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Reorienting Heritage: Poetic Exchanges between Suqura and the Gulf

La revendication d’un héritage culturel : joutes poétiques entre Suquṭra and the Gulf
Nathalie M. Peutz
p. 163-182


Deux faits historiques qui ont eu pour théâtre l’île yéménite de Suquṭra — à savoir la conquête de l’île par des « chrétiens » au ixe s. et l’exécution de membres de l’élite suquṭrie en 1974 — trouvent aujourd’hui un sens comme élément des joutes poétiques entre insulaires et expatriés suquṭris dans les pays du Golfe. À travers ces poèmes et le contexte de leur diffusion transnationale, la Diaspora suquṭrie rivalise pour démontrer son aptitude à définir un patrimoine suquṭri au moment même où des acteurs locaux, nationaux et internationaux font valoir ce même droit par des revendications rivales. Cet article traite de quelques-unes des manières par lesquelles un héritage suquṭri est revendiqué et ce que cela implique dans la définition d’une identité suquṭrie.

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  • This article is based on fieldwork conducted in Suqura from October 2004-December 2005 and Februar (...)

[Suqura] is a jewel in the ocean resembled by no other land
Her reputation throughout the world has a distinguished place
Still, I proclaim that this incident has been stamped upon her body
This sickness has not been cured and the wound still causes pain
ajar al-Asâs, 2003

1Recent anthropological scholarship on post-unification Yemen has noted how a distinctly national Yemeni identity is being (re)formulated such that its citizens are able to imagine themselves inhabiting a common territory governed by the single state. In conjunction with the institutional foundations of “imagined community” described so famously by Benedict Anderson (1983) — print capitalism, public education, and now electronic mass-media — it has been largely the state-wide circulation and national appropriation of regional or local art forms and performances that have generated this sense of a unified identity. Tribal “customs and traditions” are elevated to generic “Yemeni” traits (Dresch, 1993). Provincial dance forms like the bar‘a have been revitalized in homogenized urban contexts (Adra, 1993). Regional song styles, in all their specificity, appeal to a common patrimony (Lambert, 1993), much like cassette poetry exchanges (bid‘ wa jiwâb or “initiation and response” poetry) secure national identity through their very recruitment of regional attachments (Miller, 2001: 319-328). Even “foreign” poetic genres (the Rasulid umaynî) have been “nationalized” as markers of a unified Yemeni identity (Taminian, 2001: 137-142). It is not only such potential “emblems of nation-ness” (Anderson, 1983: 122, italics in original) that through their public celebration foster a national identity, but also it is evident that “events of collective vulnerability” engender a sense of national connection and, even more significantly in the case of the newly unified Yemen, a “nationalist identification with the state” (Wedeen, 2004 : 249-250). The important aspect of both such ritual performances and transient events is that they circulate — whether as objects of culture or as subjects of debate — and through their trans-local circulation articulate a convergence of (national) identity and (state) territory.

2Taking its cue from Wedeen (2004: 247), this article looks to two “exemplary” events that occurred in Suqura, the largest and most populated island of Yemen’s Suqura Archipelago, and discusses how they are utilized today to interrogate notions of Suquri identity. The first event is the historically unverified conquest of the island by “Christians” in the 9th century and the resulting Suquran appeal for help from the Omani Imam. The second event is the execution of the Suquran Sultan’s family and advisors in 1974 at the hands of fellow Suqurans. Both of these historical events are re-examined today through poetry, as well as through debate and material commemoration. Their circulation is not so much trans-local, as in the examples cited above, as it is trans-national, stretching between Suqura and its emigrant communities in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Through these poems and the context of their distribution, the Suquran Diaspora is vying for the ability to determine Suquri heritage at a time that international, state, and local actors are advancing competing claims for that right.

3In 1967, after near five centuries of rule by the Bin ‘Afrâr family of Mahra, the ‘Afrârî Sultanate of Qishn and Suqura and its territories, al-Mahra and the Suqura Archipelago, was incorporated into South Yemen. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) governed Suqura as a military zone with restricted access until 1990, when it became part of the unified Republic of Yemen. Although the socialist PDRY government had introduced schools, roads, basic public services and public sector jobs, contemporary promoters of Suqura’s development contend that the major changes to effect Suqura were initiated only recently, namely, the lengthening of the airstrip in 1999, the asphalting of roads beginning in 2000, the introduction of a mobile telephone network in 2005, and the planning for a new seaport. These recent developments in transportation, traffic, telecommunication, and trade are credited for linking Suqura to the “globalized” world and are embraced by the Suqurans who until recently depended primarily on subsistence fishing, herding, and date cultivation and now desire an “easier” and more “modern” lifestyle. And yet, while this upgraded infrastructure may improve the Suqurans’ basic health and livelihood, it is arguable that this accelerated change aids primarily “outside” investors. Suquran families can now fly year-round to al-Mukalla or ‘Adan for emergency medical treatment, for example, yet this apparent advantage distracts from the fact that the Hadiboh hospital cannot perform even basic life-saving procedures. It could be said that instead of Suqurans experiencing true advancements in local health care, food security, and education, they are merely encountering at a relatively dizzying pace the kind of “time-space compression” that is the hallmark of postmodernity (Harvey 1989). This rapid development portends some critical challenges both for the protection of Suqura’s natural environment and for the preservation of Suqurans’ identity and culture.

4It is this discourse of protection and preservation, specifically as it pertains to the environment, which has placed Suqura in the limelight and has determined her value for both the international community and the Yemeni government. In the past decade, the archipelago’s biodiversity has received increasing national and international attention. In 1997, the Suqura Biodiversity Project (SBP), funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environmental Facility, was launched with the aim of surveying, zoning, and managing the terrestrial and marine environment. Since 2001, the Socotra Archipelago Conservation and Development Programme (SCDP), which replaced the SBP, has been working with the local Environmental Protection Agency to manage conservation, promote environmental awareness, and improve the economic productivity in tourism and fishing. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Suqura Archipelago as a “Man and Biosphere Reserve” and in early 2006 an application for “World Heritage” status, based on its significance as a “natural” site, was submitted to UNESCO for review. Yet, while the focus of the United Nations and the Yemeni state is on conserving what they consider a threatened environmental heritage, Suquran interest, at both the transnational and local levels, has been largely devoted to the “resuscitation” of their neglected cultural heritage. In the next two sections, I discuss the transnational circulation of poetic exchanges that seek to reframe two historical events as Suquri heritage and as integral to the formulation of Suquri identity. Following this, I examine some of the various ways in which these claims to Suquri heritage are being enunciated.

