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.

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.

Sanabani and Mashreqi realized that the historic respect accorded to poets gives them a unique power to win over illiterate tribesmen in remote areas where villagers are traditionally skeptical of all that the government has to say and offer.

"The Yemeni people are very sensitive to poetry - especially traditional poetry like this," says Mashreqi. "If poetry contains the right ideas and is used in the right context, then people will respond to it because this is heart of their culture."

And although Yemen has used force to tackle Al Qaeda cells and rebel groups, Mashreqi's poems also fit into Yemen's wider strategy of defeating Islamic extremism by appealing to their countrymen's sense of pride, honor, and patriotism.

O men of arms, why do you love injustice?
You must live in law and order
Get up, wake up, or be forever regretful,
Don't be infamous among the nations

The poems, however, also robustly argue that carrying out terrorist attacks in Yemen will succeed in scaring away much-needed foreign investment and tourism - an argument that few impoverished Yemenis can dispute.

"You have to talk to people about the dangers and effects of terrorism," says Ahmed al-Kibsi, professor of political science at Sanaa University. "Education, the media, and the military complement each other."

So far Yemen's tactics seem to be helping. Since Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh joined President Bush's War on Terror in late 2001 the country has not experienced any major Islamist attacks - although internal tribal conflicts regularly flare up, as does a long-running Shiite Muslim uprising in the country's far north.

But while there have been few successful attacks by Islamic militants in Yemen, the country has still had its troubles with Al Qaeda.

In February, at least 23 suspected and convicted Al Qaeda members escaped from a jail in Sanaa. The Yemen Observer reported that, "some of the escapees were the most important and dangerous members of Yemen's Al Qaeda network, and have been blamed for bombing the USS Cole warship in Aden."

Also, there may have been other unintended side effects of Yemen's successful campaign to persuade would-be jihadists not to carry out their attacks on Yemeni soil.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Yemenis have instead traveled to Iraq to fight against the US-led occupation. In the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Yemenis are said to have made up the second largest contingents of Arab volunteers.

Others worry that while Yemen has succeeded in suppressing the visible symptoms of Islamic militancy, the root causes of violent radicalism remain and the Islamic militancy in the country is not defeated but is instead merely dormant.

Rising poverty, a lack of opportunity, and the arrogance and corruption of an increasingly authoritarian ruling class mean that Yemen's victory over terrorism may be only temporary.

"I've become aware of a real anger on the streets," says Robin Madrid, resident director of the National Democratic Institute's program in Yemen, adding that many Yemenis can despairingly point out second and third homes built by government ministers.

"Yemen has the potential to make excellent progress on all the fronts that we're concerned about," says Nabeel Khoury, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, Sanaa, citing Yemen's need to tackle corruption and international arms smuggling while also extending democratization and protecting press freedom.

"At the same time, Yemen faces so many serious challenges that if it doesn't make the right decisions it risks deterioration on all these fronts," says Mr. Khoury, "with potential consequences for domestic as well as regional stability."

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