Coalition, compose zawāmil that are available not only to Yemenis but to a much wider audience on social media. The zāmil reverberates within Yemen and beyond its borders.
By way of example, below is one popular Houthi zāmil retrieved from YouTube, along with my translation:
أداء: عيسى الليث
كلمات: محمد الجرف
|وقت النقا حان ويل المعتدي ويله
||1. إستنفري ياجيوش الله في مأرب
|والجن والإنس والأملاك تصغي له
||2. جنود ربي حماة الدار تتأهب
|وبندقي في الخصم يدي مواويله
||3. الله أكبر صداها في الحشا يلهب
|يابندقي لاهنت سامرني الليله
||4. صنعاء بعيده قولوا له الرياض أقرب
|كلاً حزم عدته واسرج على خيله
||5. القوم شبت نكفها للقاء ترغب
|حتى ولو في بطون الأرض نأتي له
||6. قولوا لسلمان ماله مننا مهرب
|المعتدي يالغبي يبشر بتنكيله
||7. هذا اليمن من تجاهلنا فقد جرب
Vocals: ‘Isa al-Laith
Words: Mohamad al-Jaraf
- Get ready for war, armies of Allah in Ma’rib!
The time for honesty has come. Woe to the aggressor, woe to him!
- My Lord’s soldiers, the protectors of the land, are getting ready.
The jinn, humans and angels all heed Him.
- “Allah is great!” Its echo blazes inside [of them].
My rifle in the conflict performs its songs.
- Sanʿaʾ is far away, tell him Riyadh is closer!
Oh my rifle – may God protect you from humiliation – keep me company tonight.
- The people’s disdain blazes and they crave an encounter.
Everyone has fastened their weapon and saddled their horse.
- Tell Salman he will never escape us!
Even in the bowels of the Earth we will get to him.
- This is Yemen! Whoever ignored us has learned his lesson!
The aggressor – that idiot – heralds his own destruction!
 p. 18, translation my own.
 p. 147.
 Al-Laith, ʿĪsā, “Zāmil Ṣanʿāʾ baīdah qūlū lahu ar-Riyāḍ aqrab.” YouTube video, 5:36, posted by
Shamūkh Yamānī, December 31, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tRFJdzQwZw. Accessed February 23, 2020.