The Call of al-Zahrâ’

5In 2001, a Suquran historian based in the United Arab Emirates, Amad b. Sa’îd b. Khamîs al-Anbâlî, published a small collection of historical texts under the title, “Suqura, the Garments of Silk Brocade: a commentary on the qaîdah of the Suquri al-Zahrâ’.” The collection contains the al-Zahrâ’ qaîdah or poem and al-Anbâlî’s commentary on it, a testament of the Omani Imam al-alt b. Mâlik al-Kharûî al-Yamadî (r.2374./857CE-273h./386CE) to his army, and a short history of the Christian presence on Suqura. The “event” that al-Anbâlî seeks to resurrect from a “buried [Suquri] heritage” and to bring into “the world of circulation and comprehension” (al-Anbâlî, 7) concerns the 9th century Christian attack on the Suquran Muslims as described by al-Zahrâ’ in her elegiac call for help and memorialized in her qaîdah addressed to the Omani Imam, al-alt.

6The little that is known today of the woman referred to as al-Zahrâ’, or ima Bint Amad b. Muammad al-Jahamiyya, is that she was a relative of al-Qâsim b. Muammad al-Jahamî al-Samadî, the Omani Imam’s governor of Suqura (al-Anbâlî, 11, 51). Because her qaîdah is composed in elegant Classical Arabic and was also inscribed by her for the purpose of dispatching it overseas, there has been some question as to whether such a highly educated female could have been native of Suqura or was instead an Omani woman living on the island. Al-Anbâlî dismisses such conjectures immediately by stressing that “all those who have written about her mention that she was Suquran” and that, in fact, she is an example and a reminder that women, too, can be fine poets (al-Anbâlî, 11). Moreover, even though Suqurans speak a distinct language (Suquri is one of the six pre-literate Modern South Arabian Languages), al-Zahrâ’ was, according to al-Anbâlî, an Arab Muslim woman (that is, not one of the Greek Christians or Romans who had also inhabited) at a time when the Arabs were well versed in Arabic and the Qur’ân (al-Anbâlî, 42). Al-Anbâlî states that the “Himyaritic dialect” (Suquri) arrived only later, thereby suggesting that a purer Arab language and identity existed on Suqura during the time of al-Zahrâ’ than exists there today. Additional speculation surrounds the actual transmission of the qaîdah from Suqura and whether it reached Oman by having been thrown into the sea inside a glass bottle, by having been placed on a wooden raft that washed up on the shores of uâr, or by having been hand-delivered by a traveller or a delegation of Suqurans (al-Anbâlî, 41-42). What is important, al-Anbâlî concludes, is not how the poem was transmitted, but rather that it still “reverberates through history, troubling generations of listeners and inciting the concerns of men” (al-Anbâlî, 8).

  • 1 The following translations of the al-Zahrâ qaîhah and ajar al-Asâs are mine, although I benefited (...)

7The al-Zahrâ’ qaîdah begins in generous praise of the Imam al-alt and with the request that he be given the following news1:

Suqura has become empty of Islam

after [the presence of] religious laws and the Qur’ân (al- furqân) and [holy] books

And after a good life under the auspices of their state

[Suqura] became envied for its wealth and standing

[But] after years of drought, there has not remained any flourishing

branches and no verdant stems

And true guidance was replaced with disbelief and sin

and with the calls of wooden clappards [nawaqis]

And with offspring without morals

of low stock raised by violence and plundering

8Suqura is represented as a formerly pious, prosperous, and verdant (Islamic) island that has been made barren by the drought of Christian immorality and through the violence unleashed upon it by progeny “without religion, morals, or pure lineage” (al-Anbâlî, 50). Here in al-Anbâlî’s commentary, as in the contemporary poem cycles discussed in the following section, the “weak” genealogy of those carrying out violent acts against Muslim Suqurans is stressed, linking biological inferiority to moral failing. Al-Zahrâ’ continues by explaining what the Christian marauders had done:

The Christians overcame your representative [Qâsim] and kidnapped

the women and they did not refrain from pillaging

When they left Qâsim in the midst of young noblemen

who had fallen around him in a wilderness

Thrown to the ground in struggle with no protection for them

from passing beasts, a dog or a savage lion

They brought out the women of Islam one and all

[who were] calling out in sorrow, wailing and with grief

9It is unclear who exactly these Christians are and some sources, including popular interpretations today, confuse them for the Portuguese who in 1507 occupied a fort on the island, but remained for only four years (cf. al-Ziriklî, 1989, 209). In his commentary, al-Anbâlî refers to the Christians as “the Crusaders,” noting that they could not have been true believers because, as al-Zahrâ’ claims, they did not acknowledge revealed Scripture. In his opinion, the attackers were most likely the Christian descendants of Greeks who had settled Suqura in the 3rd century BCE and who had been living under Muslim rule and protection (dhimma). They would have breached or refuted the dhimma treaties and may have even been aided in their attack by Christians from nearby Ethiopia, but ultimately it was Christianity, itself, that was eradicated from the island (al-Anbâlî, 28-29).

