Zain Alaabdain Ali, Marib
In Yemen’s rural communities, it is often poets who play a pivotal role in the resolution of disputes and establishing good relations between tribes. Most Yemeni villages have at least one poet who is distinguished and well-spoken. Sometimes this function is carried out by the chief of a tribe.
“The poet is the spokesman of his people,” said Yahya al-Matari, a poet in his thirties from the Kholan tribe in the district of the same name, 60 kilometres east of Sana’a.
Zawamel can be an effective peacebuilding means.”
In a tradition that likely originated in the third century CE, according to author and poet Abdullah al-Bardouni, Yemenis would recite a particular type of poetry to raise morale and boost enthusiasm before battle. These poems, known as zawamel, address political subjects; others express pride or criticism. But they can also serve to welcome warring parties to the negotiating table.
Nowadays, zawamel can be an effective peacebuilding means for tribes to resolve complex issues such as revenge killing, said Ali Abu Huwaida, 33, a poet from the Hada’a tribe in Dhamar province.
“The poet can find shortcuts to solutions in two verses,” he added.
“When one tribe visits another to seek forgiveness, the poet must prepare verses that recognise wrongdoing and ask to be pardoned,” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Shulayf, 60, a leader of the Jahm tribe in Marib Governorate.
For the zawamel to have an impact, they must rouse the listeners’ feelings.
“There must be a plea for mercy, and the poet must highlight positive qualities of those who have been wronged,” said Khaled al-Farah, 50, a resident of Ibb Governorate. His interest in recording zawamel inspired him to probe an incident in his village of al-Radmah, where a child was killed in a car accident. The driver was from the same tribe as the victim, al-Farah explained, but lived elsewhere. The tribal chief led a procession to the victim’s home to seek reconciliation, reciting this verse:
Peace, my cousin, may God be
You are our strength in times
We bear this wound as do you,
and you are the judge!
We come in peace
According to al-Farah, the child’s father was moved by these words and subsequently pardoned the driver.
Zawamel usually consist of two to four verses. The tribe seeking forgiveness arrives in a procession at the place where the deceased person lived, chanting a poem in a specific melody with voices rising in volume as they stand side by side.
The group’s counterparts stand in a similar formation to listen and respond with their own verses, bearing either positive or negative messages.
“Many are affected by the solemnity of this gathering, so it often leads to reconciliation through the payment of blood money – that is, compensation for the loss of life – in cases of murder and traffic accidents,” said al-Farah.
The zawamel tradition is practised across Yemen. Its function has evolved over time from a means to ramp up warfare to an effective tool of conflict resolution and coexistence.
Muhammed Ali Mahroos, Taiz
In the Crater district of Aden Govern-orate, women have been instrumental in reducing the display of arms. Starting with their own families, they pushed back on the tradition by appealing to their male children to stop carrying weapons. After concerted efforts, the group succeeded in restoring the civilian character of their district.
Although violence subsequently resumed in Aden, the women are applauded for their stance that helped restore peace and tranquillity to Aden’s oldest neighbourhoods.
In one of many other initiatives to resolve long-standing conflicts and lay foundations for coexistence in the country, women in Taiz organised around community activist Shinaz al-Akhali to tackle water conflicts.
“We relied on focused group discussions between conflicting parties to resolve problems around water in Sabir al-Mawadim that date back 30 years,” said community activist Shinaz al-Akhali.
Also in Taiz, Ola al-Aghbari, founder of the Sheba Youth Foundation, helped improve access to water in many Taiz neighbourhoods by restoring water tanks and pumps to the community.
The group produced a policy paper and conducted a field mission with a mediation committee that included official authorities, security officials, and local activists, al-Aghbari explained. “Then we met with military commanders, who gave us a commitment to hand over the water tanks to the community.”
Many women in Taiz lead by example to demonstrate the power of possibility. The sale of home-baked pastries inspired one woman to open the first café to operate in Taiz since the outbreak of war. Another started a studio to photograph weddings and other family gatherings. Two others launched a project to establish a pharmacy run by women that caters to women’s needs.
In the Crater district, women have been instrumental in reducing the display of arms.”
These efforts have spread to the art world, where young women have been reviving old Yemeni music from several regions.
Murals by Haifa Subay call attention to the suffering of women through war and displacement, while works by Saba Jallas embody resilience of the Yemeni spirit, inspiring hope and optimism amid tragedy.
Two UN-sponsored empowerment initiatives – the Yemeni Women’s Pact and the Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Group – were launched in 2015 and 2018 to promote the integration of Yemeni women and enhance their presence and active participation in peacebuilding. The two entities continue to work towards bringing warring parties together.
Through all these different forms and platforms, women continue to defy violence to sustain life, reduce conflict and support a participatory environment conducive to coexistence among all people of Yemen.
Eslah Saleh, Aden
In the capital of what was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [South Yemen], members of the muhamasheen, a marginalised group, staged large demonstrations in the 1970s. Chanting the nickname of then-President Salim Rubai Ali, the protestors cried, “Salimin, we are not servants!” Soon afterwards, the muhamasheen were granted the right to education and access to housing and employment.
Waleed Saleh, 35, a member of this minority also known as akhdam (a pejorative term for servitude), overcame many odds. He earned a bachelor’s degree, secured a government job, and married a teacher outside his social class. The couple defied a taboo over marriage between members of the muhamasheen group and other Yemenis, which is strongly imposed in rural areas.
