Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Beacon No. 88: The Right Messenger Is a Poet


At a recent conference on international polling that I attended, one of the main threads of discussion involved message versus messenger. The specific example, as you’d guess, was President Bush. Because of his and most of his administration’s global unpopularity, some argued that it is simply impossible for U.S. public diplomacy to make progress while Bush is in office. No message, no matter how solid—Osama bin Laden is bad!—can really penetrate the world’s suspicion and dislike of the president.

A partial solution to this problem lies in the old advertising tactic of third-party testimonials: Have someone else apparently unconnected to you carry the message, thus skipping the issue of the likeability of the message’s composer.

This is apparently what the government of Yemen is doing. During the temporary pause in low-grade civil war in that country—most of its homegrown jihadis are apparently in Iraq fighting against you-know-who—the Sana’a government is recruiting poets to spread an anti-terror message.

Poetry has had an outsized importance in the Arab world since at least the time of the Prophet, and doubly so in a place like Yemen that has combines high respect for traditional tribal pastimes with low literacy rates and deep suspicion of the government. The spoken word is disproportionately powerful there, and the beautiful flow of words coming from a poet’s mouth are valued highly.

That was the scene James Brandon established with “In Poetry-Loving Yemen, Tribal Bard Takes on Al Qaeda—with His Verse”:

... The idea of using tribal poets to fight extremism began with a chance meeting nearly two years ago, explains Faris Sanabani, a friend of Yemen's president and editor of a weekly English-language newspaper The Yemen Observer.

Leading Yemenis in Sanaa had gathered to chew khat, a narcotic shrub, talk politics, and listen to poetry, Mr. Sanabani recalls. Suddenly, one guest turned to Yemen's most popular tribal poet, [Amin al-]Mashreqi, and asked him if he could recite any poetry about terrorism, he says.

Mashreqi rose eagerly to the challenge. He stood up, adjusted the broad, curving dagger hanging at his waist and proudly declaimed a handful of verses glorifying suicide bombers.

As the applause faded, the man who had asked him to recite the verses, Sanabani himself, took him aside and quietly invited him to visit his office.

The next day at the office of the Yemen Observer, Sanabani asked Mashreqi to watch a video made after Al Qaeda's 2002 suicide boat-attack on the French oil tanker SS Limburg off the Yemeni coast.

"I showed him footage of the environmental damage caused by the oil spill and of Yemeni fishermen and their families whose livelihood had been destroyed because their fishing grounds were polluted," recalls Sanabani.

Chastened by the images of oil-stained beaches, dead fish, and seabirds and sobbing, destitute Yemeni fishermen, Mashreqi left Sanabani's office appearing troubled and lost in thought. When Sanabani next saw him he seemed a man transformed.

"Three days later he came back with the most beautiful poetry I have ever seen," says Sanabani, recalling his amazement at the poet's new verses that now condemned violence and promoted peace and tolerance.

The article notes that Yemen hasn’t experienced any major Islamist attacks, implying that drafting poets can help. Of course, poetry can only go so far in a poor country with deepening divisions between rich and poor, and a jihadi class that will eventually return to make trouble, just as it did after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended. But Amin al-Mashreqi is a prime example of the power the right messenger might wield.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another reason often cited for the lack of attacks is the influence of Judge Hamoud al-Hittar who "re-educates" the Jihaddis until they agree not to attack in Yemen, but Iraq....he says they dont discuss it.


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