PublicationsStudiesExperiencing the Ḥūthī Zāmil

4 September، 2021by Emily Sumner0

The Ḥūthī Zāmil is part of Sanaa’s daily soundscape. The zawāmil can be heard in the marketplace, at military checkpoints, at tribal events…Beyond Yemen, zawāmil have gone viral on social media, with some boasting millions of views

Emily Sumner

هذه المقالة متاحة باللغة العربية


On the night of 25 March 2015, I called my friends Anīs and Mona (both pseudonyms) in a panic. I paced the tiny hallway of my apartment in Boston as I heard the phone ring over and over, hoping to hear their voices on the other line. After far too much time, Anīs answered. He reassured me that he, Mona, and their children were safe. They were considering leaving Sanaa[1] for their home village in the coming days but had not yet made a final decision.

This was the night that Operation Decisive Storm, an air campaign against the Yemeni group known as the Ḥūthīs, began. Led by Saudi Arabia, this operation officially ended in late April 2015, yet consistent bombing of Sanaa and other Ḥūthī sites continues unabated. Mona and Anīs still live in Sanaa, and they have become accustomed to the sounds of explosions overhead. They have also grown used to hearing something else: the Ḥūthī zāmil (plural: zawāmil).

The zāmil is a genre of sung or chanted poetry composed in the Arabian Peninsula, especially Yemen (al-Ḥārithī 2004:61). Outside of Yemen, zawāmil are composed in Saudi Arabia (Jizān and Najrān) and the western portion of Oman (Ẓufār). According to legend, Yemenis first encountered zawāmil in the 3rd century when a group of tribesmen happened upon jinn (spirits that can be good or evil) chanting as they battled one another. The sound of the poetry prompted the tribesmen to emerge from the cave, where they were hiding from Roman warriors, to resume their fight. Yemenis have composed zawāmil ever since (al-Baraddūnī 1998:136-137). In this story, the sound of the zāmil  banishes fear and inspires courage in the hearts of the tribesmen; a zāmil such as this is ḥamāsa, a genre of Arabic poetry composed since the centuries before Islam.  Ḥamāsah poetry is often composed to provoke emotions in war.

Anthropologist Steven C. Caton’s seminal work, Peaks of Yemen I Summon, argues the zāmil is persuasive rhetoric. He analyzes a tribal conflict in Khalwān, an area of the Yemeni Highlands located east of Sanaa and associated with the Bakīl tribal confederation. In the dispute, each side offers their own zawāmil expressing their point of view, and a poetic sparring ensues. The poetry is a vehicle for the two sides to negotiate. Per Caton, the first and most essential foundation for any persuasion is to construct a certain type of self through language. The zāmil is a speech act where social groups index specific identities in order to place those in the conflict in a shared social world in which agreement is conceivable. Caton provides four avenues through which persuasion occurs: the construction of “the persuasive character (self) of the speaker”; “attempts by the speaker to arouse the emotion of his audience, which will impel him to act in a certain way”; “the argument”; and “poetic form” (1990:159-60). His analysis, however, focuses on the first and fourth points. Caton demonstrates how tribesmen construct honorable selves through language and the artfulness of the poetic form, both of which grant the zāmil persuasive power (1990:127-79).

The Ḥuthīs are prolific composers of the zāmil, and their poems have traveled within Yemen’s borders and beyond (Hasan 2018). The Ḥūthī zāmil foundationally depends upon the local, folk zāmil, but is not its equivalent. Political analysis and media coverage discussing the phenomenon of the Ḥūthī zāmil have emerged. Among the points that analysts make regarding the Ḥūthī zāmil is that, like the folk zāmil, the poems are brandished as psychological, political and social weapons (Hasan 2018; Nasir 2016). Hannah Porter engages with the Ḥūthī zāmil in her discussion of Ḥūthī media’s evolution since taking over Sanaa. She describes the zawāmil as one of the tools they rely upon to communicate their message and, along with anāshīd, as “possibly the most versatile and beloved form of Ḥūthī propaganda” (2020).

My analysis of the zāmil relies on a phone conversation with Anīs on 13 March 2019. Rather than disprove that the zāmil is persuasive rhetoric, I explore how individuals experience the phenomenon of persuasion and what kind of action it inspires. Taking cues from Anīs, I analyze the zāmil as a nationalistic practice; as a cultural form that suits the listener; and as an affective force. Through these three lenses, Anīs’s discussion provides insights as to how the zāmil interacts with habitus[2] to animate a myriad of embodied practices. The varied responses to the zāmil, with some allegedly rushing to join the Ḥuthī army, and others simply humming along to it while they do their daily tasks, speak to the flexibility of habitus and the ways in which cultural forms work productively in relationship with it.

In order to understand the context from which Anīs is speaking, a description of the current conflict(s) and their historical genealogy is warranted, followed by a brief discussion of the zāmil’s defining characteristics, the poetry’s presence in Sanaa, and the lyrics of one particularly popular zāmil.


Historical Overview

Yemen, like many countries in the Middle East, has experienced conflict since the Arab Spring of 2011. Many were hopeful that the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, which facilitated a transfer of power from President ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ to his vice president, ‘Abdu Rabbuh Manṣūr Hādī, would bring positive changes for the poorest country in the Middle East. Instead, the political situation quickly unraveled. In the fall of 2014, the Ḥuthīs descended from the far north of Yemen and took control of the capital, Sanaa, eventually forcing Hādī to escape to Aden and then Saudi Arabia, where he continues to live remotely while holding fast to the office of president.

