Oh Shepherdess, Oh Black-Eyed One!

Images of Women in the Poetry of Muhammad Abdulbari al-Futaih

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

A short biography[1]

The well-known poet Muhammad Abdulbari al-Futaih (d. 2013) is one of the Yemeni poets who established the Union of Pioneering Writers and Authors, and influenced literature and culture in general, and popular lyrical poetry specifically. He had a style that was known for its innovation and originality. Al-Futaih was born in 1932, in the village of al-Makishah in the Qadas area of Taiz, and he studied Quran at an early age, before moving to the city of Aden at the age of nine. His father escaped to the coastal city of Aden during one of the revolutions against the governor appointed by Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din (d. 1948), and al-Futaih’s father remained in the city, working as a muezzin in the historical Aban Masjid. Muhammad enrolled at the al-Najah School in al-Zaafaran area in the Crater district. After that, he went to middle school at the Arab Culture Institute in Khobar in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after going there in 1952. In 1962, he moved to Syria, where he attended secondary school in the al-Maliki School. After that, he got a scholarship to study in Hungary from the Oman Imamate Office, an office founded by Omani political dissidents. He got his master’s degree in Semitic Language, History, and Literature from Eötvös Loránd University in 1969, with a thesis on a historical and analytical study on Arab nationalism.

Al-Futaih worked in the Central Bank from 1970 to 1975, then he worked at the General Authority for Antiquities in Taiz until 2002, when he retired. The singer Abdulbasit Absi sang a number of the songs written by al-Futaih, and his poems were also sung by Jaber Ali Ahmad and Muhammad Saleh Shawqi. Al-Futaih released a poetry collection titled Mushqar Bilsahabah through the Yemeni Writer’s Union in 2003, and there will soon be another poetry collection published, called Al Wasiah Wa Nuqoush Fi Jawf Al Sakhr. Al-Futaih, the innovative poet, passed away in 2013.

Al-Futaih was known for  writing about the rural life, bearing the worries and concerns of workers and ordinary people, having reverence for a culture of work, to the point where he was obsessed with the profession of tile-laying, a field that he worked in, and would return to whenever he got an opportunity. His most important attributes include encouraging young writers and dedication to the issues that he believed strongly in, including literature. He was never blinded by the spotlight, and he never sought out fame; he was a man who lived for art and to build a foundation of noble humanitarian principles that were expressed in his poetry. He wrote for the revolution and the revolutionaries, for women, for the field, and for farmers.  A few of  his poems and songs were and continue to be very popular among the people, especially since they address important social issues. At the top of the list of issues he addressed are issues of women, which are how a society’s advancement is measured.

Women as poem protagonists

In the context of this concern with social issues, women in al-Futaih’s poetry are often protagonists, such as in the lyrical poem Oh Dove, Sing!, where we find the sole voice to be a woman’s. He showed women, in his poetry collection Mushaqar Bilsahabah, in a way that shows the special place that women have in many of his texts, whether those that are sung as love poems or those that have clear or implied political messages. The most important attributes of this image are that women manifest a rhetoric of equals or as peers and partners, what we can call equal human dignity. Usually, the image of women in these poems is associated with an attribute of agricultural life, such as a shepherdess or a farmer.

We can attribute this to the social and cultural heritage of al-Futaih, who, first of all, is from the countryside and was raised in a community with a culture that is more open and free in its views of women, who had fewer social and religious limitations placed upon them. Women, in rural areas, were partners, in life and on the land, and they were the cornerstone of Yemeni agricultural society. Second, al-Futaih was affiliated with the political left and deeply immersed in its views from a young age, and this is what strengthened his view of women as partners and made him adopt women’s social issues. Al-Futaih remained opposed to practices that  took away women’s agency, and this is what led him to make women’s voices prominent in his writing. He particularly emphasized this when there was an increase in religious influence, which adopted tribal and Bedouin views that were more extremist. These views worked to diminish women and demonize them, describing them as little more than a shame that needs to be imprisoned. This movement has continued to gain acceptance in society, and remains the most influential for religious and emotional reasons, having the effect of eroding rural society’s egalitarian customs. Specifically, it had a large impact on women’s participation in society and its social and agricultural activities. Our poet, however, remained faithful in his writings to that spontaneous rural social environment that he knew as a child and that had not yet been distorted by imported cultural patterns.

Woman as lover

The images are of a woman as dearly loved – full of emotions, appreciation, and celebration. The poems have lyrical qualities that heighten the text, highlighting the poetic image and bringing it in line with a folk accent:

Every moment, you are on my mind, and in my dreams at night,

My hearts beats in your name,

And your image is ingrained in my mind,

This is how love should be, otherwise what is the point?

