A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Design coutsey of Waed al-Madhaji
The memory of poetry holds thousands of names, but only a few still vividly embody the meaning of freedom, and their poetry remains charged with the glory of the word and its beauty. The memory of the revolution holds thousands of revolutionaries, but revolutionaries who have granted the revolution a meaning of altruism and conviction, and remained far from self-worship, far from the luster of power, accompanying the days without haste:
The walls wonder as I pace the grounds
Who is that strange ghost and slim old man
The house denies me, but I am familiar with its dweller
I chant but its floors do not hear, and its ceilings reject my calling
In 2007, before his soul left his body, I knew Ibrahim al-Hadhrani as a stature burdened by eighty years; his features carved by time, his two eyes staring into the distance, twinkling with purity, and a smile that never disappeared. The eye perceives him as an aging old man, but a few moments of his company proves that wrong. It reveals a rebellious spirit and a strong memory, a winged imagination surrounded by a deep sense of life, and a sweetness of conversation that one does not tire from hearing, nor wishes for it to end. These poetic verses ring as an attempt to introduce himself:
I am a great revolution looming and disappearing
I am who am I? I am a flickering ember that never dies
I am a mighty spirit moaning in sorrow
under the ruins, without remedy
I am the sigh of the poor, whose right is taken
in the hands of the rich, without reprieve
I am the reflection of the Sufi in his mihrab
whose greatness overwhelmed the limits of words
Time does not relieve me with what I love
nor is my soul content with this life.
In the squares of the revolution
Active at the time of national struggle, al-Hadhrani was deeply involved in the defense of his people, who were weakened by the Imamate, by poverty, illiteracy and disease. Amid these collective traumas, he forgot his personal hardships, and merged with the pain and hopes of his people. Raising his voice in the face of tyranny, he wrote:
O oppressor, halt, threat awaits you
You did not protect the right of a nation you lived happily within
Move out of its way and leave it in peace.
al-Hadhrani was among the leading faces of the 1948 revolution against the Imamate’s rule. After the revolution relapsed, he spent a few years of his dignified life in the dreadful prison of Hajja, and he wrote recalling those times:
In a troubled nation, I was born
where God banished grief and despair
I grew up with no arms to hold
orphaned in the arms of spreading misery
And how long I roamed the country
my neck and legs weighed by shackles
ask Hajja about me, may God erase its prison
And if he wishes, after the prison, he may level the buildings
between their walls I adored death and became its lover
and there I imagined the grave a beautiful woman.
Fate kept him on earth so he could witness some of what life and words have to offer. Many of his poems of dissent, protest and revolution are remembered, and openly express his thoughts:
Laudable is he who does not turn to seek glory
Say, Do not be afraid. No man won from praise and prejudice.
However, al-Hadhrani’s most famous words are two verses that became the emblem of every revolutionary who was ever led to the execution yard. They are words remembered by every survivor of the 1948 revolution, and recalled by every scholar of the Yemeni revolution. These two verses of poetry were charged with defiance and composed with sacrifice. They were uttered as he dragged his bloodied shackled feet, and raised his head high, lamenting himself, preparing for death in the hands of ‘al-Washah’, the Imam’s famed executioner:
How much I suffered for my country * repeatedly subjected to discrimination
And today for my country * I offer my soul with content and determination.
Two verses of poetry encapsulate the position of the revolutionary poet, and capture the most painful of al-Hadhrani’s expressions in a dramatic moment as he faced the specter of death. He was certain that it was the end of his thin body, if it hadn’t been for a memory, which seeped into the heart of the blood-thirsty Imam, of an old relationship between al-Hadhrani’s father and Imam Ahmad bin Yahya Hamidaddin. The death sentence was postponed, but Ibrahim al-Hadhrani remained hostage to the torture of the Imam’s wardens in the hellish prison of Hajja, which consumed years of his life and poetry. Every time he chronicled his opinion, the tragedy in his blood improvised into poetry that captured the dialectic of death and life within the consciousness of the fighter:
O Mercy dear sword of demise, return
And O dear shadow of sudden death disappear
I swear I did not fear demise and here are its beginnings in sight and sound
But truthfully, in my passion for my country
I fear to die from its death within me.
The Yemeni revolutionaries in this bloody era of Yemen’s history remained – despite the shadow of the sword, which remained drawn to cut down their rebellion against Imam Ahmad’s order – determined to work on amassing all the substantive conditions of the revolution. Ibrahim al-Hadhrani was at the forefront, echoing these words in the face of those gloating over the constitutional revolution:
Do not hold hope that a tyrant will rule or reign among the people
The cauldron of the free men simmers with resentment
and has a burning thirst for tyrant blood
By God I will not rest, silence is a crime I do not accept
and surrendering is a sin.
al-Hadhrani realized the power of the free word. After he witnessed the fall of his fellow revolutionaries, he suffered through prison, and paid a dire price more than once, only to return once again without fear of oppression:
Pay no heed to the oppressor from among and afar
Let him not deter you from your aspiration
and bear a heart of hell if he strays
one that shakes the devil’s kingdom
The world has not softened nor did its young
Only in the face of the brave
an embryo that beats between the ribs
and from it the young tuareg tremble.