Animosity between the Ḥūthīs, Saudi Arabia, and the Yemeni government existed well before the Ḥūthī takeover of Sanaa. The Ḥūthīs, or Anṣār Allāh, belong to the Zaydī sect, a Shī‘ah group that ruled parts of northern Yemen as an imamate with varying degrees of control from the 9th century until the Yemen Arab Republic formed in 1962. During the imamate, some sādah, or descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, held positions of high esteem. Theoretically, the imam is fallible in Zaydī Islam, and leadership is not a question of direct descent. In order to qualify as a legitimate imam, a sayyid’s bloodline is not enough; he must also prove his  religious knowledge (vom Bruck 2005: 103-105). When circumstances required it, imams called for allegiance and performed khurūj, rising up against an unjust ruler (vom Bruck 2010; Haider 2010). The Believing Youth, who later became the Hūthīs, emerged in the context of marginalization of the sādah and others in the Republic (vom Bruck 2010). Furthermore, the Hūthīs were enraged when ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ allied with the United States in the War on Terror. According to al-Wazīr, at this point the movement began calling for khurūj (2015), but this term has not been used by the Hūthīs (Brandt 2017), nor have they explicitly called for the restoration of the imamate.

In 2004, the leader of the Hūthī  movement, Ḥusayn Badr al-Dīn al-Ḥūthī, was executed on Ṣāliḥ’s orders outside of Saada (Brandt 2017; Wedeen 2008). War in Saada and the surrounding areas continued intermittently from 2004 onward. In 2009, after the conflict had spread to the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Saudi Arabia allied with the Yemeni government to quell the Ḥūthī resistance (Alwazir 2015; Brandt 2017). Saudi Arabia’s attack on a Shī‘ah group prompted anger from Iran, while the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of infringing upon Yemeni sovereignty by directly abetting the Hūthīs. However, there is no proof of Iranian interference in Saada until 2011 (Brandt 2017).

In 2014, the Ḥūthīs took Sanaa with the help of former president Saliḥ. In March 2015, the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by the Saudi government, began Operation Decisive Storm. The United States and Britain have provided tactical assistance as well as weapons. After the Ḥūthīs launched a missile that exploded near Riyadh International Airport, the Saudi Arabian government instituted a blockade, a move criticized internationally for its humanitarian implications. By early December, Ṣāliḥ announced the end of his alliance with the Ḥūthīs and his willingness to negotiate with the coalition. After a few days of fierce battles between Ṣāliḥ’s forces and the Ḥūthīs, the Ḥūthīs executed him and further cemented their hold on Sanaa. At the time of writing, the Ḥūthīs dominate much of Yemen’s north. While espousing a rhetoric of fighting injustice, they exert an alarming amount of control over those living in their territory and do not tolerate dissent. Also notable in the context of this paper are the cultural centers they have set up in neighborhoods, where they teach Yemenis their ideology and recruit fighters.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iran,  the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are deeply involved in Yemen. They maintained a direct military presence in the South until February 2020. Saudi Arabia’s government has supported Yemen’s internationally recognized government, while the UAE supports the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which declared self-governance in April of 2020. Fighting between the Yemeni government and the STC has threatened the unity of a Yemeni state in the South and weakened the Yemeni government’s position in relation to the Ḥūthīs (Sanaa Center 2020). In December 2020, President Hadī announced the formation of a power-sharing government; the new cabinet includes members of the Southern Transitional Council, belatedly adhering to parts of the Riyadh Agreement signed in November 2019. Within moments of the new government officials landing in Aden, ballistic missiles fired by the Ḥūthīs targeted the airport. While no prominent government figures were killed, the attack resulted in 25 deaths (Sanaa Center 2021).  Al-Qā’idah and the Islamic State further complicate the picture in Yemen. In this analysis, my focus remains on Sanaa, where the Ḥūthīs maintain control and Anīs and his family live. With this historical context in mind, I next examine how the zāmil is commonly defined and provide translations of two popular poems.


The Zāmil

Yemeni scholars such as Aḥmad al-Shamī (2007: 161-163) and ‘Abd Allāh al-Baraddūnī (1998: 147-149) define the zāmil as a form of folk literature (adab sha‘bī) or folk art (fann sha‘bī). Al-Hārithī names three pillars (arkān), of a zāmil: a group of chanters, a rhyme and a melody (2004:123-29). In Caton’s case study, he provides a similar list of essential characteristics: “rhyme, meaning (that is, an issue), and performable music” (1990:130). The main discrepancy between these two perspectives is: a group of chanters on the one hand for al-Ḥārithī, and an issue in the case of Caton. This divergence is two sides of the same coin. Al-Ḥārithī points out that zāmil is not for the individual. Although an individual may compose it, the zāmil is performed by a group. This is because the genre indexes communal aspirations and feelings towards a specific issue, i.e. Caton’s second requirement. Often zawāmil are performed by a chorus of marchers who are traveling to their audience. Dance is sometimes an aspect of the zawāmil, notably the tribal dance known as bar‘ah (Caton 1990:130). As is evident by now, the zāmil is often used in war, but is also featured in a variety of other public occasions, such as weddings, tribal disputes, political rallies and religious festivals (Miller 2007:8).

