Muhammad al Sharafi, “Changing Veils”, “Literacy Through Poetry”

By Sophie Powell

And here I am, behind my cloak

An ardent hope and a burning fever

I thirst for meeting with you,

    My beloved

But there is my veil, my curse,

O my beloved.

        —(M. al Sharafi, 1970, translation Carla Makhlouf)

A week ago, I came across the book "Changing Veils" (1979), an absorbing study of women and modernization in North Yemen (the former, pre-unification Republic Of Yemen). The author, Carla Makhlouf, is an anthropologist by training who currently works for the World Health Organization. Although the book was written nearly 30 years ago, Makhlouf's study still has relevance today; moreover as one of her sources she draws on some of the provocative work of contemporary Yemeni poets, mainly the controversial Muhammad al Sharafi, who died five years ago. I read her book straight through in one afternoon; I could not put it down.

A detailed profile of Sharafi's life and work can be viewed in his obituary in the Yemen Times. Firm in his belief in "the emancipation of the Yemeni individual—female as well as male," Sharafi was a groundbreaking poet who courageously championed the female cause. Some of his poems address women directly, others are written from the point of view of the woman herself. His first book, Tears Of The Veil, generated a social and religious uproar and his later books, too, display a refreshing audacity as they explore the plight of the Yemeni female. Working in one of the most conservative and restrictive societies in the world, Sharafi opposed the traditions that limited the female voice and he subverts convention by using his work to shed light on the female experience. His brave convictions and powerful poetic talent combine to produce exceptionally striking and heart-breaking poems. I only wish that his work received more international exposure.

Indeed, there is a lack of international awareness of Yemeni poetry in general, despite its abundance and rich cultural heritage (an abundance at least of poetry written by Yemeni men). I was struck by Makhlouf's statement in Changing Veils that "before the Revolution of 1962, education for the female was restricted to reading the Koran and did not include writing, except for a few upper-class women." But she points out that since then things have slowly been changing. She forwarded me an article on a pilot project launched by a New York-based anthropologist, Najwa Adra, to combat illiteracy among Yemeni women. Adra's 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 the community." The project was initially supported by the World Bank and is now administered by the Social Fund for Development in Yemen. You can view the article here.

It was a treat to have been plunged into such a different world, after I stumbled upon Changing Veils. Makhlouf makes a convincing argument that the veil, and the lifestyle it is part of, empowers women as much as it might seem to restrict and circumscribe them. Her concluding chapter includes some wonderful translations of Sharafi's most moving and controversial poetry. Sharafi is unafraid of expressing the frustration and intensity of suppressed female passion. His writing is fearless and arresting, raw and angry. Underneath their veils his women are not usually sweet or serene. Rather they are fiercely-feeling, complex individuals, bubbling cauldrons of intense emotions and sexual desires. No wonder his work didn't sit easily in his homeland. Indeed it no doubt scared the life out of many Yemeni males who perhaps for the first time were exposed to the unveiling of their country's enduring female hearts.

Let him see me without a veil

Smell my perfume and reap my fruits

I am a woman, in my blood is

A violent spring which fears autumn nights.


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