About the Songs

Like many children growing up in a Yemeni household, some of my earliest memories involve hearing the songs of my mother and aunts drifting throughout our home as they performed daily tasks, celebrated weddings, or yearned for loved ones out of reach. Some of these songs were popular folksongs, but most of them were songs composed—often on the spot—by each of these women or those they intimately knew. They reflected the moment of the present (like admonishing my brother for failing to “pick up the pen” and complete his schoolwork) or else songs from their past life spent in the valleys of Yemen’s highlands.

The stories our mothers and aunts recited to us were always punctuated with lines of poetry. The tales of my childhood revealed poetry’s power to convince one of a woman’s resolve to stand her ground in moments of upheaval; to spur men into action in times of war and revolution; and, most painfully, to capture the intimate sorrows of loving someone from afar.

A prominent theme that emerged in the poetic stories they shared with us was that of their yearning for the men who remained years in the ghurba or diaspora. Whether it was their husbands, fathers, or brothers, these women turned to song to contemplate, as one woman put it, the “strange tale that [had] befallen” them. The Songs of Yearning collection included in this project are a brief sample these songs.

Steven Caton’s 1993 ethnographic study on tribal poetry in Yemen’s highlands reminds us that poetry and folksong have long functioned as a constitutive social and political practice in Yemen. Poets mediated conflicts, celebrated weddings, or motivated others to do their bidding. However, The Global Yemen Project is interested in a different function of poetry: The songs of Yemeni women yearning for those in the ghurba narrates an important facete of Yemen’s global histories. These songs demonstrates how even when women remained in their villages for most of their lives, their lives were touched and transformed by the global. As such, the “diaspora” as we understand it is not a “place” nor “state” that one is in; rather, it is experienced and performed by even those left at ‘home.’

As the songs included in TGYP show, women sang of the lemon trees of “Meraykin” (America) beseeching them to protect their loves. They yearned to rescue their lovers from the clutch of the bare women of “bilad al nasarah” (i.e. Britain, though the phrase literally translates to “the land of the Christians”). From within the valley and as their songs reverberated from its walls, these women performed diaspora. They teach us what those works included in the Oceanic Yemen Syllabus do: Yemen is not a place suspended in time nor cut off from the rest of the world. Even when Yemenis do not traverse oceans, the world comes to them.

The Women & Methodology

The songs currently included in this collection were composed by Yemeni women of the northern highlands. The project plans to expand the collection in future phases to include women from other parts of Yemen especially those from its southern coast. Many of these songs were written between the 1960s and the 1980s when the husbands, fathers, and brothers of these women were part of the thousands of Yemeni men working in the ghurba.

Though written several decades ago and though some of these women have since joined their husbands abroad, these women continue to sing these songs. They use them to narrate their own histories and arguably those of Yemen. As they shared with me their stories and those of their mothers and aunts, the stories were always punctured with lines of song and poetry that a subject of the story wrote during a specific moment. I recorded these sessions and the women singing these songs; however, all of them asked that their voices not be shared widely and that only their lyrics under pseudonyms be included.

As you read their words, consider what they may reveal about the ways Yemeniat use songs to cope, mourn, or pray. Though many of these women believe that a woman’s singing is an intimate and sometimes private act, they sang these songs in Yemen’s low valleys so that their deepest desires and sorrows reverberated on its valley walls. A song that a woman composed for her absent love might then be picked up by other women in the valley who adjusted its words to better reflect their own diasporic realities. How might performing these songs in these ways challenge how we understand the divide between the intimate and the public?

For many of these women, songs and poetry were ways to make meaning out of their “strange tales.” When some of these women later joined their husbands abroad and raised their families outside of Yemen’s highlands, their songs took on new meanings. They became about yearning for the valleys that once echoed their stories, about the parents they left behind, and about the children they raised in the ghurba and the husbands they buried there. These women continued to use song to make meaning of their social and material conditions.

Types of Songs

Songs of Yearning includes three different types of songs women sang: ma’yna (valley rhymes), ghunwia (short songs), and qasida (formal ode).

Ma’yna | معينة | Valley Rhymes

Ma’yna (valley rhymes) are often four lines long with each line sung in a drawn-out manner. They are often sung inside valleys sometimes surrounded by an audience; other times, they are sung alone while harvesting crops or herding animals. The singer sings one line at a time pausing to hear the line reverberate on the valley walls. Both men and women sing valley rhymes. Below are two examples of these type of songs.

Ghunwia | غُنوية | Short Song

A ghunwia differs from a 'ughnia (أغنية) in that the former is usually only two lines long sung in a repetitive manner and with a mournful melody. A 'ughnia on the other hand is the more familiar folksong with multiple lines and sung in various melodies.

Nadwa Adra's ethnographic work explores Yemeni women’s oral poetry tradition which include short songs. She has written specifically on maṭḥan (مطحن) poetry and short songs. This short song tradition derives its name from the act of grounding grain with heavy stone mills that the women perform while singing these songs. She shows how these women sang to express their sorrows or reflect their frustration while performing everyday tasks. These short songs are similar to the “little songs” or ghinnawa in Lila Abu-Lughod’s study on the poetic traditions of Bedouin women in the northwestern desert of Egypt. As in Egypt, these songs were often only a verse or two long but sung in a repetitive mournful melody. They expressed the women’s most intimate feelings and deepest yearnings but often veiled with oblique imagery. Though the form they take on when sung differs from those sung in Egypt, the poetic form of Yemeni ghunwia is similar. Below is an example of a ghunwia a mother sings wishing her son safe travels.

Qasida | قصيدة | Formal Ode

A qasida is a long form poem that is most literally translated as an ode. It is several verses long and is often composed in multiple sittings. The ode is then set to a melody and sung to others. It is often dedicated to someone or composed to respond or reflect on a situation. Below is an example of a qasida by an unnamed Yemeni woman to her husband who has left her for the ghurba. She reflects on her situation (or “fate”) and shares with him the sorrows his absence has caused her.