Saleh, who has three children, said he has not encountered much harassment in Aden. “But some people still see us as inferior,” he added. “This is why I work hard so my children can get a good education and be well treated,” he said.
Majid Ali Ahmed, 38, has been less fortunate. He’s employed by the Aden municipality as a street sweeper for a monthly salary of 9,000 Yemeni rials (about $35). His family’s financial difficulties prevented him from getting a formal education, essential for securing a better job. Ahmed opted to clean streets rather than resort to begging.
“Although I don’t earn much, I help my parents with family expenses, as well as my wife and four children,” Ahmed said.
What frustrates him more, however, is the way some people look down on him and his work.
“We did not choose to be part of this marginalised group,” he added. “We have to deal with poverty and inequality.”
According to Aisha al-Warraq, Project Manager at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies, the muhamasheen’s difficult conditions result from two kinds of discrimination: racism (based on their skin colour) and classism in a country whose social structure depends in part on family descent. In an article titled The Historic and Systematic Marginalisation of Yemen’s Muhamasheen Community, she wrote: “In a society where the social structure is partly based on lineage, the muhamasheen’s unclear origins and existence outside tribal structures (have) led to centuries of descent-based discrimination. While the Hashemites, who are said to be descended from Prophet Mohammad, are at the top of Yemen’s social hierarchy in many areas of the country, the muhamasheen – considered without origin – occupy the bottom regardless of where they live.”
Al-Warraq reports that some trace the origins of the muhamasheen to Abyssinian soldiers who occupied Yemen in the sixth century. Nuaman al-Hudhaifi, president of the National Union for the Marginalised, believes the discrimination of this group stems from the overthrow and enslavement of the Najahid dynasty in the 11th-12th centuries.
While there are no accurate statistics on the muhamasheen, Minority Rights Group International, a human rights organisation, estimates their numbers range from two to ten per cent of Yemen’s total population of about 27 million.
The muhamasheen take jobs that are generally rejected by the rest of society, such as cleaning and waste management. Many are forced to send off their sons as child labourers and marry off their young daughters.
Society’s perception of the muhamasheen appears to be changing with the worsening unemployment crisis, said Dr Fadl al-Rubaie, a professor of sociology at the University of Aden and head of the Madar Centre for Studies and Research.
“Some of these occupations are now a source of gainful employment,” he said. “Many non-muhamasheen Yemenis have also taken these jobs, which creates a sense of equality.”
Despite this shift in perception, the muhamasheen still face many challenges, including access to decent housing and equal opportunity. Majid Ali Ahmed wants to believe in a future that holds brighter prospects for his family.
“I hope to have a stable income and that my children will have a decent life and a good education,” he said.
Faiz al-Dhubaibi, Raymah
Mohamed Saad al-Hajj, 73, and his family in Raymah were devastated when his son was murdered a decade ago in Saudi Arabia.
While visiting a family member in Sana’a in August, he was stunned to come across his son’s killer there.
In 2011, while working in a furniture shop in the Saudi city of Jazan, Mehdi Jassar Mohamed, 46, killed Akram Mohamed Saad al-Hajj, 35. While circumstances surrounding the incident are not clear, both hailed from the Bani al-Dhubaibi area in Raymah province. Pending further proceedings in the case, Mohamed, al-Hajj’s killer, was deported from Saudi Arabia in 2021 after being detained for ten years.
Al-Hajj approached Mohamed, greeted him, then warmly embraced him. “God will forgive you in this world and the next,” he said, then left the scene with tears in his eyes.
No one present could imagine that al-Hajj would pardon Mohamed. Many of them were shocked; some cried.
Mohamed’s family gathered that night to discuss what happened. Overwhelmed by al-Hajj’s gesture, which came without mediation or compensation, they could not think of any better way to honour him than to raise a white flag for him and his family.
This act has been a custom in reconciliation practices in Yemen for centuries. After a case has been waived and a pardon has been granted, a white flag is raised by a perpetrator’s family whether the death occurred accidentally or intentionally. Words of appreciation and gratitude for the family of the deceased are written on the flag, which is then hung at gatherings and markets.
“This is to show that the best of us are those who forgive, and it lets the community know that the conflict has been resolved,” said Essam Muhammed, an independent researcher on political and social conflicts.
Tribal law has been effective in handling disputes between various tribes, or between tribes mining companies or the government. In Tribal Governance and Stability in Yemen, an article by Nadwa al-Dawsari published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2012, al-Dawsari wrote, “[Tribal law] has sometimes managed to contain complex revenge-killing cases.” Yemenis generally adhere to tribal customs and traditions, he added, so they accept whatever tribal judgement or decision is pronounced.
The white flag is a sign that forgiveness is possible.”
Anyone who pardons the murderer of a relative is highly regarded in Yemeni custom, said Mohamed Jassar, Sheikh of the Bani Jassar clan. “They receive medals of honour, certificates of gratitude, and letters of praise and appreciation for this great deed.”
After lunch was served at the home of Ali Jassar, Mohamed’s brother, the family raised a white flag. Those present thanked and commended Mohamed Saad al-Hajj for his pardon. “I have done this for God; he alone can reward me,” said al-Hajj, whose sons were also present to honour their father and remember their lost brother.
“I hope this step will inspire all of society to put an end to killing and to avoid anything that could lead to violent death,” said Daris Mohamed Saad al-Hajj, brother of the late Akram.
The white flag remained in place for seven days, a sign to everyone that forgiveness is possible, and that coexistence must be nurtured everywhere in Yemen.