“In our sea their sins must drive them”: The Righteousness of the Huthi Zamil

By Emily Sumner
Submitted to Session P5279 (Composing a Community of Words in the Islamic World: From Medieval to Modern, 2018 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Saudi Arabia; Yemen;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The takeover of San‘a’ in September 2014 by Ansar Allah, also known as the Huthis, prompted the interference of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi Arabia. What began as “Operation Decisive Storm” in March 2015 has since become a far-reaching military campaign and blockade. While the Huthis have been pushed out of parts of Yemen, they cemented their grip on San‘a’ in December 2017 after killing former president ‘Ali ‘Abd Allah Salih, with whom they shared a tenuous alliance. Since 2014 the Huthis have controlled San‘a’ and created a new “wordscape” through the composition and spread of the zamil, a genre of Yemeni poetry in which they address the righteous nature of their cause. The zamil pervades San‘a’, from its performance at weddings and political rallies to its broadcast on loudspeakers on the street and military checkpoints. However, the zamil is not limited to San‘a’. It has also crossed borders, most notably through social media, and garnered responses by Saudi poets. In many of these poems, the apparent religious discourse is of particular interest. One poem that has prompted Saudi retaliations is “The Gates of Najran,” a zamil so widespread that a search on Youtube results in recordings with a million hits.

While the Yemeni conflict and the zamil as a genre have received separate scholarly attention, the Huthi zamil’s religious discourse and the Saudi responses have not. Scholars have associated the zamil with tribalism and have understood its composition as an act of persuasion and assertion of honor (Caton 1993). In the case of “The Gates of Najran,” religious rhetoric is a primary tool of persuasion. This paper analyzes “The Gates of Najran” and the response of Saudi poet Nayif Husayn al-Ka‘bi. The response of al-Ka‘bi challenges the zamil’s message while utilizing similar religious rhetoric. These two poems demonstrate the potency of the zamil in the current conflict, a new “wordscape” that crosses borders, posing a threat to Saudi intervention by laying claim to Huthi justice and Saudi tyranny.