A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
For the past few decades, the tribal culture of vengeance and bigotry has dominated Yemeni society, adding to the severe consequences of war. However, the culture of peace has always been present, and there are a number of texts in most forms of Yemeni traditional heritage calling for peace and promoting its value. People prefer to live in peace, and war is only one of humanity’s whims. Or there is a misconception that war is a necessity connected to self-honor and respect in terms of worldly status and relationships. But in every society and within every era, there are peace advocates as well as preachers of war.
United Nations’ organizations and peace advocating assemblies classify traditional heritage in general as one of the tools for world peace, and consider it a means of coexistence and dialogue between nations. This gives two functions to traditional heritage in relation to peace. The first is as a tool to bring nations closer and build peace between them; and the second is advocating for peace and discouraging violence and war through words, either explicitly or by implication. In this article, I focus on the second function, because the first has deep and rich aspects requiring longer elaboration.
By going through what I could acquire of Yemeni traditional heritage texts, I found many that aspire to the value of peace, both directly and indirectly. Some of the direct ways are: 1) discouraging others from war and calling to avoid it, and 2) calling for reconciliation. Some of the indirect ways include: 1) creating a picture of a painful ending for someone who is a killer and/or inciter of war and sedition, 2) undermining the value of power in favour of the mind, and 3) promoting the value of the state as an objective arbiter for security and peace.
In traditional culture, war is an evil that is warned against and presented in the ugliest forms, its dire consequences narrated. This is illustrated in the sayings of wisemen. For example:
War is the gain of the rascals
And killing is the gain of the irresponsible
So only rascals call for war and feel happy about it, and only irresponsible love murder. Al-Humaid bin Mansoor calls out someone who incites and starts war and reminds them of the consequences:
Shame on you starter of war
Shame on you who ignites its fire
Start of the war is sweet
But after it comes bitterness
Bitterness of killing a noble
and a raid after raid[i]
So even if war seems simple to some in the beginning, in the end there will be regret because it takes away the best of the people, and becomes a concern for everyone, leading to repeated attacks and raids which consume people and wealth.
Similarly, traditional wiseman
Ali Walad Zayed says
First of the war is idiocy,
Its middle is deadlock,
Its end is regret,
And afterwards comes peace.
In his book Arts of Folkloric Literature in Yemen Abdullah Al-Baradduni explains these lines of poetry and wisdom: “Start of a war is foolishness because no one knows its end or beginning, its middle is a deadlock with no escape because its beginning made it a must, and its end is remorse because one does not know how bad the beginning is until one tastes bitterness of the end.”[ii] Ali Walad Zayed is saying that peace comes after war, but that peace is for the ones who survived it, because war is a fire whose wood is people, especially the fighters. Mansoor mourns the victims of wars saying:
After the wars come recoveries *** Too bad for their victims[iii]
The severity of war increases the longer it lasts: the longer it goes on, the harsher it becomes and more difficult to end. Zayed says:
“If war lasts a night
its ropes spread over
And if it heats the day after
its ropes strangle stronger[iv]
If a war continues for a long time, the people become trapped between life and death, security and fear. From that truth comes an expression from a traditional saying: “A war of a lifetime makes you live in a situation where you are unable to distinguish between fear and security.”[v]
This is how war is seen in Yemeni traditional culture. It is ugly, leading a person to hate the concept of war, as well as explicitly warning against it. Traditional culture therefore promotes the concept of peace as a positive value against the negative value of war. So, when the culture rejects and distorts the image of war, it is actively advocating for peace.
This view of war is close to that of Zuhair bin Abi Salma, who was a pre-Islamic poet and wiseman. In one of his famous poems, he states:[vi]
War is what you have learned and tasted
that is not just any talk about it
Whenever you inflame it, it turns out ugly
and ignites with fiery damage
The whole poem can be seen as a manifesto against war; it depicts the ugliness and catastrophic consequences of war.
Calling for reconciliation
Calling for reconciliation and tolerance is significant in the art of Zamil (Yemeni traditional poems) or Marajeez, as they are known in some areas of Yemen. Zamil is about the art of war as well as of peace. Some of the most famous were those exchanged between Murad and Qaifa tribes, where the two tribes’ poets beautifully expressed poetry on the end of war and on having peace. They began with a Murad poet, who said:
O mountains on top of seas
and boats carrying heavy loads
Spreading whiteness on homes and birds’ wings
and journalism spreading the news in Cairo
The Qaifa poet replied:
O fairy daughters inform those in graves
No ill remains from Murad towards Qaifa
This is peace till the day of judgment
No claim in life or afterlife
The poet declares in the last verse that it is a permanent reconciliation, which is understood from his reference to judgment day, saying that there are no claims on life or the afterlife.
All traditional texts that call for reconciliation also raise the value of peace, as it is the goal of reconciliation.
Consequences for murderers and inciters
Yemeni traditional storytelling is anchored in the battle between good and evil. The latter is represented by personalities who dislike peace and seek to disturb the serenity of people by plotting, killing and inciting sedition. One key feature of those stories is that they end with the defeat of evil and victory for the good. The evil characters meet painful endings and terrible consequences. Jarjoof ends up killed after he kidnaps a girl and murders her brother.[vii] And the woman who pushed her husband to hate his sister, until he killed her, ends up divorced.[viii] And so on in other stories.