10What is significant, according to al-Anbâlî’s commentary, is that the aggressors seized not only the women, but also all that was sacred and forbidden (aram) to them. Similarly, it was not only the governor Qâsim that was killed, but also “the best young men of Suqura [who] fell upon the pure earth of Suqura” (al-Anbâlî, 51). Yet the true depth of the despoliation is illustrated in the following lines:

Tell the imam whose virtues are anticipated

to save the girls of religion and descent

How many of them both young virgin girls and widows

[were] from families of houses noble of religion and descent

She [each woman] calls to her father when the barbarian approaches her

having grasped at her chest (al-labab)

And the barbarian pursued what she had withheld [even] from him

[who] in the appropriate fashion [had given her] abundant dowry and gold

And he removed everything that covered them

even [from] their pudenda which had been veiled

[Revealing] the thighs and arms with bracelets

and the locks of hair like clusters of grapes

[This was done] by force and without dowry or engagement

through black swords (bi-l-‘awâlî) and broken sticks

11The rape of all women, virgin and chaste (including those who had withheld themselves even from their legitimate partners) violates the honor of all Suqurans. And as with the women, the beauty and innocence of Suqura, itself, has been desecrated through the forceful nature of these illicit attacks.

12At this point, beseeching her own eyes to weep for her lost ones, al-Zahrâ’ bemoans the absence of external help:

What is in the mind of alat sleeping away the night without concern

while on Suqura rape descends upon the women

Oh where are the men? Save every Muslim woman

even if you have to crawl on your chins and your knees

Until the pillar of religion returns upright

and God destroys the people of injustice and doubt

And then the call of al-Zahrâ’ will be fulfilled

after the iniquity and after the revival of the way of the books [Islam]

And then the prayer for our lord the Prophet will be carried out

[He who is] the best of creation, trustworthy and elected

13This poignant call to male honor is simultaneously a call for the restoration of the old order, of piety and Islam. The call of al-Zahrâ’, rendered here in the third person, signifies not only the plea of one Fâima Bint Amad b. Muammad al-Jahamiyya, but also the entreaty of the first Muslim woman to be referred to as al-Zahrâ’: the Prophet’s daughter, Fâima. Framed within the most respected Arab genealogy, this 9th century call for external help against the foreign, immoral attacker becomes an allegory for all ages, reaching back to the earliest Muslim community and forward to the iniquities of the present day.

  • 2 I thank Francois Burgat for this information. In August 2006, I shared this qaîdah with a Muslim E (...)

14It is no surprise, then, that this qaîdah and its history (“the event”) can be made so relevant today. Indeed, al-Anbâlî evokes a presentist reading when he asks, “And to whom are the cries directed today? And who can help those weak Muslims today in the eastern and western parts of the world whose sanctity is abused in every place in clear sight and hearing of the world?” (al-Anbâlî, 10). Later, al-Anbâlî reminds his readers that the Christian attack upon Suqura was not limited to al-Zahrâ’’s era, but that “the buried Crusader hatred of Islam and Muslims” returned 500 years later with the arrival of the Portuguese fleet. Once again, “martyrs fell upon Suquri soil,” mosques were turned into churches, and assets snatched from Muslims were redistributed among the Christians. And once again, the Arab Muslims rose up and purified the island of the foreign menace by establishing law in the land (al-Anbâlî, 70-72). This Christian menace is both enduring and widespread. “See the extent of the crusader hatred,” al-Anbâlî warns amidst his depiction of the Portuguese captain’s ruthless ultimatum to the Suquran Sultan, ‘Amr b. û’arî b. ‘Afrâr al-Mahrî demanding that he leave the island or be assailed until all Muslims are killed. These specific, historical events are thus not confined even within a prolonged diachronic framework, but rather can be used to illustrate a common (Arab) heritage and a continuing (Christian or Western) threat that extends both through time and across geographies. Indeed, the current efficacy and appeal of this qaîdah/event is perhaps best demonstrated by its recent refashioning as a theatre piece performed in Muscat, Oman in which the victims calling out were not Suqurans, but Palestinians2.

15Nevertheless, as evinced by his commentary, al-Anbâlî’s main purpose in (re)circulating al-Zahrâ’’s Call is not simply to invoke a common Muslim solidarity in reaction to foreign occupation (or even a trenchant critique of Muslim leaders’ inaction against such oppression). Instead, his aims are more limited and concrete. Al-Anbâlî does wish to exhume Suquri “heritage” so that it can be known and celebrated on a global scale, yet more importantly he wants to reclaim the recounting of Suquri history and the production of Suquri heritage for the island and its native inhabitants. Al-Anbâlî recalls hearing about al-Zahrâ’ as a boy, but did not read her poetry or know where to locate it until 1973 when he discovered her story and qaîdah through random browsing in the Qatar National Library (al-Anbâlî, 77). Similarly, much of their own history is obscured to Suqurans, al-Anbâlî claims, either because it had not been recorded by the Suqurans themselves or because source material may have been destroyed or buried by the foreign occupants of the island, such as the Greeks, prior to their departure. The main challenge that he and other historians face is the absence of Suquran-authored historical records. When his fellow country- or tribesmen do write about Suqura, al-Anbâlî protests, they depend on “foreign books that were brought over by invaders of Muslim countries” or on (mis)information culled by various Western visitors “under the guise of corporations and scientific exploration and tourism”: a history “written by its colonizers” (al-Anbâlî, 73). This is reflected, he argues, in texts that describe contemporary Suqurans as multiracial descendants of Arabs, Indians, and Greeks who continue to live as their distant ancestors purportedly had. Al-Anbâlî is determined to correct this “disdainful” error which “affects nations and citizens negatively and attributes their genealogies to remote ones and makes an unjust, forged, lying and slanderous judgement of their belonging to bygone races” (al-Anbâlî, 74) by stressing that “the current day inhabitants are Arab Muslims with none of the older races remaining” (al-Anbâlî, 45). Thus, what is truly at issue here is the question of Suquri identity: Who are the Suqurans (today)? And who has the right to define or (de)scribe them?

16Al-Anbâlî ’s book, “Suqura, the Garments of Silk Brocade,” has circulated throughout the Suquran émigré community in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, as well as among the literate Suqurans on the island. Additionally, multiple copies of his book are now housed in the recently opened Zahrâ’ Library for Culture, the first public reference library on the island. Located next to the hospital and near the grand state-funded mosque, both in central Hadiboh, the library is made to function not only as an exhibit of knowledge (although open daily to those wishing to browse its collection, the library does not lend books and its readers must stay on site), but also as a conspicuous monument to Suquri cultural heritage. The Suquṭri “al-Zahrâ’” has been resurrected and repatriated.