Before the Ḥūthī takeover of Sanaa, some Yemenis would be familiar with their own local version of the zāmil, which continue to be performed today. These versions may diverge somewhat from the characteristics I note above. For example, Anīs told me that the barʿa was never performed with the zāmil in his home village. Yet, he was still familiar with the zāmil, often chanted without music at different events in his village, including at his wedding to Mona (Anīs, pers. comm.). After the Ḥūthīs took over Sanaa in 2014, and especially after Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Coalition involved itself in the conflict, the Ḥūthī zāmil has transformed and multiplied. While local tribal communities continue to compose and perform their own zawāmil, the Ḥūthīs have adapted the form to function as one of many media tools to further their cause. The Ḥūthī zāmil is part of the daily soundscape in Yemeni lives in Sanaa at the very least. The zawāmil can be heard in the marketplace, at military checkpoints, at tribal events; children sing them in Anīs and Mona’s neighborhood. Anīs and Mona play the zawāmil on MP3s at home, and many play the zawāmil from their cell phones (pers. comm.). Beyond Yemen,  zawāmil have gone viral on social media, with some boasting millions of views.

It is imperative to distinguish between the zāmil as a performed folk art and the Ḥūthī zāmil. The folk zāmil is found in tribal areas of Yemen, whether or not the territory falls under Ḥūthī control, that of the internationally recognized government, or any other faction.  The Ḥūthī zāmil differs from the folk zāmil as defined by al-Harithi and Caton and discussed by al-Baraddūnī. To quickly summarize a few key differences: the Ḥūthī zāmil relies upon religious discourse reflective of their ideology; features an increased number of verses compared to that of the typical folk zāmil; and integrates modern electronic instrumentation and new melodies. Each of these differences deserve further study, some of which are the subject of an upcoming publication (Sumner forthcoming). They are, however, beyond the scope of this article. It is also worth noting that outside of Ḥūthī-controlled areas, poetry expresses contrasting points of view; some of these poems are shaylat, which bear a direct relationship with the Gulf shayla, another form of chanted poetry composed in the Arabian Peninsula.

The zawāmil publicly played in Sanaa are particular to the Ḥūthīs and contain language explicitly in support of their cause; those fighting them, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the United States, are positioned as enemies. As an example, I provide the lyrics to a widely viewed zāmil on YouTube, called “Ṣan‘ā’ Ba‘īdah” (2015). This zāmil focuses exclusively on Saudi Arabia as the antagonist, most obviously in lines four and six where Riyadh and King Salman are mentioned. Zawāmil are commonly composed in dialect rather than Standard Arabic, and my transliteration and translation vary accordingly.

……..

Adā’: ‘Īsā al-Layth

Kalimāt: Muḥammad al-Jaraf

1. Istanfarī yā juyūsh Āllah fī Ma’rib

Waqt al-naqā ḥān wayl al-mu‘tadī waylah

2. Janūd rabbī ḥumāt al-dār tata’ahhab

Wa-l-jinn wa-l-ins wa-l-amlāk tuṣghī lah

3. Āllahu akbar ṣaḍāhā fī-l-ḥashā yālhāb

Wa-bundaqī fi-l-khaṣm yadī mawāwīlah

4. Ṣan‘ā’ baʿīdah qūlū la-h al-Riyāḍ aqrab

Yā bundaqī lā-hant sāmirnī al-laylah

5. al-Qawm shabbat nakafhā li-liqā’ targhab

Kullan ḥazam ‘iddatah w-asraj ‘alá khaylah

6. Qūlū li-Salmān ma-lah minnanā mahrab

Ḥatá wa-law fī buṭūn al-arḍ nā’tī lah

7. Hādhā l-Yaman man tajāhalnā fa-qad jarrab

al-Muʿtadī ya-l-ghabī yabshir bi-tankīlah

…………

Vocals: ‘Īsá al-Layth

Words: Muḥammad al-Jaraf

1. Get ready for war, armies of Allah in Ma’rib!

The time for honesty has come. Woe to the aggressor, woe to him!

2. My Lord’s soldiers, the protectors of the land, are

getting ready.

  The jinn, humans and angels all heed him.

3. Allāh is great! Its echo blazes inside [of them].

My rifle in the conflict performs its songs.

4. Ṣanʿāʾ is far away, tell him Riyadh is closer!

Oh my rifle—may God protect you from humiliation—keep me company tonight.

5. The people’s disdain blazes and they crave an encounter.

Everyone has fastened their weapon and saddled their horse.

6. Tell Salman he will never escape us!

Even in the bowels of the Earth we will get to him.

7. This is Yemen! Whoever ignored us has learned his lesson!

The aggressor – that idiot – heralds his own destruction!


Building Theory with Anīs

In the following sections, I recount my conversation with Anīs to elucidate his experiences with the Houthi zāmil and the practices he perceives it to engender. My choice to focus on his relationship to the zāmil stems from my conviction that Anīs is an expert on his own life and the cultural practices that surround him. He does not merely offer raw data for me to analyze; his narration constitutes “theories of the flesh” in its own right (Madison 1993). By “theories of the flesh” I am invoking D. Soyini Madison’s definition of the term: “philosophies or ‘theories’ about reality” specific to certain groups based on their “cultural, geopolitical, and economic circumstances” (319). However, by interpreting what Anīs’s account of his experiences with zāmil, several layers of mediation occur. Nothing I write adequately captures the experiences of Anīs and those he describes. Instead, I venture that Anīs and I are dialogically building a theory of the zāmil. Each of us brings our own experiences and cultural background to the conversation; without a doubt our subjectivities impact what is said, and what is understood. Dialogue is a balancing act of presenting an opinion and listening to the opinion of the other in the confines of divergent sociocultural experiences. However, instead of seeing the differences that lie between us as creating misunderstandings, I consider them tools that generate new ideas and clarify the various dimensions of the phenomenon we discuss. Through our conversation, Anīs and I build a theory of the zāmil because we maintain our own  perspectives while concurrently seeking mutual understanding. I do not provide an objective account of his experiences; in fact, my own position in relation to him, and the events unfolding around him, likely affected how he articulated his experiences to me. Recognizing this, I provide a positional, partial, and mediated explanation of the zāmil’s work in this paper.

