In Yemen, Fighting Illiteracy Through Poetry

Kim A. O'Connell
for National Geographic News
January 27, 2004

Yemen may be one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. But its tradition of spoken verse represents a rich cultural heritage.

For centuries, oral poetry has offered a socially acceptable way for men and women to solve problems, manage conflicts, and communicate feelings of sorrow, happiness, and worry, according to Najwa Adra, a New York-based anthropologist.

"There is a huge respect for [the spoken word] in Arab culture," said Adra. "If something is written, it's suspect; whereas if it's remembered, it's valued."

So when Adra began a pilot project to combat illiteracy among Yemeni women—77 percent of whom can't read, according to UNICEF—she embraced the country's oral poetry traditions.

Her program, Literacy Through Poetry, seeks to teach rural and urban women literacy skills through writing and documenting their own poetry and that of other women in their community.

The project was initially supported by the World Bank and is now administered by the Social Fund for Development in Yemen.

Empowering Voices

The pilot project addresses two chronic problems faced by Yemeni women: a decline in their own poetry composition and a loss of a public voice.

Poetry, music, and dance were once highly valued modes of expression among Yemeni women. However, a conservative shift in cultural attitudes in the country, coupled with reformist attacks on traditional folklore, has diminished women's confidence that they can openly cherish their traditions.

"We supported the project with the understanding that poetry in this country is very important and has a presence in the language and daily life [of Yemeni people]," said Carmen Niethammer, a World Bank operations officer based in Washington, D.C. "Yemen is a segregated society, and this is what women and men do when they are sitting by themselves in the afternoon. They recite poetry to each other," she said.

Trade in audio cassette tapes has bolstered the Yemeni poetic tradition by helping disseminate poetry throughout the country. Yet most taped poetry is performed by men; modesty keeps most Yemeni women from recording their voices.

Meanwhile television and other modern entertainments have diminished opportunities for poetry composition and recitals, according to Adra.

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