The Foundation Stone

  • 3 Although Bu Zayd is widely known throughout Suqura, he asked that I not refer to him by name, rema (...)

17In 2003, a Suquran poet living in Oman — I’ll call him Bu Zayd — distributed copies of a newly recorded cassette-poem to Suquran acquaintances on the island and abroad3. This hour-long poem, entitled “The Foundation Stone [ajar al-Asâs],” is noteworthy for a number of reasons, but primarily for the audacity with which it confronts Suqura’s sensitive history, its charged reception in Suqura, and its role in questioning and shaping notions of Suquri identity and territory today. As suggested in this article’s epigraph, Bu Zayd wishes to narrate Suqura not in its current configuration as biosphere, ecotourism attraction, and potential World Heritage Site — in short, as a recently discovered jewel — but as a body in pain from a deep-seated wound.

  • 4 An NLF squad arrived on Suqura on November 29, 1967, claiming the island for South Yemen the day b (...)

18The actual cause of injury is referred to only obliquely, yet every Suquran listener would recognize Bu Zayd’s scattered references. In 1974, ten Suquran elites, including members of the Sultan ‘Îsâ bin ‘Afrâr’s family and his wazir, were executed by a small group of Suqurans associated with the National Liberation Front (for Occupied South Yemen)4. The “martyrs” were shot in an area called Haybak where they were buried in a mass grave. Four other prisoners, including the Sultan, narrowly “escaped” execution due to the eleventh-hour intervention of PDRY President, Sâlim Rubay‘ ‘Alî. The perpetrators received life-sentences in ‘Adan, but after ‘Alî was deposed and shot in 1978, they were released and returned to Suqura. More than thirty years later, the family members of the martyrs live in close quarters with the perpetrators and their offspring. It is clear that the majority of Suqurans believe that “justice” has not been served, but wish to avoid the fitna or social chaos that could emerge from direct confrontation.

  • 5 These Suqurans, together with some fifty fighters from Mahra, formed their own firqa (counter-guer (...)
  • 6 On the island, family members did commemorate this event by erecting a monument (a wall and plaque) (...)

19News of the Haybak “event” was slow to travel beyond Suqura. While President ‘Alî in ‘Adan had been informed by one of his Suqura-based generals of the planned public execution of the Sultan and was thus able to respond swiftly, the sizeable Suqura emigrant community abroad (both in South Yemen and in the Gulf) did not have direct access to information from Suqura. The executions occurred during a period of strained relations between South Yemen and Oman on account of the PDRY-supported insurrection in Dhofar (1965-1975), a guerrilla war waged by the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) with the aim of deposing the Omani Sultan and, through a socialist revolution, liberating the entire Gulf from imperialist powers. Significantly, some 150 Suquran emigrants joined the counter-insurgency campaign fought by the Sultan’s Armed Forces with the hope of eventually receiving Oman’s support in ousting the PDRY government from Suqura5. News of the executions did reach the expatriate community through their Mahri neighbours and through “epistolary” verse (Miller, 2002: 39), which relayed metaphorically the “floods” that had swept away the finest “livestock,” but many émigrés did not know who had been killed until after the unification of the two Yemens. Three months into my fieldwork, I was first made aware of “the event” by a Suquran visitor from the Gulf who covertly handed me a list of the names of the “martyrs” that he himself had only recently gathered. (I was never given the names of the perpetrators nor did I inquire after them.) It is partly due to this former news blackout that this event is circulating, again through epistolary poetry, today. Whereas Suqurans on the island have long contended with this event as a part of their history, Suquran émigrés are more apt to (re)interpret it as a tragic “heritage” that must be commemorated and addressed6.

20The émigré poet, for example, desires to lay the “foundation stone” in avenging these deaths. Addressing multiple audiences (the family members of the deceased, the executioners, fellow poets, as well as any Suqurans who would disagree with him) and shifting between language registers (Suquri, Colloquial Arabic, Classical Arabic, and also a few English loanwords that demonstrate his cosmopolitanism), Bu Zayd demands to know why this “shelter” remains “empty” and its “ceiling unfinished.” Bu Zayd uses the metaphor of an incomplete (Suquri) shelter to signify the inability of Suqurans to build their future without first fortifying its foundation. “The Sultans were the base of our society,” he explained during an interview in July 2005, “just like a house that needs a strong foundation, they were the cornerstone.” This is not to say that Bu Zayd is calling for the return of the Sultanate, but rather for the dual necessity of remembrance and retribution.

21Throughout the poem, Bu Zayd laments the weight of this unshakeable past. Yet, it is not the possibility of forgetting that concerns him as much as the probability of continued inaction. “Are people not doing anything because they don’t agree with me?” he asks, “or is there still a southerly wind blowing [are people still influenced by socialism]?” Bu Zayd calls for all Suqurans to jointly attend to this “open file”:

Yesterday Haybak and today you, the wheel of history has turned

The blood of the martyrs is not lost but still screams to us

Where are they who will avenge those murdered? Why are you taking so long?

  • 7 Referring to his work as “action poetry,” Bu Zayd stated that he wanted his poem to be like a “toot (...)

22Still, it is not entirely clear from the poem itself what kind of action Bu Zayd prescribes. On the one hand, he addresses the family members of the martyrs directly, apologizing if they were still plotting their own revenge and yet encouraging them to proceed quickly. Simultaneously, Bu Zayd addresses his fellow poets as fishermen who may net the perpetrators — described in this section as various types of fish — with their strong words. This is a challenge for a poetic exchange or duel that would vex the perpetrators and rouse the Suqurans from indifference7.

23Yet, throughout, the poet is careful to confirm that the power to avenge these deaths lies solely within the jurisdiction of the Yemeni state.