Here we find the poet gives the woman the attributes of a nation, and this image has been repeated in many parts of the poetry collection. This correlation is deliberate, with the poet making a female lover a metaphor for the land or the nation. This high regard goes back to the culture that was inherited from rural and agricultural areas: the culture of the poet. Here a woman has an independent personality, and, like the land, is generous. She is a partner and not a competitor, helping to overcome hurdles because of her connection to rural life, a life that stands on her shoulders. He says in a short metaphorical text, in a single couplet:

ِArtwork by Rofaida Ahmed

Mount Saber is high, reaching up to the sun,

Whispering murmurs into al-ghadiah’s ears.

Al-Ghadiah is a raincloud, and it is used here to represent a female, and the celebration of her lover makes her a generous force. This is similar to the text of Aheef, when he says:

Graceful, if he goes, all of creation goes with him

and if he leans, then the tree branches lean with him.

Or in the text on land being like honor:

If he moves, he exudes a strong fragrance, like sweet smelling plants and mountain coffee

and if he smiles, the melodies flow from my imagination.

Here is the female lover, walking gracefully in the countryside, completely free. How can she be in love if she does not have her freedom? There cannot be love without the freedom to choose. The poet shows this external image of the woman contrasted with another image, which is the image of the internal emotions of the man in love.

My love, walk gracefully in my mind

So that my muse can thrive with you

You have blossomed inside of my soul

Like the flowers of a narcissus

You spend all day, from dawn to night, in my thoughts

And how can one such as you be forgotten?

Woman as partner

Women in Yemeni agricultural and rural societies were not trapped in chores and housework; they have always stood next to the men and bear the burdens of everyday life. They are, at times, the support for men and provide strength, and that is why we find that women have a large role in the poems of al-Futaih, where they are described as a partner in the struggle. Sometimes they give strength and listen to frustrations, while at other times the poet encourages them to rebel and not keep quiet. We will see both of these images shown in the next two texts.

The first image can be seen in the text of Migration Inwards. The title of this text is a metaphor for the poet becoming a political prisoner, “with the dawn visitors”. We find the dove being used as a symbol for the woman that he is thinking of, and he starts complaining to her and talking to her, as the person sharing his worries and his pain.

Console me, my soul is tortured, deprived of tenderness, left alone,

Without spring, my life is being lost, and I am becoming old while still a youth,

I get thirsty, and have to drink tears, my years are burning away like a candle,

The feeling of security has flown away from my heart, and I am left dreaming of returning,

Oh dove, please comfort me, the fire of separation has burned me,

My beloved has left without any goodbyes, so when will you come back to me?!

The other image, in Nostalgia, is clearer, showing revolutionary incitement against the oppression of the political system and its brutality. Here we find that the speech is directed at the black-eyed [2]

shepherdess, who can be interpreted as representing the land and the nation. The poet says:

My eyes see, oh you black-eyed shepherdess,

What the neighbors are doing in that piece of land,

A young girl adorned with sweet-smelling plants,

Her scent travels all the way to the Mukalla coast,

Abu Matar has loved you, oh black-eyed one, and he has been loyal,

He has flirted with you and adorned you with flowers,[3]

Woe to anyone who tries to violate or ambushes you,

I swear to Allah that I will smash them with an axe.

Oh, shepherdess, tell the laborer in the field,

That a relationship is the best solution and best thing to do,

We will get lost in the act, and a response is not a statement,

Do not be quiet, leave silence to the Great Sphinx.

Women and the expatriation of men

Muhammad Abdulbari al-Futaih struggled to correct the dysfunctions that had affected the customs and traditions of his society. When women’s voices were heard less, we find that their voices became louder and took up more space in his writing. This is the result of his awareness of the importance of the social role that poets must play in influencing their societies. This is what made him embody the voices of women in his texts, giving them the freedom to live in his work and use it as a platform. At the forefront of these writings is his lyrical poem, Oh Dove, Sing!, which was sung by Abdulbasit Absi. This song became very popular among the people, and it is the monologue of a woman who has been overcome with a feeling of separation after her beloved or her husband has migrated or gone far away with a dove. The poem states:

Oh dove, sing for you do not have any worries,

Stay with him, while you are living in bliss,

You are not like me, living with this stinging pain,

Unwell, and only god knows of my situation.

Because the issue of expatriation in Yemeni society was a widespread social phenomenon that led to women bearing all of the repercussions of the men’s absence, we find the poet describing this pain:

ِArtwork by Rofaida Ahmed

Where are you going to travel to, oh nightingale?

Leaving your youth and its splendor,

Using your youth to build many new villas,

While your own home is being destroyed by separation,

Your home and family are imploring you,

By your youth, do not leave it,

Do not leave my flowing tears,

My tears will scar my face.