A primary analytical concept I use in this paper is Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus, “systems of durable, transposable dispositions,” or “a system of cognitive and motivating structures” (Bourdieu 1990:53). As Bourdieu demonstrates, the habitus is closely related to the way the body becomes accustomed to interacting in space. Specific practices and tastes develop in an individual’s life based on the most mundane of daily interactions to the most exceptional, which then act upon and interact with novel social conditions as an individual’s life progresses. Bourdieu primarily discusses habitus in relation to “a particular class of conditions of existence” (53). In other words, he analyzes the ways in which a habitus is shared by people who have lived in similar conditions and with shared experiences. Many scholars have found habitus to be a useful concept when deciphering how social identities come to be embodied. For example, in Shannon Jackson’s analysis of the Hull-House theatre program in Chicago during the Progressive Era, she demonstrates how theatre was utilized to intentionally change actors’ habitus as part of reformers’ efforts towards social change (Jackson 1996). The reformers trained the actors to comport themselves in specific ways, such as the way they stood, spoke and interacted in spaces (like “a bourgeois dining room”) (356). On the other hand, Harvey Young astutely notes in his discussion of the black body that habitus is not limited to conditioning people to belong to a specific class and therefore act in tandem with one another. It also holds explanatory force in clarifying how social bodies maintain agency and flexibility while operating within a set of dispositions that they have internalized throughout their lives (2010:20-22). For him, this means that the black body is “singular (black) and variable at the same time” (20). In a similar vein, the habitus is productive in the context of this essay. On the one hand, it traces how specific conditions and practices engender similar tastes, affective experiences and cognitive ideas among some Yemenis surrounding Anīs in Sanaa. On the other, it allows us to trace the diversity and agency available to them.

I begin with a single quote from Anīs, from which I identify three threads that I follow throughout this paper in order to show how the zāmil is experienced by him, as well as how he perceives it to affect others.

In response to my questions surrounding how he feels when listening to the zawāmil, he offered the following insights:

ANĪS: By God, I told you, when…I feel…They’re zawamil…um…To tell the truth, you feel…these zawāmil…In truth you feel…When you listen to them, pride (fakhr)…pride in Yemen. Some of them are composed…composed for pride, Yemeni pride. There are Yemenis…When you first begin listening to it [the zāmil]—from the text, from the singing, from the sound— it’s suitable (munāsib).

You have the song, the zāmil:  “‘Allah is Great!’ raises the morale. Allah is Great! Answer, oh squadrons!” This is good. Lots of people listen to it…Many, from old people to…lots of people. Because it has good words. The words…um…um…When someone goes…Look, when someone goes to the frontlines or goes anywhere…and he’s, I mean, ready for war, or ready for something…There’s bravery (buṭūlah)in it [the zāmil]…It has words of enthusiasm (kalīmat taḥammus)(pers. comm.).

 First, Anīs describes a nationalistic zeal he associates with the zawāmil; second, he uses the term “suitable” (munāsib) to describe the zāmil’s relationship with the listener. He then emphasizes that the zāmil has “words of enthusiasm” (kalimāt tuḥammas) for those who listen. Each of these three ways of understanding the zāmil intersect; furthermore, they not only demonstrate that the zāmil is a powerful persuasive tool, but also shed light on how persuasion occurs and what practices the poems engender.


The Zāmil as a Nationalistic Practice

Anīs uses the word fakhr (pride) to describe how he feels when he listens to a zāmil.  More precisely, he says he feels pride for Yemen, or a national pride. Because the zāmil expresses group sentiment, it is particularly amenable to nationalism. Nationalism often depends upon conceiving  “many as one” (Bhabha 1990: 294); the nation presents as a single body with one culture, history and set of traditions. Anīs grew up during the regime of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, who strategically used tribal poetry and dance as an invented tradition to reinforce and build national identity (Adra 1998:90). Anīs’s comments indicate that the Ḥūthīs use the same strategy. One may consider the relationship between nationalism and the Huthi zāmil as illogical, in light of the armed group’s descent on Sanaa without the will of the people, and the religious ideology they propagate, which does not represent all Yemenis. On the other hand, inserting national symbols, imagery, and discourse into their poetry to evoke nationalist sentiments links their group to the national narrative, regardless of whether or not the nationalism presented is ideal.

