Musicians Look to Songs to Preserve Yemeni Dialects

Faiz al-Dhubaibi
Music is a universal language whose melodies need no translation. In countries with many dialects, singing is one way to build bridges between people from different regions. This is proving true in Yemen as well.

When I first moved from Raymah to Sana’a in 2001 to study media, my social interactions were a frequent source of embarrassment. As soon as people heard me speak, they would ask in a derisive tone, “Where are you from?” 

The problem was my dialect. Although my hometown was part of the Sana’a Governorate, its relative isolation and lack of essential services meant it was less known than other areas, and its dialect was unfamiliar to many.

Years later, the singer Ayoob Tarish, who composed Yemen’s national anthem, praised Raymah in a song that still fills me with pride. Liqaa al-Ahiba, which means “The Meeting of Lovers,” invokes a romantic relationship between the mountains of Raymah and those of Shamsan in the Aden peninsula. In his lyrics, Tarish implores the peaks to embrace — a clear call for harmony between these different regions of Yemen.

Protecting Linguistic Diversity

The Raymah dialect is one of many local dialects in the country. The Sana’a dialect has long been used in broadcast dramas and most public affairs programmes. While Arabic is Yemen’s official language, four other languages are also spoken here: Mehri (eastern Yemen), Soqotri (Socotra archipelago), Kushi (a mixture of Indian and Arabic), and Hebrew (spoken by Yemeni Jews). 

“Art can serve as a unifying force.”

According to Cultural and Linguistic Security and Collective Harmony, a book published in 2018 by the Supreme Council of the Arabic Language in Algeria, multilingualism has expanded beyond educational policy for the sake of higher learning. One of the chapters, an essay by Malia Mekerri, makes a case for multilingualism as
a vital agent of social harmony in places where different dialects are spoken. The same principles apply to Yemen’s linguistic diversity: multi- lingualism fosters dialogue between cultures. 

Celebrating Diversity

Art can serve as a unifying force to promote shared values. Singing is a creative way to forge common ground by revealing the beauty of words as they’re spoken in different dialects. 

Ziad al-Qahham, 40, a writer and poet, believes songs have played a key role in helping familiarise Yemeni people with various dialects. 

“In one example, the specificity of the Tihama dialect [spoken in the Red Sea coastal plain of the Arabian Peninsula] was largely unknown,” he said. “But the widespread popularity of songs in this dialect, including Waatir Amaghreb, (“Oh Bird of the West”) by the revered artist Ayoob Tarish, made a difference.”

 This is also true of the dialects of Hadhramaut, Sana’a and Lahj (southern Yemen).

Singing in different dialects can provide a means to anchor future coexistence among Yemenis. This is especially clear in national or agricultural events, where the voice of Ayoob Tarish is often heard, appealing for peace, dialogue, and love.

Tarish’s songs are entrenched in Yemeni consciousness, said Waleed al-Harazi, 22, a student at Sana’a University’s Arts Faculty.

“I admired Tarish’s songs, and through them, I grew to know and love the dialects of Taiz and Tihamah,” he added.

Young Yemeni performers have adopted various dialects in their songs to expand their popularity across the country. This celebration of diversity has led to a deeper appreciation of Yemen’s linguistic and cultural vitality.

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