Bu Amad [President âli] developed the island, made it a place of tourism

His rule and political planning, he’s a strong president, mâ shâ’ allâh

And no one wants other than him, may he live long and forever

Our intention is clear, it has nothing to do with politics

We want our due from the killers according to the law

If we’re in the right we’ll take it, if not we’ll accept that

24Bu Zayd is one of the thousands of Suqurans who, naturalized as Arab Gulf State residents, do not carry Yemeni citizenship. Having left Suqura at age eleven and before Suqura was incorporated into the (South) Yemeni state, he must demonstrate his continuing loyalty to Suqura as well as his new allegiance to a unified Yemen. Bu Zayd achieves this by mapping his greetings across Suqura as if to imply that he and all the Suquri citizens of Yemen are related as well as demonstrating his (Suquri) legitimacy through his detailed knowledge of the island territory. Later, he praises President ‘Alî ‘Abdallah âli as the unifier of Yemen while suggesting that political parties (and thus, perhaps even nationalities) are irrelevant when it comes to the greater unity of (Shâfi’î) Muslims.

25It is necessary for Bu Zayd to establish himself as an insider, not only with the authority to speak to and even for almost all Suquris, but also in contradistinction to the perpetrators of “unknown” tribal origin, some of whom are alleged to have been descendents from African slaves brought to Suqura by the Sultans. Having characterized himself as someone of Yemeni roots (and thus claiming a national identity, regardless of his state citizenship), Bu Zayd turns to question the genealogical “inferiority” of the executioners:

But Stone Pine [or: any kind of imported planking] is not original Teak, wood of inferior origin has no value

And you know your roots, from wherever the wind took you

We don’t really know [your origin], nor do the historians of files

Truly, no one knows you

26Comparing the perpetrators to a tree that yields inferior wood, to something imported, or to a weed-like transplant, Bu Zayd insinuates that their genealogies are weak, unidentifiable, and immoral. The irony here is that every adult Suquran does know who participated in the executions. While Bu Zayd claims to not be able to properly identify the perpetrators, he does identify some as former slaves (or, rather, assigns them this status) and thereby denies them the political agency that they allegedly had sought by taking part in the dissolution of the former regime:

You have forgotten your work and taken something that is not yours

[two sites where the Sultan had used slave labor]

Your work is in Koda, if not in Sanefuro

Carrying earth and stone and sorting through the pebbles

With a whip raised over you

27And whether or not their ancestral “genealogies” are recognized or respected, their children will inherit their stigma, forming a lineage of murderers:

No one will say to you that you are innocent, your deeds are known

Your children are called children of killers and you have a hard life

Your history resembles the history of Cain and his brother Abel

28Bu Zayd ends his poem by associating himself once again with the Yemenis who live by law and according to their station, as opposed to the perpetrators who were not satisfied with their lot. Finally, the poet attempts to undermine the relative financial and political successes attained by some of the perpetrators in recent years by dehumanizing and demeaning them:

We know the shari‘a and we support it

Hand in hand we are united, and [all] Yemeni of origin

You wanted more, and not just a little

There are many people in Suqura, from Qalansiya [West] to Momi [East]

And it is unacceptable to take orders from two hornless goats [meaning: “Africans”]

29Although Bu Zayd tries to distance the perpetrators and, by extension, all African- Suqurans from the tribes “native” to Suqura, his use of metaphor betrays this distinction and reveals the event for what is was: a fratricide.

30Understandably, ajar al-Asâs aroused significant emotion when it first reached Suqura. Bu Zayd’s cassette tapes were copied and redistributed by some of the martyrs’ kin. One kinsman played the tape on a busy market street in Hadiboh, directly in front of a store owned by one of the perpetrators. A physical fight between the perpetrator and the aggrieved kinsman broke out, but was stopped by public intervention. It became clear that the re-addressing of this distressing past could disturb the security valued by so many Suqurans. Let God be their judge, people reasoned. (Later, when I listened to the tape in the village where I lived, my neighbors were eager to listen along to this well-known poem. Nevertheless, there were moments during the recording that my fellow listeners grew noticeably uncomfortable — not, however, when Bu Zayd referred directly to the martyrs’ deaths, which was glossed as “history,” but when he started listing names of former Socialist Party leaders. “Oh, now he is becoming political [yadkhul siyâsa],” one man cautioned, “He lives in Oman and is talking about Yemeni politics.”)

  • 8 For a similar exchange in which the expatriate poet (here situated in Hyderabad in the early 20th c (...)

31One island-based poet — I’ll call him “Di Min Fidenhan”— did respond to ajar al-Asâs. In his reply (mainly in Suquri, but including some Arabic), however, this venerated elderly poet sidestepped the question of retribution by focusing instead on Bu Zayd’s attempt to legitimate himself through territorial references, despite his prolonged absence. Joining a public discussion on the 1974 executions, an issue this “hot,” is not unproblematic for a Suquran and Di Min Fidenhan begins by expressing his fear of entering into such rough ocean “waves” (poetry). But primarily he admonishes Bu Zayd for not returning to the island to debate this issue in person and rebukes him for his inability to speak unadulterated Suquri8. Di Min Fidenhan closes the matter by concluding that “the problem should be left now to its owners and to God.”

32Where Di Min Fidenhan does challenge Bu Zayd is in his purported “division” of the island according to its eastern and western tribes. (In an earlier poem, Bu Zayd had stated, “the people of the East are legions [jaâfil] and those of the West are tribesmen.”) Di Min Fidenhan and others from the East had interpreted this as an affront by someone originating from the West against their tribal honor. Di Min Fidenhan asserts that Suqura cannot be divided geographically or politically because all Suqurans residing there are Yemeni. He points out that Bu Zayd left his country and “exchanged his identity card for a new nationality.” Moreover, Bu Zayd seems to have forgotten the Suqura that he left behind:

Suqura is not abandoned; it still retains its original structure

There are still jinn there who people fear at night

There are still unbelieving magicians who do not abide by Islam

Just how many [people] were born? How many has God created?

