Muhammad Mahmoud al-Zubairi: The Conscience of Yemen

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

The icon of the revolution

Whenever the name of Muhammad Mahmoud al-Zubairi (1910–1965) is mentioned, the history of the Yemeni revolution comes to mind, bright and clear. References to his work awaken awareness of the link between intellect and revolution. By recalling the role of the free intellectual, the responsibility of words and their influence on national struggles, it reminds us of the status of poetry in enlightening, revolutionizing and reviving the people.

Al-Zubairi’s name is inseparable from his country. Yemen is his only title. It is both the compass of his heart and the flag of his struggle. In al-Zubairi’s work, Yemen is where every subject is contextualized, and the extent of circumstance is defined. His words reveal that Yemen is at the heart of painful meaning:

If a smile comes to sight, my homeland appears in sight and at once provokes and prevents
My homeland you are a whisper from God that does not part my heart or tongue

God created my heart from your soil and extracted my soul from your scents
If the flame of the heart proclaimed, they would say it passed through a Yemenite blade



A prayer in hell

Reading al-Zubairi’s work means traveling into an important era in Yemen’s history. In fact, it is a reading of Yemen itself, and the pain and dreams of its people. Today his work stands as a record of the nature of the conflict between the will of the people and the brutality of oppression.

Al-Zubairi grew up experiencing the reality of suffering that provided him with a deep understanding of Yemen, its land and people, along with its history and identity. His poetry carries an objective depth, and a passionate collective vision. He expressed this repeatedly, and visualized it with painful clarity:

What have the Yemenis but moments of misery and words of pain
Illiteracy, diseases, great injustice, famine, fear and the Imam

After a period of attempting to persuade oppressors of the need for political reform and openness to their times, using praise as a means to urge them and appeal for justice and mercy for the people, al-Zubairi realized that he had exhausted his literary power. He declared himself in a state of revolt, and made it clear that from that moment on all his attempts at change were nothing more than a prayer in hell:

I am at dismay at what I discovered, of the bodies that I believed were crowns
I rekindled the graveyard with my guitar, and broke open the shackles and coffins
I yearn for my people with love, I restore them to life and erect buildings with poetry
I compose eyes for the blind, and weave ears for the deaf
What I have born is deemed in my hands a creator, only to create generations and homelands
The bloodthirsty king sees a guillotine, and the people see a scale of justice
O my nation, there is a bewildered spirit, I wrung as an offering to cleanse your sins
If the suns drink from this glass of poetry they would sway and history would continue intoxicated

Deciding to revolt became a firm decision, and a goal that he stated with clarity and determination:

I disbelieved in my steadfast determination and the sanctity of the spiteful temper
And my heart’s innate insults and his vivid living dreams

This marked a new phase of struggle, beginning with the 1948 revolution, and culminating in the 1962 revolution. Throughout this period, al-Zubairi and his comrades, headed by Ahmed Mohamed Noman, developed a revolutionary consciousness, which lead to their celebrated presence in the memory of the struggle for freedom.

The revolution of poetry

According to the renowned poet Abdul Aziz al-Maqaleh, al-Zubairi’s poetry “was truly a work of national and artistic awakening”. The importance of his work not only lies in his poetry and prose but also his own biography as a revolutionary document, no less important than his writings. Al-Zubairi was born poor and grew up an orphan, yet was able to turn his back on all his hardships and suffering. He made use of his poetic talent to get closer to the rulers who were keen on winning him over and buying his approval. However, he chose to sacrifice all the social status he was offered, which would have earned him fortune and fame, and worked for the Yemeni people. Over time, he developed a consciousness that lent him a sense of revolutionary certainty.

In the beginning of his poetry collection, The Revolution of Poetry, al-Zubairi wrote, “I had a legendary vision that I am capable, with literature alone, to undermine a thousand years of corruption, injustice and oppression.” After his dreams of a revolution came true, and the September Revolution ended the dark period of the imamate tyranny:

A kingdom with its grotesque roots was destroyed by the mighty pen

This belief in poetry was not free of risk. Al-Zubairi was aware of the consequences of national action,  but accepted the sacrifice: “My work was penalized by politics, I immersed it in long bitter battles and had my evil revenge”.

Despite the risks he took, al-Zubairi was able to put Yemeni poetry on the map of Arab poetry, and also helped Yemen follow the literary development of the times. There is no doubt that al-Zubairi, the poet of Yemen, paved the way for poets in his homeland. In addition, and most importantly, he put poetry in the service of his country and people, after a period where poet, people, and country, served the oppressive rulers. Thanks to al-Zubairi, patriotic poetry spread significantly in modern Yemeni poetry. However, although he put the poet within him in the service of the revolutionary, and revolutionary in the service of the people, the legend of the revolutionary did not come at the expense of the poet’s fame.

