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Yemen's zawamil, once rooted in cultural tradition, have transformed to potent tools of propaganda by the Houthis amidst the ongoing conflicts.
“We do not care, we do not care – let this be a great world war,” this is how a crowd of Yemeni demonstrators responded to the first airstrikes by the US and UK on their country on January 12 in response to Houthi presence in the Red Sea.
Since the beginning of the Israeli war on Gaza on October 7, Yemeni Houthi rebels countered with a relentless barrage of drone and missile attacks aimed at Israel, targeting both commercial and military vessels in the strategic region.
With control over the northwestern part of Yemen, the Houthi rebels, known for crafting propaganda through poetry, television productions, and captivating music videos, have become a focal point of global narratives in light of the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza. The surge of attention has not only propelled them into prominence but has also gained them new admirers around the world.
Among their most successful propaganda efforts is the Yemeni poem known as ‘zamil‘ or ‘zawamil ‘ in plural, with ‘We do not care’ emerging as a standout zamil that went viral in the early weeks of January.
Despite their deep roots in Yemeni culture and heritage, zawamil have undergone a metamorphosis at the hands of Houthi rebels, evolving from traditional expression into a strategic tool of influence in conflicts involving Yemen. Observers note that their catchiness, cultural appeal and powerful lyrics, have made them strong weapons of war that the Houthis are utilizing to their advantage.
The poetic tradition known as zawamil, has a rich history deeply ingrained in Yemen and the broader Arabian Peninsula. Legend has it that Yemenis first devised this poetic genre during the third century, when, amidst a battle with Roman warriors, tribesmen emerged from a cave upon hearing the enchanting chants of jinn.
Yemenis have since continued to compose their own zawamil, keeping the tradition alive.
With the start of the Yemeni civil war in 2015, zawamil have found new life and significance.
These poetic expressions made their way onto digital platforms, going viral on social media platforms with some even garnering over a million views on YouTube and TikTok. Across Sanaa, zawamil reverberate in marketplaces, military checkpoints, and tribal gatherings.
Even children incorporate them into their games, while others indulge in listening through whatever electronic means available.
Hannah Porter, an expert in Yemeni and Houthi affairs, explained that zawamil have historically served as a means of dialogue in tribal disputes. Authors would recite these poetic lines to audiences who would recite them back, establishing a new form of dialogue.
Zawamil also break free from the structured norms of traditional Arabic poetry. They do not follow strict rules of meter and internal rhyme and can adapt to any celebration or life event: weddings, introductions between families, poetic duels, expressing eulogies and most recently, rallying calls for war.
“They can also possess some religious motifs but the Houthis, in particular, latched on to zawamil because of the performative aspect,” Porter told Fanack.
These chants now serve to instill combat enthusiasm among Houthi fighters and their supporters. The warlike cries, often referred to as ‘the Houthi cry,’ follow a distinct rhythmic pattern and feature populist rhetoric against America, Israel, and imperialism at large.
Tunes of war
In Yemen, chants vary between the local dialect and standard Arabic, consistently paying homage to Ahl al-Bayt – the Prophet Mohammad’s family – for added sanctity. Emulating Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Houthis showcase their weaponry in social media videos, intertwining religious narratives with heritage tales from Yemen’s tribal society.
According to Yemeni author and researcher, Huda al-Attas, Yemenis share an instinctive love for poetry and the Arabic language.
Yemini singing is also regarded as one of the oldest musical genres, dating back to antiquity.
“The Yemenis love the art of singing and every region has its distinct tradition of chants,” al-Attas told Fanack.
She observes that the use of local dialects distinguishes zamil from other poetry and chants, giving each region’s zamil its own identity. In a conflict scenario, this could be important for attracting local listeners.
Zawamil, however, extend beyond war, and can address themes like agriculture and farming, Porter said.
“These were related to the idea of encouraging Yemenis to be self-sufficient and not look to foreign powers for assistance,” the expert said.
These types of zawamil were released in the context of the Saudi-led coalition imposing a naval and air blockade on Yemen at the start of the war.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Houthis employed zawamil to shift public fear from the pandemic to alleged contagion risks initiated by their enemies.
“When it comes to the media, zawamil are employed to accompany the news desired to reach the people, therefore these poems can remain topical and constantly updated,”al-Attas said.
Social media wars
With the rise of social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, the Houthis strategically utilized flashy videos and catchy tunes to expand their reach and enhance their popularity, Porter affirmed. A quick comparison between older and newer zawamil on YouTube reveals the latter’s higher production values and incorporation of modern instruments, drawing parallels with other Iran-backed groups such as Hezbollah.
“I’m sure that the Houthis have learned from other groups and vice versa, like how to make their messages appealing, how to create intense, polished videos,” Porter remarked. “And there’s definitely a high level of media cooperation between Iran and Hezbollah and the Houthis.”
These modern zawamil are often distributed through Houthi Telegram channels in easily downloadable MP3 audio or video formats, creating high demand and engagement, the expert said. She adds that the infectious lyrics of these catchy tunes unintentionally contribute to the recitation of Houthi propaganda once stuck in one’s head.
Porter describes an incident in early October when she observed government forces delighting in Houthi zawamil in regions where Houthi adversaries are present.
“When you have your own enemies listening to your propaganda for fun and enjoyment, it shows that you know what you’re doing,” Porter said.
Yemen, a nation grappling with persistent financial, political, and social upheavals, has recently seized the spotlight due to its role in the war against Israel. While global audiences are momentarily captivated by Yemeni content circulating on social media, offering glimpses into the country’s culture, there remains a crucial need for ongoing efforts to protect and preserve Yemen’s rich history and heritage – outside the context of politics and war. Al-Attas notes that there is no such initiative yet.