Close your phone, my friend, before your words are spread

Before tough words are spread throughout the land of Yemen

33By emphasizing that Suqura has preserved its character, Di Min Fidenhan indicates that the island residents have their own way of managing their affairs. Bu Zayd’s opinion is not particularly significant (“how many [people] has God created?”); moreover, he who has left Suqura and her customs should not censure them.

34Bu Zayd replies to his responder with a cassette poem explaining that it was not his intention to divide the Suquran people (by region) or to suggest that the Easterners are not real tribesmen; the word “jahâfil” signifies honor [sharaf] and strong ties, he argues. Yet, he still strives to demonstrate his belonging. “I’m not a stranger to my country,” he asserts, charting his identity onto familiar Suquri landmarks:

I don’t lie; I changed my number and took nationality abroad

But I’m known in Saahar from peak to highest peak

You want to deny me, but I refuse and claim my rights

I know the mountains and I came prepared [I haven’t erred]

35Bu Zayd reminds his listeners that he comes from one of the largest Suquri tribes, Kishin, which is known for its fine poets and repeats his invocation of a unified Suqura, from the eastern to the western cape. Bu Zayd concedes that God will punish the perpetrators, but ends his poem with an affirmation of the chronic injury inflicted upon him by this past, yet open wound.

36In 2005, Di Min Fidenhan composed his final response in which he accepts Bu Zayd’s positive explanation of the word jahâfil (literally: legions or high born nobles) and reaffirms a common Suquri identity:

We are all tribesman, one is not better than the other

But this new word that is called jahâfil

In this week should leave [from here] and [may] God preserve it

Suqura is not an acceptable place for it, no vegetables or soft drinks [for it here]

37Much like the vegetables and soft drinks that are imported from the mainland, the Arabic word jahâfil is “foreign” to the island — as should be its implicit meaning, as understood by Di Min Fidenhan, that not all Suqurans possess tribal genealogies of equal standing and honor. Di Min Fidenhan ends his response by “throw[ing] to you the keys and surrender[ing] to the administration,” that is, he has closed the poem cycle. In an interview with Di Min Fidenhan in February 2006, he told me that he had given up poetry — “What use is it [aysh fî-hâ]”? — unless compelled to respond to someone like Bu Zayd. As for the event, itself: “We know it’s like a rough sea that we can’t enter,” he said. “Either you leave it alone, or you come here to do something about it.” Although Di Min Fidenhan has spent considerable time in the Gulf visiting his children who live there (and was planning his return at the time of our meeting), he believes that those Suqurans who have taken a new nationality abroad “should leave Suqura alone, or should send us good things [remittances, goods], but not the bad.” From this perspective, the Suquran emigrants should sustain their relatives at home, but not try to recast them.

38These exchanges, between an expatriate poet from the Western part of Suqura and an island resident from the East, reveal more than anger or anxiety concerning the Haybak executions and the lack of commensurable retribution. They reflect a deeper tension over Suquri identity, history, and heritage. Much as the al-Zahrâ’ recirculation raises the question of who are the Suqurans today and who has the right to define them, the circulation of Haybak poetry asks who is or is not Suquran and who has the right to speak for them. While Bu Zayd’s leading poem, ajar al-Asâs, interrogates the genealogy and thus also the rightful “belonging” of the perpetrators and their marked progeny, the central debate hinges upon the tribal standing (and morality) of all Suqurans: East and West, Afro- and Arab- (or Bedouin), Yemeni and expatriates. In the end, it is not the various island residents who need to assert or reclaim their Suqurai identity as much as it is those who have left its territory. Significantly, in both instances, it is the Suquran expatriates who are trying to reframe Suquri history as heritage: “a past infused with a present purpose” (Lowenthal, 1996 : xi).

Orienting Heritage

39Whether this Suquri heritage is to be celebrated (al-Zahrâ’) or lamented (Haybak), it plays a crucial role in setting the parameters of what is means to be Suquri today. In his examination of the increasing importance of “heritage” in contemporary society, David Lowenthal notes that it is “dismay at massive change [that] stokes demands for heritage,” that is, the focus on heritage reflects feelings of uncertainty in the face of an unknown future and the attendant desire to preserve an ever-vanishing past (Lowenthal, 1996: 6). Similarly, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett stresses that despite the language people use to portray heritage as something waiting to be found, reclaimed, or preserved, it is in fact always a contemporary construction that “ensure[s] that places and practices will survive by adding the value of pastness, exhibition, difference, and indigeneity” (1998: 150). These observations corroborate the reasons why diverse groups on Suqura, an island only recently “opened” to widespread development and global integration, are invested in this discourse.

40In recent years, the effort to define Suquri heritage has been largely monopolized by groups external to the island itself, be it the international community with its concern for Suqura’s biodiversity, the state with its interest in attracting tourism and investments, or the Suquran expatriate community with its feelings of nostalgia and responsibility for their native land. Tellingly, in the application for UNESCO World Heritage Status, which was drafted primarily by “foreign experts” and UNESCO consultants, a “choice” is laid-out:

At the time of writing (2005), Suqura is at a critical point in its history: a crossroads between becoming a well managed and preserved prime eco-tourism destination at international level, or becoming just another biodiversity-impoverished island like many others, dependent on external and government help, due to the irreversible loss of its main assets: its uniquely preserved nature and culture (UNESCO, 2006: 65).

41In this uncompromising view, Suqura will become either an environmental showcase or an aid-dependent backwater — reliant, in either outcome, on external support. “That natural heritage is global now is beyond dispute,” writes Lowenthal (1996: 228), and we observe it here in the presumption that Suqura should be “preserved” for international viewing and consumption. Yet, the conduit to this more desirable future as a global “destination” is its local legacy: the “striking ancient relationship between people and nature, largely preserved until present” (UNESCO, 2006: 36). Suqurans are made part of the environmental display, performing their relationships with plants (showing tourists how they collect gums, what plants they use for medications, etc.), while being taught how to see “the environment” through (Western) tourists’ eyes. Ironically, the recognition of the critical role that Suqurans have played in preserving their environment thus far, when recast in this light, becomes just another nostalgic vision that contributes to the calcification of the Suqurans’ (environmental) habitus as a local heritage belonging to a global community.

