Ahmad Dammaj: The Literary Life of an “Old Hostage”

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Ahmad Qassem Dammaj confronted his destiny with forbearance, supported by his mother’s calls for him to be a man who holds his family’s honor. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Jamal Jubran

Published Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moments before the arrival of the soldiers of Imam Yahya Bin Hamidaddin, ruler of Yemen (1869-1948), eight-year-old Zayd Mutee Dammaj managed to hide inside the clay oven at home. The soldiers had come to arrest the child and take him to the “Cairo Fortress” in Taiz, south of Sanaa.

Bin Hamidaddin wanted to keep him hostage in order to pressure opposition tribal leaders, who had fled his brutality, to surrender because Dammaj’s father was among them. However, after searching every corner of the house, the indolent soldiers failed to uncover the child’s hiding place.

As they could not return to the king without a “hostage,” they assumed that any other child would do. Thus, one of the soldiers suggested taking Ahmad Qassem Dammaj, Zayd Mutee Dammaj’s cousin, who was of similar age and the only one present.

Ahmad Qassem Dammaj confronted his destiny with forbearance, supported by his mother’s calls for him to be a man who holds his family’s honor. He did not shed a single tear as they took him away to be imprisoned. This is the place that he would enter as a nine-year-old child and leave as a 19-year-old man.

Zayd Mutee Dammaj, the child who had escaped detention, would return his cousin’s favor three decades later by documenting Ahmad Qassem Dammaj’s story in a novel titled, Raheena (“Hostage,” 1984).

The novel was selected by the Arab Writers Union as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century. Ahmad Qassem Dammaj would later become president of the Yemeni authors’ and writers’ union, and a well-known literary figure in the country.

Although many years have passed since that early prison period, Dammaj, who has now lost almost all his teeth, still feels as though it happened yesterday. He explains how his release from the fortress felt like he was destined to live a new life.

“We were 12 hostages. Ten of us died due to difficult health conditions and lack of care,” Dammaj remembers.

When he was released, Dammaj tried to make up for the time he had spent in prison and everything he had missed as a young man. He had to compensate for his long lost past by grasping on to each new day with all his might.

When his uncle, the tribal leader, returned after the Imam pardoned him, he did all he could to make up for all the years that Dammaj spent in prison instead of his son.

“He brought me a private tutor, and so I resumed my education,” says Dammaj, who managed to make great strides in the span of two years, with the help of his uncle’s rich library. His studies would keep him away from the stench of prison, but not for long. He would later spend more time in prison, but this time for other reasons.

The young man had succeeded in rehabilitating himself intellectually and culturally and excelled among a generation of gifted writers and poets, including Abdullah al-Baradouni, Omar al-Jawi, and Mohammad Abdul Wali.

It was this generation of writers that founded the Yemeni authors’ and writers’ union, the first unified civil organization, in 1970, long before the unification of Yemen.

“The writers wanted to establish a union far from the dominance of the two authorities. At the time, the matter was fraught with many dangers when relations between the two regimes was at its worst,” Dammaj says, adding, “Traveling between Sanaa and Aden became an adventure, the consequences of which could not be anticipated.”

It was during this period that he became a frequent inmate in northern prisons. He was released from one only to end up in another. Nevertheless, it was a memorable for him.

His membership in the authors’ union allowed him to forge friendships with a large number of Arab poets, including Mahmoud Darwish, Saadi Youssef, and Adonis, when Aden attracted such literary figures.

Characteristically, he declined the position of minister of culture, which he was offered several times following the unification of Yemen in 1990. He preferred staying active in the authors’ and writers’ union to preserve the legacy and traditions of the big names that had departed.

Perhaps this preoccupation is the reason why he has neglected releasing a single poetry collection to this day. He is the only man who has assumed responsibility for the biggest cultural institution in Yemen without having released a single book.

Despite that, Dammaj succeeded in preserving the union despite attempts by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to control it. Most cultural institutions are now run by Saleh’s ruling party in order to silence the voices calling for justice, equality, and freedom.

“Saleh’s practices, and his quest to take over everything, led to the declaration of a revolution against him and resulted in his ouster,” Dammaj says.

He says that such authoritarian behavior is the same in most Arab countries that are experiencing revolutions today: “When the people’s anger grows, no one can stop it.”

The “old hostage” believes that the revolutions are essential for moving through the stagnant waters of Arab life. The situation has deteriorated so drastically, he says, that it became impossible to just sit and watch.

Dammaj seems cheerful upon mentioning the revolutions, as though he remembers his participation in the republic’s battles against the Saudi-backed monarchy in the 1960s.

The old leftist believes that the Yemeni revolution’s youth have achieved much of their aspirations: “We should keep in mind that major Arab and international powers would have preferred not to reach a purely revolutionary ending in order to safeguard their interests in Yemen,” he explains.

As for Libya, Dammaj does not hide his strong criticism of “the backward way in which some revolutionaries killed Muammar Gaddafi. This will not help create a civil society anytime soon, to say the least.”

Syria, he says, is a special case: “The regime has managed to shape society in a way that makes it hard to dismantle. And it has not resorted to the reckless behavior of its Libyan counterpart throughout the rule of Hafez Asaad and his son Bashar.” Thus, he does not believe that things will transpire there the same way they did elsewhere.

When asked about the series of victories that Islamists have wrought in the wake of the Arab revolts and the fears that come along with it, he calmly says: “There is no justification for this fear. The wheel of history cannot be pushed back.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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