The War Nerd: To lighten the mood, here's the cheery tale of Dammaj

By Gary Brecher , written on March 30, 2015

From The War Desk

One of the weirdest stories to come out of the war in Yemen is the Siege of Dammaj. In a small way, it was a microcosm of the Sunni/Shia world-wide conflict. But a goofy, almost endearing microcosm, with a lot of enthusiastic kids flocking to a little Yemeni town, comic blog posts, and only a few casualties. You could cast Selena Gomez and Pharrell in the movie.

At the moment I’ll take all the cheery stories I can get out of this Sunni/Shia schism. I’ve been losing friends writing about it, people I was proud to know in Najran, and it really hurts. So to lighten the mood, here’s the tale of Dammaj, starring a cast of thousands of cheery kids from Minneapolis and Jakarta and other comfy, wealthy places, bumping along in gaudy Yemeni buses to high-rise mud huts.

Dammaj is a little town right in the middle of Saada Province, the heartland of the Shia Houthi movement. And that’s what’s odd about this story, because Dammaj, until recently, was the site of Darul al Hadeeth, one of the biggest Sunni/Salafi religious schools in the Middle East.

“Until recently”—it’s one of those phrases that always means blood and disaster, like “Churchill’s plan for the campaign…” or “You have been accepted for graduate study in our Humanities Program.”

Darul al Hadeeth was always in danger as an outpost of Sunni Salafism planted right in the heart of Zaydi Shia territory. It was founded by a local man, Muqbil al Wadi, who migrated to Najran in Saudi Arabia and converted to Sunni Salafism at a school in Najran founded by Uthayman, one of the biggest 20th century Saudi conservative preachers.

After the Saudis threw him in prison for a few months for suspected involvement in the attack on the Grand Mosque, Wadi came home to Sa’ada in 1979 and started preaching Salafism in Dammaj, a sleepy stream-side village right in the heart of Saada Province. Yep, Saada Province, very heartland of Shi’ite Yemen. Not an easy place to preach Sunni doctrine, especially of the in-yer-face variety Wadi was pushing. This was a brave, if not foolhardy move at micro-level, but at macro-, where we’re all just molecules, it was part of a trend: The Sunni Revival, which might be the biggest historical trend you’re living through, right now.

In fact, the rise and fall of Darul al Hadeeth is really just a small skirmish in the long struggle between the Shia of the southwestern part of the peninsula and the Wahhabi of the Najd. It seems fitting that Wadi was converted from Shi’ism to Sunnah in Najran, because, as I’ve written before, that town has always been front-line for the Sauds’ attempt to change the religion of the Shia of the region.

Wadi had a lot of sectarian momentum behind him. In the 1980s, when Wadi founded Darul al Hateeth, the Saudis were getting stronger, exporting their grim take on Islam around the world. Wadi was just one of the missionaries spreading Salafism from Borneo to Birmingham—but Salafists in either of those places were safer than someone preaching extreme Sunni Islam among Yemeni Shia in Saada.

The local Shia just didn’t have the power to do much about it, because Sunni enthusiasm was peaking and Wadi’s school in Dammaj grew very quickly, drawing money and students from all over the world.

He made one early decision that, as they say, stood him in good stead: He condemned terrorism and rejected bin Laden. They both came out of the Saudi Salafi movement, and had known each other a long time, but Wadi broke with bin Laden over policy, sparing his base in Dammaj the architectural ravages many other Salafi bases faced after 9/11.

Darul al Hadeeth was a huge success.

I can’t find accurate figures on the number of students, but even as late as 2014, when the place had been under siege for years, there were 8,000 believers holed up in there.

The appeal of Yemen might not seem obvious to non-believers; it’s not the destination you’d pick if you won a Dream Vacation ticket, but going to Yemen to study the Quran is a huge dream among young Muslims around the world. You hear different reasons for this. Some say the Arabic of Yemen is the purest or the closest to what Mohammed actually spoke. If you hear that claim about Shakespeare’s English, or Huck Finn’s slang, it’s always used to romanticize some benighted district where living, and life, is cheap. It’s the ol’ authenticity argument, and it comes down to the allure of isolation and poverty for people who’ve gotten bored with dull first-world stuff like reliable electric current and scorpion-free housing. It’s not particular to religious people, either; you can get hours of this kind of talk from scruffy backpackers mourning the increase in living standards which has rendered their favorite parts of the third world bearable for the inhabitants but less fun for tight-fisted stoners. Yemen was poor, and that poverty meant authenticity to these seekers after knowledge. They could have learned the Quran with air conditioning in Riyadh, like richer and softer pilgrims do, but for a certain kind of Muslim yout’, memorizing the Quran in houses just like the ones in which it was first recited (or so they imagine) is simply irresistible, conferring bragging rights that last a lifetime. And bragging rights are important in any religion; they always come down to piety contests among the believers...