The educational and psychological philosophy of those stories is based on warnings against murderous and seditious actions, as well as planting seeds of peace and virtue in children’s minds.
Promoting peace also occurs in some traditional sayings, the intention being to intimidate the killer and surround them with the fact that their fate is also to be killed, sooner or later. An example: “Promise a killer they will be killed.” Other sayings promise a killer they will live a fearful life, such as in the following two sayings: “Who survives after killing others, will not survive the road” and “A killer’s day never sees sunset”.
These texts warn people away from killing, reminds them of its terrible consequences. “The murder victim is a fire ghost chasing the murderer and his road.” If the killer survives his victim, he will not be safe from troubles on the road because the victim’s spirit will be lodged in the criminal’s throat and eyes, giving them a taste of death every day, “until he catches up to his victim”.[ix] So the stories call for peace by warning about the painful end for the perpetrator of violence. “What matters is the end”, as the saying goes, and “O wolf, check the exit before you enter”.
Mindfulness and kindness over power
Traditional culture plants the value of peace in minds by reducing the importance of strength and power, because power is a key motive for war. There are texts in which the mind beats power, and where a kind word can do what power cannot: “Eyesight beats power.” “A kind word breaks a dry agarwood.”
Eyesight here means being aware and mindful. Power does not do much good; mindfulness, acting well and kind words are superior to it.
Valuing the state
The concept of the state in Yemeni traditional culture means peace and security. When the state is functioning, wars end, peace is everywhere, and a person feels there is security for themselves, their family and their property. So traditional culture was keen to raise the value of the state. The traditional saying, “A breath of a Sultan is better than a while of prosperity”, indicates this philosophy, which believes that the presence of the state (Sultan) even if weak (just a breath) is better than a long period of prosperity. Because what is the use of prosperity if the state is absent? The alternative to a state is chaos, because the existence of a state means peace, and its absence equals war and fear. This saying in the Yemeni dialect resembles an old saying in standard Arabic: “An oppressive ruler is better than lasting chaotic disorder.” So a ruler, even if unfair, is better than the absence of peace or “lasting sedition” as the saying puts it.
There are other sayings that enhance the value and integrity of the state: “An inch with the state is better than a foot with the tribesman.” “War by a tribesman against the state is failure.” “Do not underestimate a state even if it is ashes.”
These sayings argue that a tribe cannot be a viable alternative to the state, the primary organ.
The peaceful are safe from danger
Traditional culture promotes the value of peace by establishing that one who is peaceful lives safe from harm and danger. One who does not do bad deeds will not experience them, as in the saying “Who gives no evil gets no evil”, and in another way, “Who plants grapes will not farm lettuce”.[x]
This culture invites peace and closes the door on sedition. The saying “The closed door sends away the free devil” indicates that when you close your doors to problems, no wandering demon can harm you; and if problems come from another direction, try to avoid them. This is similar to the saying known in Yemen and other Arab countries which reads: “A door bringing winds to you, close it and have peace.” When you avoid problems, you relax and get peace.
Moreover, while traditional culture confirms that who gives peace will get it, it also states that who gets involved in problems and wars will not be free of the consequences. Zayed says:
Who pinches others gets pinched
when so, should not say ouch[xi]
This meaning is also expressed in an old poetic verse that turned into an idiom: “Who breaks people should wait to be broken.” One who harms others will be harmed, and who spills blood will get theirs spilt, and so on, because “Rewards depend on the kind of deed” – as the well-known Arabic saying states.
Peace is the norm
Many Yemeni traditional culture texts advocate for peace and promote its value, both directly and indirectly. Peace is the norm in this culture, and war is unusual, caused by certain circumstances. What is normal for a person based on traditional culture is to seek reconciliation and peace over fighting, which can be caused by conflicts over interests, status or power. Traditional culture has developed this peace-supporting view from long-lived experiences, which confirmed without a doubt that cooperation and coexistence are the way to achieve success and development, and that warfare destroys people’s accomplishments on this land and could lead to them perishing.
Alwi Ahmad al-Malgami is Yemeni poet and writer residing in Egypt.
[ii] Abdullah Al-Baradduni, 1998, Arts of Folkloric Literature in Yemen 5th edition (Beirut: Dar Al-Barodi), p.107.
[iii] Al-Khalaqi, “War in Sayings of Al-Humaid bin Mansoor”.
[iv] Al-Baradduni, Traditional Literature Arts, p.110.
[v] Al-Baradduni, Traditional Literature Arts, p. 491.
[vi] Zuhair bin Abi Salma, 2005, Poetry collection of Zuhair bin Abi Salma, revised by Hamdo Tammas 2nd edition (Beirut: Dar Al-Marifa) p. 68.
[vii] Ali Mohammed Abduh, 1985, Yemeni Stories and Legends 2nd edition (Sana’a: Dar Al-Kalima) p. 27.
[viii] Abduh, Yemeni Stories, p. 108.
[ix] Al-Baradduni, Traditional Literature Arts, p.555.
[x] Al-Baradduni, Traditional Literature Arts, p. 556.
[xi] Al-Baradduni, Traditional Literature Arts, p. 109.