The greatness of al-Zubairi is in this creative unity, and harmony with his homeland. It also lies in his ability to link his feelings with the feelings of his people, which lead to the proliferation of his poetry, especially during periods of oppression and injustice, more than any of his contemporaries.

The voice of the people

In the ranks of the oppressed, al-Zubairi found himself an ardent warrior, not bargaining or accepting defeat, nor faltering in confrontation:

I will go on, do not bend and live generous, do not bow
I die and do not accept the crumbs from the improved killer

Al-Zubairi was always engaged in a battle of fate regarding his practice, where he deliberately put his creative skills to use on different fronts. At times exposing the oppressors and resisting their practices and power; and at other times working on mobilizing the determination and awareness of the oppressed, helping them develop tactics to reject injustice and work for freedom:

Our people, half a century in their worship, never accepted a sacrifice from us
You have been satisfied with them and have lived for them to be revered and sanctified


The tragic hero

Yemen was al-Zubairi’s life. Although he had no tribe to support him, or hold him back, during his struggle he was able to take the lead as an exceptional national leader. Armed with his will, nobility of purpose and steadfastness, he carried the well-deserved title ‘Abu al-Ahrar’ (Father of the Free), given to him by the Yemeni people. Throughout his lifetime and long after, al-Zubairi remains an icon and immortal inspiration of the Yemeni revolution.

But after the failure of the 1948 revolution, al-Zubairi stood on the edge of the bleeding wound, mourning the dream that was killed, and the people who were let down, and wrote:

I did not think that I would cry
And I will remain alive after his catastrophe, ripping my soul apart

At the height of the tragedy, al-Zubairi believed in the people and rose to their defense. He drew a powerful hope from the depths of an intense pain:

They said the nation is finished, we will throw it into hell, wipe it out, and annul it
May it be forgotten so as not a word is uttered on earth that this nation died, let us mourn it
Oh betrayals, who was betrayed and who was killed? Her nakedness and its deterioration
The nation is a greater violence and catastrophe the day it arises from its death in the hands of his killers

As the revolutionaries recovered from the trauma of the failed revolution, they gathered and expressed their readiness to fight for the dream once again. At this moment, al-Zubairi’s voice rang loud and confident that the end of injustice is near:

Record your place in history. From here, future generations are sent to the world
Here the volcanoes came out of their beds, overwhelmed and swept away the tyranny

After years of struggle, imprisonment and exile, the revolution of 26 September 1962 was a dream that al-Zubairi had long waited for, and deeply believed in. Throughout its formation, he worked, together with his comrades, to raise awareness of its necessity. However, the revolution soon revealed practices that al-Zubairi saw as an extension of oppressive rule. Once again he stood and criticized his fellow revolutionaries:

Once more you are an edition of injustice
Correct what they have neglected and forgotten

 This declaration was a continuation of his position during the era of the imams: “I fight injustice no matter how bright its color or however many names it bears”.

With the ethics of an honorable hero and the pride of a revolutionary, al-Zubairi began working to correct the course of the revolution. He fought for the interest of the Yemeni people, until a betraying bullet pierced his heart, and his revolutionary soul left the body it accompanied for 55 years. He died as he wanted to be remembered, until the last moment in his life, as the conscience of the Yemeni cause. Al-Zubairi’s literature, actions, struggle and death, embodied all the values f sacrifice and patriotism.

My pain and sorrow are in the care of the people, and my passion and pain at their whim
I searched for a gift to gift my homeland and found only my bleeding heart to offer

Intellectual influence

Al-Zubairi’s contribution included a collection of books on politics, including The Imamate and its Danger to the Unity of Yemen, The Call of the Free and the Unity of the People, and The Great Deceit in Arab Politics. In addition he published his novel, The Tragedy of the Palladium, and his diaries, The Revolution of Poetry, Prayer in Hell, and there is a large collection of unpublished poetry that is yet to be collected and printed.

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Mohammed al-Bakry

A Yemeni writer, poet, and researcher. He holds a Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University. Mohamed is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the rhetoric of discrimination in Arab proverbs. In addition to published poems and literary, intellectual, and political articles in Arab and Yemeni magazines and newspapers, he has produced a number of unpublished studies and poetry collections. He is a member of the Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.

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