A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Abdullah al-Baradouni, a Yemeni poet and intellectual, represented, and still represents, a cultural phenomenon that has lived on in Yemenis of different social groups, political movements, sects, areas, and cultural and intellectual backgrounds. What gave him this larger than life status among Yemenis, and this importance in the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people?
It is not just a matter of people sympathizing with or admiring an individual who had forged his own path in life despite being blind, living in poverty, and being orphaned at an early age; it is based on him being one of them and addressing the issues that they face in their daily lives and their culture. He expressed their reality, their dreams and their aspirations in his poems, his prose and the positions that he took. This led to the feeling that he was the homegrown intellectual who was on the side of the people, working to defend them and provide them with the meaning that they were missing. How was he able to do this?
Knowing his life story is enough to uncover the secret of what made him an intellectual and a Yemeni cultural phenomenon that grew to represent the rest of the Arab world, and maybe even humanity in general. Abdullah bin Saleh bin Abdullah bin Hasan al-Baradouni (1929–1999) was born in the village of al-Baradoun in the al-Hada district of Dhamar governorate. Al-Baradouni is from the Mazari’ah tribe, where cooperation and working as a team, in good times and bad, is the biggest contributor to the cohesion of its members within the tribe, instilling a sense of belonging among them. At a very young age, Abdullah was stricken with smallpox, which led to him losing his sight when he was five or six years old. This led to him having a greater feeling for others, and need for them, especially his mother.
His blindness led him towards learning the Quran, language and poetry from the traditional teachers in his village and the village of al-Mahallah in Ans district. His thirst for knowledge increased when he studied at the al-Shamsiah School in Dhamar, where a number of the pioneers of the revival in modern Yemen studied, such as Ahmad bin Abdulwahab al-Warith (d. 1940), Jar Allah Omar (d. 2002), the poet Ibrahim al-Hadhrani (d. 2007), the investigative historian Muhammad bin Ali al-Akwa’a (d. 1998), and his brother, the well-known historian Ismael bin Ali al-Akwa’a (d. 2008). These were pioneers in fields that were geared towards serving society and providing for its religious and worldly needs. Al-Baradouni’s experience in serving society with the knowledge that he had gained only deepened his sense of community and his feel for the issues facing society. He worked, for a period, as a lawyer for divorced women, pleading their cases in courts, during which he saw, up close, the abuse and injustice that women were subject to. He also worked, during other periods of his life, as a teacher of literature in the Dar al-Uloum School in Sana’a, before the 26 September 1962 revolution. He also worked as a language editor, the head of the Texts Commission, and the program director in Radio Sana’a, before and after the revolution. He was also a journalist and writer for a number of national newspapers. All of these experiences helped him get in touch with the past and present of Yemenis and Arabs in fields such as politics and social affairs, which increased his feeling of responsibility towards what the people of Yemen, and the people of other Arab countries, were going through.
The liberation movements that spread through most Arab countries – as well as the events, changes and leftist and rightist political movements that al-Baradouni experienced – played a large role in directing his intellectual and poetic output for the service of his Yemeni and Arab society, as well as deepening his sense of a responsibility towards them. What al-Baradouni presented was not only his poetry but also his daily behavior and positions that he took to support the struggle, as well as national and societal issues. From these practical positions, he made a great contribution to ‘solidifying Yemeni writing’ and ‘achieving Yemeni self-realization’– countering the danger of a return to the soft power of monarchists. He also helped speed up the unification process of the two parts of Yemen by establishing the Yemeni Writers Union, along with a number of colleagues from Aden and other parts of the south, led by the late Omar Abdullah al-Jawi (d. 1997). They did this years before actual unification was achieved. He also spent the money that he won for his many awards to print his works and sell them to the people at the lowest possible price, reaching the point where most Yemeni homes had at least one of his works. If al-Baradouni had not reached people’s homes through his books, he reached them through the radio, with a weekly show named The Journal of Thought and Literature that he started in 1964 and continued producing until his death. The positions that al-Baradouni took, as well as others, created a consciousness for change, becoming a threat to the ruling regimes, which imprisoned him on a number of occasions. During his imprisonment, the revolutionary poet got to know new worlds, leaving him even more insistent and convinced of the importance of being on the side of the people throughout his life. He expressed this in his following work:
Write the title and plant a pole in it,
For whoever loves the people refuses to be a hypocrite.