In a state of elegy
al-Hadhrani lost a number of his comrades to the homeland. Overwhelmed by grief and deep sorrow, the poet’s heart burst with strong lamentation, and an elegy of the oppressed is a reproach to the oppressor. As the revolutionaries were killed by the sword of the tyrant, the tone of the elegy appears to be a combination of sorrow and sympathy, a blend of pride in the wounded and the heartache of loss. al-Hadhrani’s elegy expressed this oppression clearly to President Gamal Jameel. It is almost an elegy to Yemen, so he made sure that the moment was an occasion to awaken the determination of the people of Yemen:
Till when O’ my country will I see you in darkness
and on your soil idols are worshiped?!
Till when will tyrants rise and villains ascend the throne of continuity?!
And O’ you the cradle of the ancestors will remain torn
by the hands of disaster trampled and stomped?!
Till when? A year of catastrophe goes on with sorrow, and another in panic?!
Today a year has gone by and bid its deeds farewell with a deep sigh
it passed and wounded the happy land with a wound its free men cannot heal
I saw the faces of those who oppress, and the president appeared with a proud smile.
In another elegy, to a lost friend, al-Hadhrani deviates from mourning his companion, to mourning himself and fearing death. At the heart of the meaning of friendship, he delves into the meaning of death:
I am dead, who laments my loss after death rendered my friends absent?
How can I lament them with my poetry, and am I not worthy of theirs?
I am overwhelmed whenever fate throws an arrow and one falls bleeding, so do I.
As if recalling Malik bin al-Rib words, “I remembered those who cried for me and I found none…”.
al-Hadhrani continued living his life moment by moment with the pride of the revolutionary. In his memory, he recalls all his friends who departed with a tearful heart, overcoming his wounds, and distancing himself from complaint, and writes:
Our sorrow has no end
it accompanies our days with deep wounds
And its agony in people is melancholic
It is in a valley of deep grief
where there is no redemption from avenge
grievance reaches, but not the relief of a friend.
In the spirit of renunciation
Although al-Hadhrani was one of the most prominent symbols of the Yemeni revolution, he lived a simple life far from the limelight. He did not pursue the ranks of power and did not participate in any battles over the spoils of the 1962 revolution. Instead, he was content with poetry as a struggle for freedom, where he reflected on disappearing dreams and living comrades who turned their backs on him, and took their rejection too far:
Remorse O’ how far am I from the remorseful?!
They went right and I went left
O’ our loved ones, time rejects us after smiling upon us before
You are not guilty of our abandon, the nights have borne the blame
We covered the wounds with hearts bloodied with longing, and burned to ashes
Those who broke their promise will know
that we have greater souls, and an unwavering conscience
It is us who commanded the dove and it sang with a longing that scented the breeze
And the dew in gardens is full of tears, for the eyes who abandoned sleep
It is us who sacrificed the most precious of all things, and gained dreams and illusions
We begin where we finish, our desires unfulfilled, and our wounds unhealed.
Despite the abundance of al-Hadhrani’s poetry, which he presented at many occasions and events, for many positions and purposes, he did not pay much attention to collecting his work. In fact, he did not pay much attention to the personal in his life, and chose to remain a narrator of his heart, relaying his work to followers or at cultural events, wherever and whenever the circumstances took him. On these occasions, he offered his audience a store of poetry, which he drew from his tireless memory. He delighted his audience with his unique recital of poetry, turning their heads in an ecstasy of eloquence, and in turn the radiance of youth would return to him, shining bright with phrases.
In the context of love
As much as al-Hadhrani wrote in the name of his homeland, expressed anger for its cause and sang its praise, he also wrote for love. He declared love, sang in praise of women, and expressed his own suffering with a light tone:
If I had prayed to God diligently
As I have to you, beautiful one
I would have held the greatest rank amongst God’s creations
and would have been the greatest messenger to mankind.
al-Hadhrani’s poetry rings with grief that reflects his emotional alienation, and his deep sense of bitterness, even as he escaped to love, and removed the defiance of the revolutionary and the fortitude of the fighter:
Oh, you who has melted my heart in your love
but from you I only gained distance and deprivation
Even the blossoms of my hope commentate
between my pain and grief
Are these the days of youth
to which the aging want to return?!
What else is that my heart has almost melted for her
and my the tears on my cheek are blood red
This is love, it continues to create for me
a world of many shapes and colors
the life and the time of heartache I live in alone
and the people around me live in another world.
In the medium of song, he took love and its longing as an entryway to express his view on life, and his experience of it. This is visible in songs such as, ‘O heart! How you rejoice at the meeting of the beloved’ and ‘No reproach, no reproach’, and his eternal wisdom is in his song, ‘In the truth of truths, all are clutching the wind’.
Sung poetry is another version of al-Hadhrani’s reflections and his love for his country. In the song, ‘The meeting of lovers’, al-Hadhrani recorded the course of Yemen’s unification, free of slogans and chants. He presented a new form of the national song, breaking the usual style of direct expression and singing in praise of history. al-Hadhranis words, sung by the musician Ayoub Tarish, became a briefing of sorts, to those who know the essence of meaning and the spirit of nature:
O’ mountains of Rayma embrace the stems of Shamsan
And you, O’ valley of the village, spread to Beihan
They said yesterday, in Saada there was a lively celebration
Everyone met at the wedding of Hasna and Hassan
Al Ansi, Al Murshi and Al Qandan too.