Most of the kids who swarmed to Dammaj had no idea they were traveling right to the heart of Saada Province, home of the Shia heretics. They were stronger on faith than history. Thanks to a blog called Fear the Dunya, we know a lot about what the Sunni pilgrims who came to Dammaj thought. The blog was put together by a guy calling himself Hassan as Somali. You can hear him preaching on this YouTube video, if you want to get a sense of his voice and style. It’s best in small doses; the whole 36-minute sermon is torture by anybody’s standards, but a few seconds gives you a sense of accent and attitude. He speaks American English fluently, but with an accent; he sounds young, very righteous, very authoritarian, very ordinary. That’s not a bad profile of a Salafist, actually: Young, male, authoritarian, bi-cultural, ordinary in everything else.

And, like a lot of Salafists, good at media. Hassan’s blog, “Fear the Dunya” (“Dunya” means “the Physical World,” or “reality” as unbelievers call it) got a lot of hits, drew a lot of eager pilgrims to Saada Province. He published posts on how to get to Dammaj, what you could expect to pay in rent ($15-30 per month), and a lot of commentary on the Yemen conflict.

As long as Hassan’s blog deals with practical matters, he writes good, clear American English. Here, for example, he describes the growth and layout of Darul al Hadeeth:

The institute in Dammaaj started as a small masjid made of mud then as the students numbers grew a bigger masjid was built adjacent to the Sheikh’s house then later a bigger masjid was built which is today the library then an even bigger masjid was built and now that masjid has just been expanded. The latest masjid is very big and is active day and night with classes and students memorizing Qur’aan and hadeeth and at night time some of the single students sleep in the masjid.

Other single students choose to sleep in the basement of the masjid while others choose to buy rooms in a section for the single brothers. The rooms are made of mud bricks and most of them have small bathrooms. There are also bathrooms adjacent to the masjid and presently even more are being built. The single brothers are given three meals a day usually beans and bread in the morning and evening and rice for lunch. There are also small restaurants where some choose to buy meals while some single brothers choose to cook there own meals in their rooms.

On top of the masjid is a musallaa for the women where Umm Abdillaah Aishah bint Ash-Sheikh Muqbil gives her classes for the women. But as soon as Hassan starts talking religion (which was, after all, the business of Darul al Hadeeth), all that clarity and honesty vanishes. And when he tries to explain the sectarian divisions that finally destroyed his beloved masjid, he speaks in the very worst kind of Salafi preaching clichés, stilted, dishonest, and ostentatiously dotted with Arabic words and phrases.

Dammaaj is the birthplace of the Reviver of the Sunnah, the Great Scholar Muqbil ibn Haadee Al-Waadi’ee. The Sheikh set up an institute of knowledge that by Allaah’s will has changed the face of Yemen. Before the da’wah of the Sheikh Yemen was plagued by tashayyu’ in the north and tasawwuf in the south and hizbiyyah.

Now by Allaah’s grace the da’wah of Ahlus-Sunnah can be found in all parts in Yemen, stronger in some areas than others. I can’t read this stuff without remembering the history lesson provided by demon-possessed Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters:

Gozer the Traveler. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldrini, the traveler came as a large and moving Torg! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!

And when you sift what it’s saying out of all the pedantic, oratorical flights, it’s just sectarian hatred dressed up in its Sunday (or Friday) best. For example, the “Tashayyu” that Wadi found in the North of Yemen is just another pejorative term for Shi’ites, in case you get tired of calling them “Rafidii” (“Naysayers”). You can read about why it’s so evil, if you have a good boredom threshold. The second evil, “Tasawwuf,” means roughly Sufism, the introspective, quietist aspect of Islam. It’s used as a pejorative here.

The real point of all this rhetoric is the last line: “Ahlus-Sunnah [Sunni/Salafism] can be found in all parts of Yemen [now],” thanks to Darul al Hadeeth.

So Wadi’s mosque in Dammaj became a fortress, an armed revival in the heart of enemy territory. And it drew huge numbers of pilgrims. Luckily for us, some of them have written about their time there, in American English. Hassan links to one especially interesting account by an American woman who lived in Dammaj with her “co-wife” and eight kids in 2004.