A brief look at a video clip from al-Masīrah network (Al-Hūthīyīn yarquṣūn 2015), the official media outlet for the Ḥuthīs, demonstrates that the zāmil is linked to national identity in its performance. During the clip, there is a brief, five-second flash of four Ḥuthī soldiers dancing the bar‘ah to a zāmil. Despite the brevity of the scene, the clip takes its title from it, signaling its symbolic significance: “The Ḥuthīs dance the barʿa inside the Saudi city of Rabūʿah” (Al-Hūthīyīn yarquṣūn 2015). The clip opens with footage of the Ḥuthīs in Rabūʿa. Smoke rises from partially destroyed buildings accompanied by sounds of explosions. The broadcaster wears a Yemeni flag draped over his shoulders, which immediately situates the victory as Yemeni. After an introduction from the broadcaster, three fighters are shown on screen. The person in the middle also has a Yemeni flag around his neck. At one point, he grasps the flag with his right hand, waves it, and says “We are here with our flag, the flag of the Yemeni Republic, inside the [Saudi] city of Rabū‘ah.” This invocation of the nation is obvious; he claims the attack on Saudi soil as a Yemeni act. The video then continues to show images of destroyed vehicles and tanks. The fighters together chant a slogan (al- ṣarkha) widely associated with the Ḥuthīs, with one still donning Yemeni flag. At this point, the four Ḥūthīs, one still with the flag draped over his shoulders, play a zāmil and dance the bar‘ah on a dusty street. The camera quickly pans away from the dancers, although the listener still hears the zāmil, to reveal smoke-filled buildings and destroyed tanks again. The next scene returns to the same four individuals, three of whom carry  flags. The rest of the clip shows footage presumably filmed outside the city: more explosions and tanks, and fighters scrambling up a mountain. In short, this clip demonstrates how multiple acts and symbols work together to form nationalist imaginings. Namely, the consistent presence of the Yemeni flag, invocations of the Yemeni Republic and the performance of the barʿa and zāmil, which coalesce to claim that Ḥuthī acts of violence are, in fact, performances of nationalism on behalf of all Yemenis.

By saying that people feel Yemeni pride when listening to zawāmil, Anīs is alluding to the ways the zāmil activates the body, making it not only feel a sense of nationalism but also to perform it. The zāmil is an example of the way, in the words of Bourdieu:

Every social order systematically takes advantage of the disposition of the body and language to function as depositories of deferred thoughts that can be triggered off at a distance in space and time by the simple fact of replacing the body in an overall posture which recalls associated thoughts and feelings, in one of the inductive states of the body which, as actors know, give rise to states of mind (1990:69).

The state of mind, in this case, is nationalism. Anīs describes the zāmil that does this kind of work on the body and mind with a specific adjective: munāsib (befitting, appropriate, suitable). In the next section, I explore Anīs’s use of this term extensively.


The Appropriate Zāmil: A Question of Habitus

 By using the term suitable munāsib (suitable) numerous times in our conversation, Anīs indicates the importance of habitus in relation to the zāmil. In other words, his explanation implies that the internalized dispositions of some Yemenis living among him are often congruent, at least to a certain extent, with the zāmil. Anīs’s uneasiness later manifests as he strategically uses munāsib in contradictory manners, revealing that he is well aware that my own habitus may not be congruent with the zāmil.

The word “appropriate” or “suitable,” comes from the three-letter root nūn – sīn – bāʾ and carries the connotation of relation or links between people or objects. For example, the noun nasab means ancestry, or the linkages between families over time. Munāsib is the adjective derived from the third pattern verb yunāsib, which carries meanings such as “…to correspond, tally, to suit, fit, become, befit, behoove; to harmonize, agree, be in keeping, be compatible, consistent (with)…” (Wehr 1994:1126). In colloquial usage, I hear the verb yunāsib to refer to the suitability of something or someone in relation to something else. For example, someone could compliment an outfit or new decorations in a home by saying that it suits, or becomes, the person. I also hear it to talk about what should or should not be done in a specific place. A teacher may tell a student, for instance, that speaking on the phone in class is “not appropriate,” (mush munāsib). The relational connotations of the root are significant and account for the flexible ways in which Anīs uses munāsib. The Yemeni habitus is well-acquainted, accustomed to, and congruent with the zāmil, while my own habitus is less so. He tows a fine line as we grapple with this tension: how is the zawāmil simultaneously appropriate and inappropriate?

To return to the quote that served as a point of departure for my analysis of the zāmil, Anīs uses the term “suitable” when he says:

ANĪS: By God, I told you, when…I feel…They’re zawamil…um…To tell the truth, you feel…these zawāmil…In truth you feel…When you listen to them, pride(fakhr)…pride in Yemen. Some of them are composed…composed for pride, Yemeni pride. There are Yemenis…When you first begin listening to it [the zāmil]—from the text, from the singing, from the sound— it’s suitable (munāsib).

You have the song, the zāmil: “‘Allāh is Great!’ raises the morale. Allāh is Great! Answer, oh squadrons!” This is good. Lots of people listen to it…Many, from old people to…lots of people. Because it has good words. The words…um…um…When someone goes…Look, when someone goes to the frontlines or goes anywhere…and he’s, I mean, ready for war, or ready for something…There’s bravery (buṭūlah)in it [the zāmil]…It has words of enthusiasm (kalīmat taḥammus) (pers. comm.).

In this case, it is the entire sensory experience of the zāmil, including (and especially) the words, that make it suitable, hence him saying “from the text, from the singing, from the sound.” By using the term “suitable,” Anīs captures that habitus interacts with aesthetics in particular ways; it is not about the cultural form as an isolated thing, but how it interacts with us that make it pleasing, challenging, emotional, beautiful and so on. The possible translation of the word suitable as “harmonious” is also telling; it is about how the form fits with habitus, how the two combine to create something new, hence the multiple practices and repercussions experiencing a zāmil instantiate.

More often than not, however, Anīs used the term “suitable” in the negative during the interview. When I asked if he and his family listened to zawāmil at home. He responded:

ANĪS: Yes, we have an MP3 [player]…We listen to…there are some…There are many zawāmil…not…I’m telling you, um, hundreds of zawāmil

SUMNER: Yes, okay.

