In poetry-loving Yemen, tribal bard takes on Al Qaeda - with his verse
As the dusk call to prayer fades, Amin al-Mashreqi glances at the expectant faces surrounding him and begins to read from his slim, handwritten book of verse that is helping to bring a measure of peace to this mountainous Arab country.Skip to next paragraph
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O, you who kidnap our guests,
Your house will refuse you,
These violations are against Islam
Crammed into a mud-brick shop, his audience, some with their hands resting on their gold-trimmed daggers, listen to his verse denouncing violence and Islamic militancy. When he finishes, there is silence. Then the room erupts in applause.
"Other countries fight terrorism with guns and bombs, but in Yemen we use poetry," says Mr. Mashreqi later. "Through my poetry I can convince people of the need for peace who would never be convinced by laws or by force."
For years Yemen has been known as a breeding ground for extremism. It is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden and where Al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in 2000.
But today this country is quietly winning a reputation for using unorthodox tactics to take on Islamic militancy.
"Yemen has turned to poets because they are able to speak to diverse groups of people who the literati and the elite cannot reach," explains W. Flagg Miller, professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin who has studied Yemeni poetry for about 20 years.
For centuries, Yemen's rulers have relied on poets like Mashreqi to take the government's message into remote areas where regular soldiers and officials feared to tread - and where using force could create more, and angrier, enemies.
"There is a long tradition of leaders turning to poets right across the Arab world," explains Dr. Miller. "The prophet Muhammad himself worked with a poet, Hassan ibn Thabit, to spread the word and compose poetry against other poets and tribes who refused to acknowledge Islam."
But the long and rich history of Yemeni polemical poetry, the idea of using tribal poets to fight extremism began with a chance meeting nearly two years ago, explains Faris Sanabani, a friend of Yemen's president and editor of a weekly English-language newspaper The Yemen Observer.
Leading Yemenis in Sanaa had gathered to chew khat, a narcotic shrub, talk politics, and listen to poetry, Mr. Sanabani recalls. Suddenly, one guest turned to Yemen's most popular tribal poet, Mashreqi, and asked him if he could recite any poetry about terrorism, he says.
Mashreqi rose eagerly to the challenge. He stood up, adjusted the broad, curving dagger hanging at his waist and proudly declaimed a handful of verses glorifying suicide bombers.
As the applause faded, the man who had asked him to recite the verses, Sanabani himself, took him aside and quietly invited him to visit his office.
The next day at the office of the Yemen Observer, Sanabani asked Mashreqi to watch a video made after Al Qaeda's 2002 suicide boat-attack on the French oil tanker SS Limburg off the Yemeni coast.
"I showed him footage of the environmental damage caused by the oil spill and of Yemeni fishermen and their families whose livelihood had been destroyed because their fishing grounds were polluted," recalls Sanabani.
Chastened by the images of oil-stained beaches, dead fish, and seabirds and sobbing, destitute Yemeni fishermen, Mashreqi left Sanabani's office appearing troubled and lost in thought. When Sanabani next saw him he seemed a man transformed.
"Three days later he came back with the most beautiful poetry I have ever seen," says Sanabani, recalling his amazement at the poet's new verses that now condemned violence and promoted peace and tolerance.