Her blog post has the same cheery wackiness you get in Peace Corps vets’ accounts. There’s a lot of overlap, in fact, between Peace Corps and Salafists. And both their stories turn comic, without the narrators ever suspecting it, when they try to wrap their pathologically upbeat little heads around what they actually experienced. She tries to see the bright side pretty much non-stop: “The house was better than I had expected for mud, lol” but she has to admit it got a little OTT authentic down the street:

“Ours was painted on the outside and had a little decoration [but] some houses… look like what you see in National Geographic, lol.”

Prices were definitely reasonable:

“Everyone would say that we had a pretty good house (the rent was somewhere like $400-600 for the year, I can’t exactly remember).”

She tries to keep it upbeat even when listing downsides:

“The main thing that I didn’t like about our particular house was that there was a courtyard in the middle of the house. It was nice in that at night, you could gaze up at the stars and it looked like you were at a planetarium.”

Planetarium? Sounds good. Apparently not, though, because she goes on,

“We had them put a screening over it because they were just going to leave it exposed. (to creatures and whatever else, lol).”

One thing you pick up pretty quickly with this sister is that her tell is “lol.” See that and you’re going to get some frankness. She takes a deep breath and dives into that subject next:

“So what was bad? Well when it rained in the courtyard, it was raining in the house. The floors were concrete so there was no damage, but to get from my room to the kitchen, I had to go 'outside' lol. I have heard of other houses like that there, but most people had a courtyard in front of the house instead of in it. Some people have plastic tarpaulin type roofs. Ours was more like a 'regular' roof, but we still had some problems with it. A couple of times it rained and the roof sprung a leak and down came mud and water.”

The main difference between this account and similar Peace Corps stories is that this isn’t humblebragging. She wants it to sound wonderful; it was all for God, after all. But being godly means being honest, and she has to tell the truth. Her truth is pretty grim, as you learn when she explains why she wasn’t able to attend classes at the masjid:

“…I just found that it was too hard to go out with the kids. I had four and then my co wife died about a month after she got there and she had 3 kids and I had one on the way, so it was just too much for me. MashaAllah after my co wife died, my Arabic teacher held class in my house so I didn’t have to go out for class, may Allah reward her.”

I’d say that’s a pretty good excuse, personally: “I had four [kids] and then my co-wife died…” Whatever else you can say about the pilgrims of Darul al Hadeeth, wimps they were not. As if to emphasize that, here’s what she writes under the heading “Miscellaneous”:

“The only other thing that shook me down there besides the fighting was the scorpions, lol. I counted 11 altogether throughout our stay there. That was something very new for me. They were small, but still rattled me each time I saw one. The black ones are poisonous, but I think I only had the brown ones there.”

Just the brown ones? What are you complaining about, then? You get a sense of her real reaction in that wonderful litotes, “That was something very new for me.” Yes, you never forget your first scorpion in the kitchen! “Rattled” doesn’t even begin to describe what 11 scorpions would do to me, pick any color you want.

She sounds kind of sweet, actually. A lot of Salafis I knew in Najran were like this (though they changed when we all got transferred to Riyadh, where they hung out with fellow “reverts” and pointedly ignored us kaffirs.) They were, above all, ordinary people. Not much humor or imagination; a bit old-fashioned; cheery (very much the “lol” style of communication) but decent folk . . . as long as you stay away from certain subjects. Anything involving religion, of course—but the trouble is that if you’re a serious Sunni, just about everything is either halal or haram, and the “haram” column is a lot longer and more important than the “halal” one.

One Somali-Canadian from Toronto I knew was the nicest person you could meet until someone mentioned gays. He got murderously angry when that came up. And in addition to his Salafist prejudices he had those of Anglo Canada, too, so you didn’t want to mention Quebec or its inhabitants either. He’s back in Canada now, and I don’t think he represents any danger to anyone, unless he should happen to encounter a gay couple conversing in French. If that ever happens…I hate to think.

These kids from around the world coped very well with mud, scorpions, and isolation. What finally drove them away was the other minor annoyance Hassan’s “sister” mentions: “the fighting.”

The pilgrims memorizing Quranic verses and eating beans in the basement didn’t know it, but Darulal Hadeeth was a sectarian provocation, intended as such from the start. The fact that it endured as long as it did was testimony to Sunni strength at the beginning of the 21st century, but it had to fall eventually.

You can’t say that war started in Yemen in 2004, because it had never really stopped. But “the fighting” definitely stepped it up a few notches that year, as the Houthi militias, recruited from Saada Province itself, started taking their home province back from the Yemeni government and its Saudi ally.