42It is against this background that we must consider the poetic interventions of al-Anbâlî and Bu Zayd, who seek both to shift the focus onto what they perceive as Suquri cultural heritage and to reorient its formulation from the domain of international organizations and the nation-state to that of the transnational community of Suqurans stretching from the island to the Gulf. For the past half century, Suqura has been bound to this region through the circulation of goods, people, and remittances. From the 1950s, Suquran men traveled to the then-undeveloped Arab Gulf States for work and trade, some of them settling there and eventually gaining citizenship. During the same period, women accused of witchcraft and men accused of theft were banished from Suqura by way of merchant dhows trading between Arabia and East Africa. It is well-recognized today as fortuitous, if not ironic, that these women who then settled in the Gulf prior to the exploitation of oil are able today to generously support their relatives on the island from which they were expelled. Although it is difficult to provide an estimate, it is known that the majority of Suqurans benefit from the remittances of relatives working in mainland Yemen or in the Gulf, from monthly shipments of goods (food supplies, household items, building materials, and vehicles) from the Suquran emigrant community, and from the connections forged by the marriage of island women into the Suquri community abroad. It is along these enduring “transnational” routes that the poems discussed above now circulate in the interest of articulating a “local” heritage and identity.

43This is not to say that the local population does not participate in the struggle to determine the nature of their heritage. While the majority of Suqurans tend to appreciate and desire (the promise of) rapid development — the modern infrastructure, new technologies, and tourist dollars that they have come to expect from their experience in or with the Gulf — and thus do not share the same nostalgia for the “customs and traditions” that circumscribe them, many do participate in a discourse of “loss.” Their concern is not so much the preservation or commemoration of a pristine past, but rather the loss of a distinct identity (and specifically, the Suquri language) incurred in part due to the very influx of external aid, influence, and conservation politics.

44In 2005, and with SCDP assistance, a Suquran group consisting predominantly of male teachers founded “The Association for Suquri History and Heritage” in Hadiboh. ‘Umar Khâlid, a leading member of this association, is concerned about the loss of Suquri cultural heritage, but is critical of the damage that the numerous agents of heritage-recovery, each acting independently, may cause:

“Heritage is like a buried body that everyone is trying to revive, but they’re all pulling at different pieces…. One is pulling at the ear, saying that this is the most important part; the other is pulling at the leg. What’s going to happen in the end is that each person is going to dig up a part of the body, with one part here and the other part there, but they won’t be able to put it together” (Hadiboh, June 2005).

45Part of the problem, he believes, is that no one really knows for what he is digging or can agree on the aims of the excavation. In an interview with a visiting journalist, ‘Umar stated:

“We have not yet been able to catalogue or understand what is Suquri heritage and culture. It is trees, birds, mountains, etc., but it is also people and language. This is not the work of one person. And if we protect the environment, but not people and language, then we have nothing. How can you preserve the hand without preserving the body? To save part without saving the rest is to let the whole body die” (Hadiboh, May 2005).

46‘Umar’s language echoes the discourse used by the SCDP, that of an integrated approach to protection: conservation and development, “nature” and “people.” Yet, ‘Umar is concerned that the Suquri “cultural heritage” is not actually receiving the same degree of attention and funding as the natural environment and argues that “a real attempt to preserve heritage would have to be made at a level not less than that of the SCDP [for the environment]” (Hadiboh, May 2005).

47Suquri heritage, as documented by the Association, consists of material culture (pottery, basketry, weaving, leatherwork, clothing), poetry, music (pipe music, drumming, song), customs and practices (sustainable use of resources, plant harvesting, medical treatments), and “games” (which also include the “traditional,” but “erroneous” beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery.) Yet even such a straightforward categorical approach is informed by the politics of Suquri identity. Thus, the Suqurans pose the question not only of who may define Suquri heritage (foreigners, residents, or expatriates), but also of who should perform it. The recent promotion of the island by international film crews and in national commemorative events (such as the Unity Day celebrations in Sanaa in 2000 and in al-Mukalla in 2005) has contributed to these local debates. As African-Suquran dance troops are featured more prominently in cultural events and film, “Arab” and “Bedouin” Suqurans contend that these “African” rhythms and movements are not constitutive of Suquri heritage. Moreover, those who dance in public spaces, in mixed company, and on camera are often considered less virtuous. Accordingly, these performances (viewed as a negative representation of the island) are deemed inappropriate for global consumption.

48In the metaphor provided by ‘Umar Khâlid, it is the Suquri language, however, that is the torso of this “dying” body; it is the essence of Suquri heritage and identity. Today, Suqurans of all ages and backgrounds are experiencing palpably the slow but steady replacement of the Suquri language by Arabic. Arabic is the principal language used in mosques, government offices, schools, and even the market, which has been monopolized by mainland Yemenis who, seeking economic opportunity after the unification, settled in Suqura (cf. Elie, 2005). Suqurans living in Hadiboh speak a Suquri that is infused with Arabic, even at home. Many Suquran youths are unable to produce specific terminology (regarding livestock, for example) and new concepts, like the “environment [bî‘a],” have been introduced using Arabic terms. Suquri poetry, revered as the backbone of Suquri life, must now compete with Arabic satellite broadcasting for its (younger) audiences, and second-generation Suqurans raised in the Gulf cannot speak their parents’ language at all. “The Suquri language is like this lantern under the electric light,” ‘Umar reflected, as I turned on my porch light after it had become too dark to continue note taking by kerosene lamp. “Does anyone ever work by this lantern?” He persisted. “No, they work by electricity. In the future, the Suquri language will disappear, like the lantern.” In an earlier meeting of Suquran poets interested in establishing a Poetry Association (the Heritage Association was formed in its place) one man expressed clearly this correlation between language, identity, and loss:

“[Arabic:] Many people don’t know why it matters if we lose the Suquri language. But if we lose our language, we lose ourselves. [English:] We lose our passport, our nationality…. I need some help. After fifty years, how will my grandson stay Suquri? And my great-grandson! After fifty, one hundred years—how will he be Suquri?”

