Poetry and Tribalism in Yemen

By Mohammed Sharafuddin
Submitted to Session P3658 (Tribes in Yemen: The View from Within, 2014 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
Tribalism is an important component of the culture and politics of Yemen. As a result of recent events that have taken place in the country and the whole region, tribalism has earned a poor reputation as reflected in the hostile perception prevalent in the mass media and scholarly writings produced inside and outside Yemen. Much of the misunderstanding we have about the tribes and their roles in Yemeni life and politics is due to insufficient awareness of the practices and values upheld by Yemeni tribes themselves. A close examination of the poetry written by tribesmen and tribeswomen can guide us to a clearer perception and appreciation of the concept itself and its values as seen from within.

One reason why the concept of tribalism has been misunderstood, and oftentimes deliberately misconstrued, is that most of the judgments made come from outside the tribes, and from those who have little understanding of its customs and practices. Tribesmen and tribeswomen do not often speak about themselves, nor do they have the means to disseminate their ideas to others who hold different values and perspectives. There has been a terrible lack of communication between Yemeni tribes and the outside world, hence the massive misunderstanding and misrepresentation taking place until now.

Tribal poetry has its origins and principles in ancient Arabic history and culture. Until today poetry has been the main channel through which the tribe can express itself and its views towards social life and politics. Examining the poetry written over the last three decades can help us explain tribal customs and practices as well as further our understanding of the ways tribes perceive their relationships with other tribes and the world beyond. In this paper I propose to show that poetry can present a positive prism through which tribalism can be perceived and evaluated.