Women and social tyranny

The poet had no problem with using words to paint a picture of a previously socially tyrannical man bearing an apology towards oppressed women. He used the name al-Dawdahiah[4] as a symbol for a woman, the land, and a nation. In his lyrics for the song Coming Back, the voice of a man, apologetic and broken, is loud, and al-Dawdahiah is a symbol for an oppressed woman who was subject to persecution and was murdered in what is known in society as an ‘honor crime’, crimes committed by wider society against women. In the poem, he makes the man apologize to the woman and admit his mistake to her, saying:

I am coming back to you, oh Dawdahiah,

I am coming back to you with the most valuable gift,

Coming back to the farm and our homestead,

To enjoy my life, so I do not lose it.

Directing this speech at al-Dawdahiah is a victory for women in a society whose customs and traditions have already judged all women beforehand, considering them to be a sin that must be cleansed. This is why we see the voice of the poet in a yell, trying to awaken the humanitarian feelings of a society that has been burdened with illiteracy and ignorance, a society where it has become popular to minimize the value and humanity of women, as well as their rights. This is a society where these actions are considered a part of religion. Al-Futaih says in Shepherdess:

Even the heart of a stone will melt for the shepherdess,

They did not marry her off, and they would not leave her alone.

Because rural Yemeni society did not have this view of women before its cultural identity was changed, we find the poet recording this transformation in the same poem:

She tried to find shelter in the tribe, believing that people were still people,

But she did not know that these people were ghosts, ever since the drowning of Dhu Nawas,

And they swore that the only thing for her is farming.

The legend of the drowning of Dhu Nawas is a story etched in collective memory, and it refers to the event before the Abyssinians took control of Yemen. The legend states that King Dhu Nawas rode his horse into the sea in the city of al-Makha and drowned after losing his army. The poem uses this legend to represent the abandonment of local identity and the beginning of strange customs and ideologies that are foreign to this society and its culture; the customs and traditions that people had before they became seen as an evil that must be ended in the eyes of the newly imported ideas that are extreme in their ideology.

There are other examples from lyrical poems that show women and men as equals in love, freedom, and emotional independence. These poems were popular, and still are, like the famous wedding song from One Thousand Nights:

Artwork by Rofaida Ahmed

One night, out of one thousand,

And tonight, a dove of the garden,

Is getting married to a beautiful wife,

So, sing, oh doves,

And celebrate, oh virgins,

Let the mountains and the deserts live in a thousand nights.

In this poem, we find an image of social life during weddings, when men and women would participate in the wedding, and these are customs that are almost nonexistent in rural Yemen. The poet also says:

Turn your heads, oh men, with traditional styles of music and poetry,

And give youth and beauty their happiness, and celebrate the beautiful bride,

Tomorrow, we will say how beautiful last night was,

The groom and the bride, celebrating an unforgettable night.

Pairing the two types of birds and the groom and bride alludes to the rejection of the tyranny and injustice of society, and shows the egalitarian human dignity shared by men and women.



Photo courtesy of the author

Hisham Mohammed is a Yemeni writer and researcher. He earned his BSc in Chemistry and researches public policy. He began his writing career by publishing poetry in local newspapers and has since expanded into prose and published his literary works in several newspapers and magazines. Mohamed has participated in numerous literary and political seminars and is a member of the Yemeni Writers’ Union. In 2008 he received the President‘s Award in Story Writing for his collection Color Metaphors. He has published two collections of stories: Half a Woman Temporarily (2012, Dar Merit, Cairo) and Color Metaphor  (2015, President‘s Award, Sana’a) and has a forthcoming collection due this year.


[1] The author thanks Matar al-Futaih, a journalist and the son of the poet, for giving him these details on the life of the poet.

[2] Eyes are black from the use of traditional and ancient cosmetic used as an eyeliner.

[3] This means that he has formed a crown of flowers for her and wiped her brows with the nectar of the plants (this meaning was stated in the poetry collection, Mushqar Bilsahabah). Al-Shaqr is a kind of basil.

[4] Al-Dawdahiah refers to the story of a Yemeni girl in the 1930s. A judge in the area of Ash Sha’ir in Ibb governorate ruled that she should be punished and defamed, along with her male cousin, after the story of their love had become popular. The young man and woman were from a well-off class. Al-Baradouni mentioned that the story became a popular topic for many poems at the end of the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, during the rule of Imam Yahya Hamid Al Din, and he believed that the use of the story took on a political and social form of criticism against the well-off and ruling classes at the time. Al-Baradouni named these kinds of poems Al Dawdahiat. (See: Abdullah Al Baradouni, The Arts of Popular Poetry in Yemen, 5th Edition, Al Baroudi Press, Beirut, 1998, from pg. 311.)

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