Al-Baradouni left behind nine intellectual works in history, politics, literature and literary criticism. In these works, he did not stop at collecting, describing and presenting information, as he was very keen to analyze, explain and interpret as well. This was done to take the reader to the core of the topics, their causes and their results. Despite the fact that he had not received modern academic schooling, al-Baradouni showed a surprising inclination to use the scientific method. This can be seen in his intellectual strategy that is based, on the one hand, on refuting some of the opinions that hindered his progressive vision, and establishing, on the other hand, the renaissance movement that he wanted to advance and instill in the collective consciousness of the Yemeni people.
Looking at the titles of these books, the reader will find that the name of Yemen has a noticeable and varied presence in them.The only exception to this common theme throughout his books is Ashtat(1996), where he discusses, implicitly and cleverly, his theoretical and critical opinions on his experience in writing poetry. As for his book From the First Poem to the Last Bullet(1993), the word Yemen is absent from the main title, but the subtitle of the book is A Study of al-Zubairi’s Poetry. The poet studied in this book, Muhammad Mahmoud al-Zubairi (d. 1965), is, in the Yemeni collective consciousness, one of the most important symbols of poetry and the struggle in Yemen’s modern history.
This presence is only a sign of the missing identity that al-Baradouni wanted to create and solidify, and this is why we find that he distanced himself and criticized everything that he believed had contributed to falsifying the identity of the Yemeni people and made them, without realizing, grow out of them. It is as if al-Baradouni wanted to say that Yemenis will not find their true identity in what was written by the regime of the Zaidi Imamate that ruled Yemen and Yemenis for more than a 1,000 years, because what they instilled only strengthens a narrow identity and excludes the collective identity of all Yemenis. Whoever wants to look for the real Yemeni identity, with all of the changes that it has gone through, will only find it in the popular cultural heritage, which expresses the active and passive spirit of nations. This is what motivated him to publish two books in this field: The Art of Popular Literature in Yemen (1987) and Popular Culture: Yemeni Experience and Sayings(1988). In A Journey Into Yemeni Poetry, Old and New(first published in 1972, and then in 1978), al-Baradouni writes about the figures and poets that he believes represent the identity of Yemenis, while excluding those that he believes do not do this, no matter how popular they are. This is the same thing that the reader finds in al-Baradouni’s Republican Yemen(1983), in which the author focuses on the historical works by authors that he believes represent the Yemeni identity, turning a blind eye to the works by authors that he believes do not do this, despite their great number. In this book, the author criticizes, analyzes and interprets the precursors of Yemen’s transformation from a monarchy into a republic and the success of the September Revolution, as well as the twists and turns that affected the path towards Yemen becoming a republic. In The Republic of Yemen, which we are told was confiscated and disappeared after his death, al-Baradouni writes about Yemen’s political history, starting with the unification of Yemen in 1990 and what happened after that. In this book, he prophesizes the fate of Yemen’s unity, and the country as a whole, if the policies that were in place at the time were to continue.
In these books, the reader not only discovers al-Baradouni’s political awareness and his positions, which subjected him to harassment and led to his writings getting confiscated and lost, but also learns about the advanced philosophical awareness in writing about history, something that is very rare in Yemen. This is an awareness that exceeds a descriptive writing about history and transforms into a new historicism, and from a history of events to a history of ideas. This meant that the author did not present history from the official narrative, but from the point of view of the people, whose side he took in choosing this specific method of writing about history. In addition, this methodology gave him the ability to criticize the official history and uncover what had been ignored, as well as foresee what could happen in the future.