ANĪS: But what is suitable about the sound, about the performance, and so on…Maybe we listen to them, and what is not suitable, we ignore (pers. comm.).

I was immediately curious what Anīs was implying with the term munāsib here. What qualified the sound, performance, “and so on” of a zāmil as suitable as opposed to unsuitable? When I asked him to clarify, he was silent for a few moments, as if weighing his words. He said:

ANĪS: I mean…Look, most people in…mostly Yemenis don’t necessarily know what’s in a zāmil…um…or need to apply (yuṭṭabiq) what is good or not good. Some people listen to the music. And sometimes the music, if one concentrates, there are some words you can understand and there are some words that are jumbled. For some people, they enjoy the sound, the music, etcetera – for dance, for anything else…It [the music or zāmil] doesn’t please them because…There are some zawāmil with bad words about…against Saudi Arabia, against America, against anything else…Do you get it? (pers. comm.).

I would like to note a few things about this response. First, Anīs immediately distances himself from different orientations towards the zāmil. While I had asked what made a zāmil appropriate for him, he speaks in generalities rather than narrating his personal experience. I can think of two possible explanations for this, which are not mutually exclusive. The first is that he believes he has knowledge of Yemenis in general, and he believes there is a general orientation towards the zāmil for many Yemenis. This speaks, once again, to the congruence between the zāmil and the habitus of those around him. The second possibility is that he is well aware of my position as an American; he worries by divulging his own positive experiences with zawāmil, he may compromise my relationship with him and his family. He perceives the zāmil as relating to a particular habitus in specific ways, and I may not be able to filter a zāmil appropriately. Hence, he emphasizes that the lyrics about Saudi Arabia, the United States and others are not what makes a song suitable. In fact, he claims, sometimes it is hard to decipher the lyrics at all. However, after I reassure him that I study the Ḥūthī zawāmil and am well aware of the lyrics,  he offers the first quote and notes that one of the reasons a zāmil is suitable is: “Because it has good words.”

Later, Anīs tries to backtrack after I ask him about the energy and pride he mentions when he listens to the zāmil. While he agrees that he feels energy and pride, he also  qualifies his statement:

ANĪS: Yes yes yes, but we, we Yemenis in general we don’t intend, we don’t intend the meaning, you understand? Or the words, or what the zawāmil say because I told you, some of the words…The words…aren’t suitable.

Again, he repeats the word “suitable.” He communicates that the words are not appropriate, despite specifying earlier that it is precisely the words of this zāmil that have made it so popular.

I draw two conclusions from Anīs’s use of munāsib. First, Anīs suggests that some of the words in the zāmil are not appropriate to my sensibilities, and perhaps that internally he also has a sense of dissonance about them. More importantly, he implies that someone can locate value in a zāmil, but not necessarily respond by becoming a fighter for the Ḥūthīs. The zāmil is a cultural practice deeply embedded in Yemeni life, and the harmonies that an individual’s habitus and the zāmil create are not the same from person to person.

One of the ways Anīs discusses these harmonies is by relating the different ways that a zāmil enthuses. This brings me to the final thread from the initial quote: the zāmil as affective force.


The Zāmil as Affective Force.

  Anīs shares that the zāmil contains “words of enthusiasm,” and is replete with buṭūlah (valor, bravery). In the same quote, he draws connections between the presence of the zāmil and specific practices, such as going to war. I was intrigued by Anīs’s use of the term taḥammus (excitement), so I asked follow-up questions about his excitement specifically. Eventually, he gave me the following response:

ANĪS: Um…for me I’m excited (ḥamās)and my excitement is present with me. I can’t… My excitement…my excitement…When I want to listen to this, This zāmil keeps me excited on the road. For example…I want to walk and I’ll feel good. It’s better if I walk with…When I listen to it at work, I work well, or I work fast.

SUMNER: Yes, yes.

ANĪS: When I am sitting, I am happy, like that.

SUMNER: Yes, okay.

ANĪS: This, this is from my perspective (pers. comm.).

Anīs’s description of his relationship with the zāmil implies that the poems stimulate affect, setting it into motion and animating specific practices. His perspective resonates with Sara Ahmed’s description of affective economies (2004). Ahmed resists the tendency to analyze emotions as residing in the individual, in their psyche. She suggests that there is an economy of emotions where they “circulate and are distributed across a social as well as a psychic field (121). This aligns with Anīs’s zeal, which he describes as maintaining a presence beyond the confines of his material body (“my excitement is present with me”). When he is walking, his excitement animates the way in which he works (making him more productive) and even his stillness (he is happy). In order to ensure that I understood his characterization of the affective force of the zāmil correctly, I pressed further, and asked where he felt zāmil: In his heart, his mind? He struggled to answer, but eventually said: “From the heart…from everything. It has to be.”

Kathleen Stewart uses the metaphor of electricity to theorize the economy of affect, affording her a rich vocabulary that names the way affect can build up (surge) and move in specific trajectories (in circuits) (Stewart 2007). This metaphor also helps us conceptualize how affect bestows certain actions with new life, just as Anīs describes the zāmil invigorating him as he engages in his everyday activities, such as work. Affect as electricity is a particularly intriguing paradigm when considering oral practices. The zāmil is an oral tradition, an orature, to use the words of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2014). Like electricity, orature can move without being seen, although it is felt and heard. It circulates invisibly, as electricity does, but depends upon sources for its energy. Electricity relies on conduction; similarly, people must perform the zāmil in order for it to maintain its vitality.

