Posted on July 17, 2010 - by Mira
First appeared in Yemen Today
Ofra Haza’a wears traditional Yemeni silver jewelry, including rings with agate stones. She rides a horse across the desert donning a dark, hooded robe like a medieval knight, while the song plays:
“Im nin’ alu / Dal tai na divim / Dal tai marom / Lo nin’ alu.”
If you watched MTV in the late 1980s, you might remember her in the music video as Ofra Haza (1957 – 2000), the Israeli pop singer who gained international fame during that decade. But even if this doesn’t ring a bell, chances are you may have heard her hit “Im nin’ alu” (Should They Be Closed) playing in a Yemeni taxi.
“It’s a Yemeni Jewish song,” a taxi driver once explained.
That’s because Haza is of Yemeni Jewish descent. Her family, the Yemeni Haza’a, is originally from Taiz, says Rabbi Yahya Yousef Salem, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community from Saada currently taking refuge in Sanaa after being expelled by Zaidi Houthi rebels. Ofra reportedly learned Yemeni folk songs from her mother when she was growing up in Israel, and her hits included songs she sang in the Yemeni dialect. Her artistic identity became associated with the traditional clothes, the headdress and the jewelry of a Yemeni bride that she wore, paying homage to her Yemeni roots.
“Even if the gates of the rich are closed, the gates of heaven will never be closed” is one translation of the above Hebrew verses. Ofra’s mesmerizing voice then repeats the words “El Hai” – one of God’s names in Judaism, which means, in Hebrew as well as in Arabic, “The Living God.”
But perhaps less known outside Jewish communities is the author of the poem that her popular song is based on: Rabbi Salim (Shalom) al-Shabazi, a weaver from the town of Shabaz near Taiz, who penned it and numerous other poems in seventeenth-century Yemen.
“It’s a famous Shabazi poem,” says Rabbi Yahya. “Shabazi is known as one of the greatest rabbis. He wrote many books, and he wrote taraneem (hymns). He was famed for his poetry, his faith and his knowledge.”
A spring runs underneath the rabbi’s tomb in Taiz, Rabbi Yahya explains, and an elderly Muslim woman keeps watch over both grave and water, burning incense over them. After his death, his grave became a site of annual pilgrimage for Jews and Muslims alike.
A poet and a mystic, Shabazi (born in 1619) lived during what’s considered the Golden Age of Yemeni Jewish literature, a period spanning three hundred years to the 18th century and marked by widespread learning and intellectual pursuit in philosophy and science among Jewish Yemenis. A diwan could be found in every household, an anthology of poems written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic.
But the 17th century was also a trying time for Jews, when they suffered from oppression by Zaidi imams. The rabbi became well-known during this time for his poems of comfort and hope – numbering around 15,000 by one account – most of which he composed in the Yemeni dialect, sometimes combining Arabic and Hebrew in a poem.
Shabazi’s poetry was characterized by mystical themes and the new strophic form that broke away from the traditional Andalusian poetic style which had been dominant for five centuries. One study argues that this shift in poetic style could have been due to the influence of the humayni muwashah poems of Yemeni Sufis.
As an example of Sufi influence on Shabazi poetry, the study links several of the rabbi’s Arabic poems, composed as verses each dedicated to a letter of the alphabet, to the same technique previously used by Sufi poet Ibn al-Arabi, through whom Sufi musical poetry from North Africa and Spain may have reached Yemen. Shabazi poetry also shares many features of the humayni poetry (poetry written in local dialect) of Yemeni Sufi poet Omar bin Abdullah Ba-Makramah, such as beginning poems containing metaphysical themes with the image of lightning.
“In Jewish literature and perhaps in all of world literature,” wrote Jewish Hungarian scholar Wilhelm Bacher, “one will search in vain for two entirely different languages like Hebrew and Arabic being used as media of poetic expression with equal rights.” According to Bacher, the bilingualism in Shabazi’s poetry shows that “Jewish and Arabic were intimately connected in the cultural life of South Arabian Jews.”
Haza’s song “Im nin’ alu” first appeared on her album Fifty Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs, a collection of traditional Yemeni Jewish songs with Shabazi poetry. But Shabazi’s modern reach doesn’t end in Israeli pop culture, and Yemeni heritage doesn’t stop at the borders of this historical country. In 2005, pop queen Madonna, a follower of the Kabbalah mystical teachings, used the poem “Im nin’ alu” in her song “Isaac,” named after the vocalist who performed the Hebrew poem on the track, Isaac (Yitzhak) Sinwani. Of Yemeni Jewish descent, Sinwani opened his performance of the song in one of Madonna’s concerts with the Shofar, an instrument made of the horn of a ram and traditionally used by Jewish Yemenis in religious ceremonies.
The Sufi influences on Shabazi poetry were possibly a consequence of Jewish and Muslim Yemenis historically living in close proximity in Yemeni villages and cities.
“Our customs and traditions are the same as Muslim Yemenis,” says Rabbi Yahya. “Except for religious customs, everything else is the same.”
* * * * *
Seventeenth-century Rabbi Salim Shabazi wrote the following lyrical debate between qat (mildly stimulating leaves chewed by Yemenis during social gatherings) and coffee in the Yemeni dialect, in which each tries to win him over:
“A quarrel had begun
Between Coffee and Qat.
Tell us, they challenged me,
Which of us you prefer.
It was Qat who spoke first:
Choice are my leaves
And precious, too.
Proudly my shrub
Raises its head
On Jabal Saber,
And it is there
[The bulbul] will build her nest
And hide her eggs…
Now it was Coffee’s turn:
I am the early morning glory
Brightening the start of each new day.
It is Shazli*
To whom I owe my reputation.
Qat interrupted here:
Your fame cannot compare with mine.
No gathering is complete without me.
My little shrub has greater beauty
Than yours. Look at its shining leaves.
Both nobleman and scholar are
My followers, and quick to serve me.
… Now came my turn:
You give me equal joy,
I long for both of you.
To each of you I owe
A vote of gratitude.
Yet I extend this praise
To wine, enjoyed with friends.
To comfort, to console
Is my, the poet’s, role.
And now, my worthy friends,
Let’s drink to fellowship,
And let us spend the time
With poetry and songs.
All discord be dismissed.
Thanks be and praise to God.
Lord, grant your Salim peace
And keep him from all ills.”
* Abu al-Hasan al-Shazli is credited with discovering coffee in Mokha, Yemen.
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