As a poet, al-Baradouni published 12 collections of poetry, while two others have yet to see the light of day. The two collections that have not been published are Passionate Love at the Harbors of the Moonand The Journey of the Son of the Unmarriageable. Upon studying his published poems, one finds that he was very attached to Yemeni and Arab societies, as well as the issues and transformations they were going through. This attachment can be seen through different paths:
- The revolutionary and aspirational path. This includes the first five collections of poetry,which are divided into three dimensions: the liberational revolutionary dimension, which was a popular demand in Yemen, to become free of the chains of oppression and colonialism; the optimistic and utopian dimension, which aspired to achieve the dream of a better life for the Yemeni people; and the identity dimension, where one notices that the reader is directed towards the past, and the past glories of the Yemen people, especially the distant past. The reader will notice these dimensions in the titles of the five collections of poetry before even looking into the content of these collections.
- The discontented and nihilistic path. This is represented by the next five collections of poetry,which came at the time of great disappointments for Yemeni people and the Arab world, because of what was done by the rulers and elites of these countries after their independence and liberation, causing setbacks and betrayals of everything that the people had aspired and dreamed of achieving during the first stage. In these poems, the amount of criticism, melancholic pessimism, biting satire, fear of the unknown and sense of meaningless and nihilism increased, and this can be seen in many of the collections’ titles that represent this path, with words like ‘smoke’, ‘mirror’, ‘night’, ‘without character’, ‘sandy’, ‘dust’, ‘creatures’, and ‘wiles’.
- The transcending the crisis path. This path is represented by the final two collections of poetry, which are only different from the previous collections that are a part of the second track, in that they go back to the intellectual, historical and popular past. In these collections, al-Baradouni contrasts our stumbling present with our bright past by creating a debate between them by taking the present back to the intellectual and historical past in his collection, The Answer of All Eras(1991) and bringing the popular past to the present in The Return of the Wise, ibn Zayed(1994). In each collection, al-Baradouni presents an idea of how to overcome the crisis and come up with solutions. Going through the different eras, he would bring up what could be applied to our present, calling forth the wise folk figure, Ali bin Zayed, means bringing back his philosophy, which summarizes the wisdom from popular life experiences that were lived, and not from the remnants of the past.
Al-Baradouni was able, through his poetic style, which was classical in form and modern in content and art, to employ Yemeni characteristics in their various forms and fields on the one hand, and he was also able to use it to express Arab and human issues in general on the other hand. He proved, by doing this, that one can express global ideas through local forms and to elevate popular culture to the formal level. In doing this, he took the same path as well-known international writers, like Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel García Márquez, who achieved this pairing in their novels. Using this method, there is no separation between knowledge and art or between history and innovation.
Al-Baradouni’s poetry provided, through these characteristics, rich material for literary critics and historians. His innovations motivated the poets who were his contemporaries and those that came after him to take the same path that he did and to compete for his throne after him. What is even more significant is that some of his verses have become popular sayings among the people, students, journalists, artists and politicians. These include the following verse:
I knew that he was Yemeni by his glances of
Fear, and in his eyes a history full of ash,
Out of the greenness of the qat in his eyes emerge yellow questions,
Yellow questions like a half blazed twig!
‘Southerners’, they call us, when we are in Sana‘a
‘Northerners’, they call us, when we are in Aden.
‘Yemenis’, they call us, when we are in exile.
Exiled we are when we are in Yemen.
We replaced an invading colonizer
With a nationalistic colonizer.
It is atrocious to be ignorant of what is happening,
And what is even worse than that is to know.
And do you know, O Sana’a,
Who the secret colonizer is?
Invaders that I have not seen,
While the sword of invasion is in my chest.
All of this confirms that al-Baradouni is no longer just a poet but has become a cultural phenomenon who is integrally linked to the cultural imagination of Yemenis, their history and their future.
These stances can be found in the section on the Yemeni Writers Union in the book Culture and Revolution in Yemen(1991).
To confirm this, we add his book, Yemeni Issues(1977).
The chronological order of these collections of poetry is: From the Land of Balqis(1961), In the Road of Dawn(1967), The City of the Future(1970), For My Eye Mother of Balqis(1973), and Departure to the Green Days(1974).
Their chronological order is: Smoky Faces in the Mirror of Night(1977), An Era without Character(1979), A Sandy Translation for the Weddings of Dust(1983), The Creatures of the Other (Future) Yearning(1986), and The Wile of Lantern(1989).