Ahmed suggests an analogy between commodity fetishism and the economies of affect to clarify how emotions manifest as though they reside in objects, when they actually migrate from body to body. Fetishism generally ascribes an organic power to physical objects, sometimes a  supernatural power. Commodity fetishism ascribes value to commodities as if that value emerges from the object in and of itself, instead of as a product of an economic system. She says: “feelings appear in objects, or indeed as objects with a life of their own, only by the concealment of how they are shaped by histories, including histories of production (labor and labor time), as well as circulation or exchange.” Affective economies are forgotten just as the economy of commodities is forgotten; thus, affect may look like it is contained within an individual, when entire systems and histories are at play. And as for orature,  as for cultural practices like the zāmil, power emerges from the form’s performance; the performance comes from a material body (whether an MP3 player or a person), while also containing an ephemeral quality that cannot remain affixed to a material object. Walter Ong, in his important work Orality and Literacy, addresses the unstable temporality and existence of orature (before Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o gave it this name). He notes that “sound exists only when it goes out of existence” and “all sensation takes place in time, but no other sensory field totally resists a holding action, stabilization, in quite this way” (1982:32). Chants are not contained within bodies, just as emotions are not contained within them; affect accumulates as the zāmil moves from body to body, refusing to stabilize in a single place. Orature and affect appear and disappear simultaneously; they move without being seen, but their effects are nevertheless perceived.

Ahmed says: “Rather than seeing emotions as psychological dispositions, we need to consider how they work, in concrete and particular ways, to mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective” (Ahmed 2004:119). This comment characterizes affect as a mediator, just as the zāmil has been understood as a mediation tool. If Ahmed is correct and affect moves around to mediate between the individual and a collective, it can do the work of transforming the individual into a certain kind of subject that corresponds to some and is set into opposition to others. It does this by placing the individual in a specific position in the economy of affect, just as persuasion works to place a person or idea in a certain position in relation to others and their ideas.


Persuasive Rhetoric or Propaganda?

In the previous sections, I use Anīs’s explanation of the zāmil to conceptualize this form of poetry from three different angles: the zāmil as national practice; the zāmil as suitable; and the zāmil as affective force. Each of these lenses helps us more concretely understand how the zāmil interacts with habitus and persuades. At this juncture, I examine other practices Anīs attributes to the zāmil. The responses Anīs describes illustrate how the three lenses intersect, and also expose the porous boundary between persuading and propagating.

  We have already seen how Anīs describes his own reaction to the zāmil. He finds himself energized and happier when he listens to certain zawāmil. He finds himself to be more productive at work. At other times, he notes other Yemenis’ reactions to the zāmil: “Some people listen to it [a zāmil] and want to go directly to the frontlines” (Anīs, pers. comm.). By “go to the frontlines,” he implies joining the Ḥūthī forces. After a short silence, he followed with, “Do you get it? That’s some people’s excitement” (pers. comm.).

In response, I asked, “How do you know that? Do you hear stories about people hearing the zawāmil and going to the frontlines?”

ANĪS: Some people, I told you, when they get excited (yataḥammas) there is, because here there are many schools… They say it’s a Quranic school. Some say it’s a Quranic school and that they teach them culture. But they give them zawāmil; they give them other things until their brains change into something else… We have a lot you see, the Ḥūthīs listen to the zāmil and then they lose their minds. You will even see somebody sitting at a qāt chew,[3] sitting anywhere, but his mind is on the zawāmil. His mind isn’t on his work, or his mother or father, on anything, no! (pers. comm.).

Anīs is suggesting faculties come to be completely overpowered until an individual loses their mind. This challenges the idea that persuasion is primarily about a cognitive acceptance of a logical argument. Instead of being convinced of something through logic and reason, Anīs provides imagery of the brain being displaced and oversaturated with a particular perspective. He says yataḥammas (excited) here, a verb from the same root as ḥamās, which he uses to describe his own zeal upon hearing the zāmil. The contrast is significant. He listens to the zāmil and does his work well; others listen to the zāmil and lose their minds. This is an example of agency; it shows that although people living in similar places experiencing similar things have similar habitus, the improvisation inherent in it allows space for Anīs to react differently from others.

At another moment in the interview, Anīs explains his distaste for a specific zāmil:

ANĪS: By God, I just… This one [zamīl] doesn’t please me because, what do I tell you, lots of children who listened to this and then, um, went to the frontlines, went to… their destruction. Then there are others, some of whom were my friends, who told me they would go to the base, the Ḥūthī’s base and they [the Ḥūthīs] taught them zawāmil etcetera etcetera. And they taught them they will go to Paradise etcetera etcetera. Afterward, they came to regret it. They regret what they were doing with them (pers. comm.).

In this case, people do not sit idly thinking about the zāmil; instead, the zāmil spurs a different action – joining the Ḥūthī’s as a fighter after learning more zawāmil. When I asked for further clarification as to why these people choose to go fight, he said, “Because I told you, they have a program or they have words they teach them; things not present in a book or in anything else in order to make the person, his mind or his brain, assimilate (yandamij) with them” (pers. comm.).

Anīs continues the theme of the zāmil being a part of a larger operation to captivate Yemenis. In this process, it is again the brain or the mind, implying reason or logic, that is overpowered. The word yandamij (assimilate) comes from the root dāl-mīm-jīm, which carries meanings pertaining to an object or person becoming part of a larger whole. In this case, the verb is in the seventh form,  meaning “to be inserted, be incorporated…to be annexed …to merge…to be swallowed up, be absorbed” (Wehr 1994:337). Absorption is poignant in this case, as it implies the brain or mind becomes oversaturated, until it becomes part of something else. Suitable (munāsib) resonates with these connotations, as it also implies becoming part of a greater whole, or fitting into something bigger. Both munasib and yandamij describe an individual’s relationship to the zāmil and imply varying compatibility with it; habitus provides a useful framework for thinking through this compatibility; how the zāmil persuades; and the actions people take in response to it.

