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A Form of Yemeni Poetry Thrives in Defiance of War

At a conference in Cairo earlier this month, a group of scholars, poets and representatives of the Aden-based Yemeni government began the process of including a traditional form of Yemeni poetry on the Unesco register of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Along with earning official recognition, an application for inclusion on the list is a step toward keeping valued cultural practices alive, since the application has to include a “safeguarding plan.”

Dan Hadrami is a traditional form of improvised poetry, typically accompanied by singing, dance and instrumental music, that is regularly performed at social gatherings in the Hadramawt region of southern Yemen.

“There is a tradition of public poetic competitions among the Arabs that goes back to pre-Islamic times,” said Jean Lambert, one of the organizers of the conference and a researcher at the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris, referring to the legendary poetry contests held at Suq Ukath in Mecca in the centuries before the Prophet Muhammad. “But among the traditions that continue, this one is especially interesting because it remains lively and has its own particular rituals and procedures.”

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Dan Hadrami is performed all over Yemen, and its popularity has spread, in a modified form, to Indonesia and Malaysia. Iraqi musicologist Scheherazade Qassim Hassan made recordings of Dan Hadrami that were released on compact disc in 1998.

The word “dan” is a musical syllable without verbal meaning, similar to the syllables “do re mi” used in European music, or the “ya layla” phrase used in some kinds of Arabic vocal improvisation. In a dan performance, a singer will sing a melody using the syllable, and participants will take turns to recite improvised verses inspired by the melody. In their verses, Lambert said, participants typically will make poetic observations about life—“man and God, man and fate, wisdom and philosophy, happiness and unhappiness.”

Maintaining a Cultural Presence

Lambert, a specialist in traditional Yemeni music, said the motivation for the conference and for the campaign to include Dan Hadrami on the Unesco register of Intangible Cultural Heritage was the need to maintain Yemen’s presence in international culture at a time of crisis. (See a related article, “A Fine Arts School’s Comeback Raises Hope in Yemen.”)

“My Yemeni friends were suffering for years because of the war,” Lambert said, “but now they are beginning to recover, even though the war hasn’t stopped. Because of the war, they feel, we must protect our culture, for this will be the best tool to rebuild Yemen after the war.”

The choice of Dan Hadrami among other possible Yemeni cultural forms was made, Lambert said, because the Hadrami region has remained comparatively unharmed by the country’s civil war. Lambert was involved in an earlier effort to add a musical form to the Unesco register that represents a different part of the country: Sana’a’ song, a group of songs sung at social gatherings, was listed in 2008.

Inclusion in the Unesco register of intangible cultural heritage “is a very long and bureaucratic procedure,” Lambert said. “It can take years.”

Lucia Iglesias Kuntz, a Unesco spokesman, said that inclusion in the Unesco register must be officially requested by participating state governments. The state making the application, she wrote in an e-mail, needs to describe the form in detail, and define its value in a country’s cultural heritage.

“They also have to prepare a safeguarding plan, demonstrate that the communities of practitioners give their informed consent” to being included in the register, she wrote. “Once that the nomination is submitted, it is examined by an evaluation board of experts and the final word is given by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, an independent body which meets once a year.”

A Guarded Welcome

In the case of Dan Hadrami, the application is supported by the internationally recognized Yemeni government, currently based in the southern port city of Aden. The Cairo conference was attended by Marwan Dammaj, minister of culture in the in the Aden-based administration.

Najwa Adra, a specialist in Yemeni culture at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, gave a guarded welcome to the project to include Dan Hadrami in the Unesco register.

“It all depends on what happens post-conflict,” she said. “If they are applying to Unesco, which country is making the application?”

“In this current conflict,” Adra said, “traditions are being held onto to a surprising extent. We all expected traditions to fall apart with the war, but it seems that the parts of Yemen that are the most resilient are the ones that have held on to their traditions.”

“In many parts of the south, traditions have been maintained despite—or in resistance to—the conflict. It’s almost a way of coping,” she said. “Practices that had been dying out have been reinvigorated. It’s a way of asserting your identity in the face of geopolitical threat.”

She also expressed the hope that Yemeni universities would give more attention than they do now to the country’s cultural heritage. “Lectures on heritage at universities,” she wrote in an e-mail, “could help develop a discourse among policy makers and youth on the value of safeguarding these traditions.”


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