Yemeni rural songs reflect socioeconomic changes over time [Archives:2006/936/Culture]

April 10 2006

Ismail Al-Ghabiri
Yemen's countryside is the first cradle where Yemeni popular songs were born and it will remain the fountain from which these songs' luscious melodies spring, as long as people continue to feel and express their feelings lyrically.

Yemeni men and women instinctively pine for the past, especially if it contains events worthy of remembrance and nostalgia.

Many middle-aged Yemeni women particularly continue remembering wistfully the 1980s “golden era,” which witnessed more prosperity and economic welfare nationally while simultaneously being a time of much emotional suffering. Especially throughout the '80s, it was commonplace for Yemeni women to suffer psychologically due to their husbands' or breadwinners' immigration to countries like the Gulf states. Such a situation provided a suitable atmosphere for pop songs and lyrics to thrive. Women often voiced their sentiments in a folkloric air, pleading for their spouses to return.

From the early 1990s onward, disillusioned by an economically unpleasant reality, women were victimized and paid the price for their husbands' and relatives' repatriation during the Gulf crisis. Women began singing another type of songs calling for immigration, as they experienced tough material and psychological conditions. Suppressed, their inner torture fermented in the form of pop tunes and lyrics versified in simple slangy words.

Sighing, they would sing to relieve themselves and lessen the hardships they faced. A woman would sing different songs, all of which explicitly requested husbands to re-immigrate or do anything to make money and meet their life requirements. The following is a line from a popular song prompting the husband to go away, work hard and bring money back: “I want pennies, even if you work with ghosts. I will bring firewood, water and knead dough.”

This is a straightforward request to the man to provide money. Also in this line, the woman indicates the fact that she also bears part of the brunt, for she is the one who brings water and firewood and kneads dough. These chores are her contribution to bettering their family's living standards. During the prosperous immigration days, women had water and firewood brought by pickup to their doorstep.

She then insinuates, hinting to the man about the immigration option through another lyric: “I pray to God that He may blind the one who would seize you. May a boulder blast his bowels.”

The singer prays to God that nobody in the neighboring country will seize her husband, who would be an illegal immigrant. Not only that, she also prays to God to inflict torture on the unknown policeman who would seize and expel her husband, thereby depriving her and her children of livelihood and sustenance.

Although she urges him to immigrate, the woman pays attention to her husband's health and shows him that she wants him to take care of himself during his expatriation: “I would like you to come back well and not to work locally in a miserable state.”

She implicitly tells him to take great care of himself because he is still important to her. She wants to see him healthy and sound as in the previous immigration days. Her words suggest that everything will be OK with her and their family. Although she understands the risk of immigration, she tries to boost his manliness by stressing the fact that he is the family's supporter. She also tries to convince him that remaining in the homeland will be of no avail as it can hardly meet their life requirements.

Another class of women are those who got married after the Gulf War to men with no external immigration experience. Having been comfortable with their families supported by “sponsored” fathers, they realized the gap between their father's home and their husband's home. Therefore, song lyrics became ironic like: “I thank God for being married to an abjectly poor man who has finished my hens.”

She thanks God for her inconvenience due to her marriage to this man, causing her to leave her father's comfortable household and depriving her of an equally affluent life. She adds the epithet “abject” to underscore her dissatisfaction and her suffering. Her exaggeration reaches a climax when she claims that her husband has sold all of her chickens to cover their domestic expenses.

Another line of the same lyric stigmatizes local immigration and says that traveling abroad for work is much better and rewarding.

Rural Yemeni women will continue to utter simple and expressive tunes and lyrics as they go about their daily chores, giving themselves some sort of relief and catharsis. Their hearts are full of emotion as they bear the brunt of their husbands' idling, joblessness and low income. Political and economic changes have modified the face of their art, coloring it with remarkable tones of struggle, toil and above all, responsibility.

The art and habits of Yemeni women will survive time and modern changes and their poetic nature will continue to permeate the texture of rural life, giving it a permanently unique look and flavor.