I would like to draw attention to a final comment from Anīs, which he gave as we discussed the zāmil, “‘Allāh is Great!’ raises the morale” (2017). Below I provide the transliteration and translation of the zāmil, followed by Anīs’s quote:

…….

Adā’: ‘Īsá al-Layth

Kalimāt: Muḥammad al-Dāhīyah

1.Allāhu Akbar turfa‘ al-ma‘nawīyāt

Allāhu Akbar raddidī yā sarāyā

2. Ḥinnā tajannadnā li-rabb al-samāwāt

Katāyib al-qāyid li-khawḍ al-manāyā

3. Law al-samā’ tamṭar qanābil dhakīyāt

Wa-l-arḍ tatafajjar shaẓāyā shaẓāyā

4. Wa-l-nār tash‘al min jamī‘ al-majarrāt

Wa-l-zaḥf ḥawlī min jimī‘ al-zawāyā

5. Yashhad ‘alaynā Allāh fī kull al-awqāt

Naghzī nujarri‘hum ku’ūs al-manāyā

6. Hayhāt minnā l-dhull hayhāt yā hayhāt

Bi‘nā min al-khāliq bi-ṣidq al-nawāyā

………

Vocals: ‘Īsá al-Layth

Kalimāt: Muḥammad al-Dāhīyah

1. “Allāh is Great!” raises the morale.

Allāh is Great! Answer, oh squadrons!

2. We mobilized for the Lord of the Heavens.

Squadrons of the leader plunge to their deaths!

3. When the sky rains smart bombs,

And the earth shatters in shards,

4. Fire blazing from every galaxy,

And the army surrounds me from every corner —

5. God witnesses us at all times.

We attack and make them swallow death’s chalices

6. There’s no way we would submit. There’s no way,

there’s no way!

We sold ourselves to the Creator with honest intentions.

When I pressed Anīs to explain to me why he finds the zāmil, “‘Allāh is Great!’ raises the morale,” powerful, he responded:

ANĪS: The words, the words, when they… The words pierce the heart. When, when, they say to you, when they say to you –“The sky,” – “When sky rains smart bombs” – that’s between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

SUMNER: Mmmmm

ANĪS: But look, we’re not…we are against the problems but there are some things, um… The Coalition does things that aren’t appropriate (munāsibah) for all Yemenis (pers. comm.).
Here we see the intersection of the zāmil as a nationalistic practice and an affective force that befits. The line he quotes about smart bombs is a direct reference to the many airstrikes in Sanaa that hit not only Ḥūthī fighters, but civilians. It is also striking that Anīs names Yemen. Although he is not a Ḥūthī, he considers the airstrikes, which in theory target Ḥūthīs specifically, an attack on his country. Certainly, not everyone would agree with this assessment, but it is imperative that we understand his intent. At the time of our interview, the airstrikes were a leading cause of civilian deaths. Anīs considers the bombing his city as detrimental to the entire Yemeni nation. From his perspective, this is both a logical and affective conclusion. As I noted earlier, Anīs and Mona live with the knowledge that their city is under constant threat, aware they could be the next victims. When airstrikes draw near, they place their children in a wardrobe, hoping its walls will protect them. These bodily practices, such as the act of embracing your child, comforting them and then placing them in a wardrobe for their safety, affect and interact with habitus. This single line from a zāmil can trigger all of these memories and experiences in Anīs. His habitus is accustomed to the zāmil as an art form and interacts productively with it in relation to the social conditions in which he now finds himself. He is a Yemeni living in a war zone; he does not go off to fight, but he does articulate the hardships he endures. He also shares with me how he perceives the zāmil to fit within his world, narrating his own theory of the flesh.


Endnotes

[1] City names are not transliterated in this essay, unless they appear in a poem. I transliterate all other Arabic names according to the guidelines from the Library of Congress, with the exception of direct quotes and the names of Arabic scholars who publish under another preferred spelling.

[2] Habitus is a set of dispositions we acquire from our lived experiences and conditions, which serve to orient us in our daily, improvised behavior (Bourdieu 1990).

[3] Qāt is a leafy stimulant commonly chewed in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Qāt chews are social events where people chew together

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWuKei4OX3Q.

زامل وشيلة الله اكبر تُرفع المعنويات 2018 أداء “عيسى الليث” يوتيوب 2:10. تم نشره بواسطة وارث المراجل. 4 نوفمبر، https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_cZiM_nWIk.

 

 

 

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Emily Sumner

Emily J. Sumner is a doctoral candidate in Arabic Literature, Culture, and Media at the University of Minnesota. She also holds an MA in Arabic Literature, Culture and Media from the same institution. Her Master’s thesis analyzes poetic sparring between Yemeni and Saudi poets on social media. Currently, her research traces the transformation of Yemeni poetry in the context of the civil war and its manifestation in everyday life. Emily has presented her research on the Houthi zāmil at various forums, such as the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference. She currently works as a graduate instructor of Arabic for the University of Minnesota. Before joining the graduate program, she worked as an Arabic language translator and coordinator in American hospitals. Emily has lived in several Arab countries, including Syria, Oman and Yemen.

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