49It is the language loss that ‘Umar had in mind when he told me, “In twenty-five years, people will say, ‘we used to have heritage.’”


50The two “Suquri” poems discussed in this article — the first, a call for action from Suqura to Oman and the second, a call for action from Oman to Suqura — both depict an immoral or inferior “outsider” gravely threatening the foundation of Suquri society: its women and its Sultan. These poems/events are (re)circulating at a time when the very body of Suquri identity, the Suquri language, is felt to be under threat from foreign influences and rapid change. At the same time, Suquri (environmental) heritage is being “written by its colonizers” (al-Anbâlî, 73), that is, by Western development agencies, governments, and experts. Thus, it is not surprising that while the archipelago is being “discovered” and promoted as world patrimony, a concurrent effort would be made to reorient heritage production and discourse from a Western or UN-based model to one that both speaks to the needs of local Suqurans and satisfies the nostalgic desires of the Suquran expatriate community in the Gulf.

51A closer reading of the two poems, however, reveals that the perceived threat comes not only from external actors, but also from divisions internal to Suqura. The marauders were, according to al-Anbâlî, “Christians” who had lived on Suqura for approximately twelve centuries. Likewise, the real horror of the 1974 executions is attributed to the fact that they were carried out at the hands of “brother” Suqurans. In both cases, the depraved “other” is in fact from Suqura, while the “author” of the event, be it al-Zahrâ’ or al-Anbâlî, as well as Bu Zayd, is more ambiguously situated. What is initially a fairly clear-cut portrayal of Suqurans and outsiders quickly becomes a more layered debate as to where the internal divisions are drawn and who may author Suquran heritage.

52The underlying paradox of heritage is that although it may be celebrated as a global legacy, it is nevertheless predicated upon “uniqueness” and exclusivity. “Too much is now asked of heritage,” states David Lowenthal, “In the same breath we commend national patrimony, regional and ethnic legacies, and a global heritage shared and sheltered in common. We forget that these aims are usually incompatible” (1996: 227). In Suqura, international organizations and their state counter-parts, the transnational Suquran community, and Suquran island residents are struggling to lay claim to divergent definitions of heritage, which, although couched in universal language, function to address competing priorities. Consequently, what one set of actors considers to be threatened heritage and in need of protection or revival, is perceived by other groups to threaten not only their individual claims to heritage, but also their very identity.

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This article is based on fieldwork conducted in Suqura from October 2004-December 2005 and February 2006, funded by the Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Fellowship with support from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and the Socotra Archipelago Conservation and Development Programme. I am grateful to my hosts in Suqura and to the individuals who were interviewed for this project. I am particularly grateful to Amad Sa’ad Khamîs for his help and hospitality in Oman, to Ismael Muammad Amad, Fahmî ‘Alî Ibrahîm, and Tanuf Salim Nuh for their Suquri lessons, and to Samuel Liebhaber, Miranda Morris, Justin Stearns, and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for their helpful comments. I thank Patrice Chevalier, Vincent Martignon, and Jérémie Schiettecatte for inviting me to participate in this volume and the conference from which it emerged.

1 The following translations of the al-Zahrâ qaîhah and ajar al-Asâs are mine, although I benefited from the advice of several Soqotran acquaintances who desire to remain anonymous. All remaining errors are my own. Several lines of the al-Zahrâ' qaîhah were previously translated by R.B. Serjeant and published along with a brief discussion of its context in a monography by Brian Doe (Serjeant 1992 : 138-1389).

2 I thank Francois Burgat for this information. In August 2006, I shared this qaîdah with a Muslim Egyptian acquaintance who immediately read in it a metaphor for the then-ongoing Israeli attack against Lebanon: the “sleeping” alt symbolizing the governments of neighbouring Muslim nations unmoved by the “rape” of Lebanon.

3 Although Bu Zayd is widely known throughout Suqura, he asked that I not refer to him by name, remarking that “my name is in the words [ismî al-kalimât].” His name and those of other individuals have been replaced with pseudonyms.

4 An NLF squad arrived on Suqura on November 29, 1967, claiming the island for South Yemen the day before the People’s Republic of South Yemen (later named the PDRY) achieved independence from Britain (Halliday, 1974: 230).

5 These Suqurans, together with some fifty fighters from Mahra, formed their own firqa (counter-guerrilla unit) named Firqat al-Wada (Team of Unity). Rewarded for their fighting with Omani citizenship (but not aided with regime change in Suqura), half of these Suqurans still live in the Dhofar region today while the other half resettled in the United Arab Emirates. For an account of the hushed, yet extensive internationalization of this war, see Halliday (1977), in which he describes the Sultan’s dependence on various foreign mercenaries due in part to the weakness of his own forces.

6 On the island, family members did commemorate this event by erecting a monument (a wall and plaque) to the “Martyrs of 74” at the site of the execution. I was told that it was erected during the 1994 civil war when a few of the perpetrators brought the family members to the site to show them exactly where the execution had occurred.

7 Referring to his work as “action poetry,” Bu Zayd stated that he wanted his poem to be like a “toothache” that either irritates people or inspires them to action. At the same time, he affirmed that he did not mean to call for revenge, just awareness. Interview with author, July 2005.

8 For a similar exchange in which the expatriate poet (here situated in Hyderabad in the early 20th century) sends home a qaîdah in which he criticizes the political decisions (and, in his view, even inaction) of his former aramî countrymen only to be rebuked in turn for his absence and his ignorance of the local “general mood,” see Freitag (1997).

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Nathalie M. Peutz, « Reorienting Heritage: Poetic Exchanges between Suqura and the Gulf »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 121-122 | 2008, 163-182.

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Nathalie M. Peutz, « Reorienting Heritage: Poetic Exchanges between Suqura and the Gulf »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 121-122 | 2008, mis en ligne le 14 décembre 2011, consulté le 13 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie M. Peutz

Anthropologue, Princeton University.

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