The Houthi out-fought the Government troops easily. By 2009, they had retaken all of Saada Province except the little Sunni outpost of Dammaj, guarded by armed Salafi. The Yemen government, noting that they had a source of eager young Sunni fighters up there, started recruiting students from Darul al Hadeeth. After all, “Taliban” means “students.” And Salafi students are oriented, by their creed, toward action rather than mere bookish solitude.

So when the government needed new soldiers for “Operation Scorched Earth” in 2009, they persuaded hundreds of young students from Darul al Hadeeth to join up. Sixty nine of them died, many more were wounded, and the worst fears of the local Shia were confirmed: They were nursing a nest of Sunni vipers in their Shia bosom.

You have to wonder why they waited that long to figure it out. My guess is simple: Money. Those kids up at Darul al Hadeeth might have been heretics, but they were very rich heretics by the standards of rural Yemen. The real-estate prices Hassan al Somali quotes in his blog (“$15-$30/mo.”) might not be high by Oslo standards, but they might’ve been a rise of several hundred percent for local landlords. And vendors of everything those students wanted, from first-world snacks to blankets to scorpion repellent, would have made out too. Many a town has put up with the local students because it loved their money more than it hated their guts.

But even the sweetest deal has to come to an end when the students you gouge are shooting your kin. Only about 30% of small merchants—say 40% to be on the safe side—will go on selling happily under those circumstances.

For a while, town and gown settled for setting up armed checkpoints around Darul al Hadeeth, but these armed standoffs never last. Somebody gets bored or nervous, shoots someone, and it’s on. That happened in Dammaj in November 2011, the Houthi raided Darul al Hadeeth, killing 24 students, including two Indonesians and two Americans.

The fighting went on to the end of 2011, with the Salafis getting the worst of it. The Houthi were local, and the students were more enthusiastic than skilled. Here’s an account of one day, March 30, 2010, from the Salafis inside Darul al Hadeeth:

“Yesterday we buried Umm Ahmad Al-Hajjiyah along with two other students (Muhammad Al-Jazaa'iri and Muhammad Al-Ibbi). Her husband was killed in the tank attack on the Masjid in the Mazraa’ that killed many students during the prayer in the early part of this atrocity. Afterwards Umm Ahmad suffered a miscarriage when the houthis lunched rocket artillery that landed near her home…

“Also yesterday approximately 3:50 p.m. the houthis began shelling the Masjid and its surrounding area again. This is all after a cease-fire agreement has been made.” By 2014, the Houthi were pushing out from Saada, and finally felt strong enough to order all the foreign Salafis out of Dammaj. They were tired of being sniped at, not just literally but verbally, all the time. And it does get tiring, being subjected to that grandiose, repetitious Salafi scolding all the time. So, on January 13, 2014, the soon-to-be-ex government of Mansur Hadi made a deal handing over Saada Province to the Houthi. And for the first time, that included Darul al Hadeeth. Every Salafi inside had to leave, on short notice.

The inhabitants seem to have been shocked, assuming that Hadi, as a fellow Sunni, would protect them:

“A spokesperson for Salafi citizens in Dammaj, Sroor Al-Wadie, said the government-brokered deal was not fair to the Salafis.

“‘After three months of fighting, we were hoping that President [Abdu Rabu Mansour] Hadi would stop the war in Dammaj and punish the Houthis, but we were shocked that he rewarded them by delivering Dammaj to them.’” You can hear all the naiveté and goofiness of the whole enterprise in that reaction. For years, the Houthi had been advancing against government forces, but when the terrified sleaze Hadi finally cut a deal to try to save his doomed regime, these Salafis holed up in the very heartland of the Houthi were shocked, shocked, shocked. There was talk about relocating them to the Red Sea coast, where the locals would be friendlier, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. You can catch up with some of Darul’s alumnae on their blog, “Siege of Dammaj,” full of rants about “Houthi murderers.”

Even after years of war, there were a lot of people in Darul al Hadeeth, “200 families, more than 8,000 individuals.” Real-estate agents in Dammaj must have wept, if no other locals did, because Dammaj, minus the Salafis, will now become a deserted village like most of the others in rural Yemen.

It was as if the sheer power (and money, and guns, of course) of the Sunni revival held Darul al Hadeeth in place against all logic for a third of a century, until the start of the Shia pushback we’re seeing now. And it does give a nice touch of irony to the name that Somali-American gave his blog: “Fear the Dunya.” They were right to fear reality; it caught up with them after all.

[Image credit: Red Cross]