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Obituary: Ahmed Qasim Dammaj

The poet Ahmed Qasim Dammaj (center) with Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqaleh (right)

[This post was originally published in 2017 on the old AIYS blog, which is no longer available, and is reposted here.]

by Salwa Dammaj, his daughter

The genius poet and much respected activist Ahmed Qasim Dammaj died aged 77 on Tuesday morning January 4, 2017 in the Military Hospital in the capital Sanaa. His body was laid down in his final rest in the graveyard of the "Friday Dignity Martyrs" in Sanaa. In a huge funeral held Wednesday hundreds of mourners paid tribute. The mourners included high rank Yemeni officials, writers, authors, journalists, academics, politicians, activists, social dignitaries and ordinary people.
 Yemen's great poet and intellectual Dr Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh took part in the funeral. Dr Al-Maqaleh was Dammaj's intimate friend and long standing fellow. He described Dammaj's death as "a grave lose for creativity during these circumstances". He had been a veteran freedom fighter who participated in the revolution of the 26 of September and 14 of October", said Dr Al-Maqaleh.‬

Official authorities, political parties and trade unions all paid tributes to the late Ahmed Qasim Dammaj. Both the incumbent president Abd Rabu Hadi and the former president Ali Saleh mourned him in cables of condolences in which they highly praised the role Dammaj played in building up the political and trade union organizations in the country. Hadi's statement read: “Ahmed Qasim Dammaj was a great patriotic figure, with noble values, virtues and very good track record. Our thoughts with his family".‬ For his part, the former president Saleh considered Dammaj a man of principles. “Few Yemeni intellectuals, like Ahmed Qasim Dammaj, had really held unalterable national convictions and principles. Dammaj had already set a good example as a patriotic activist and NGO leader. Our sympathy with his family", Saleh said in his  statement.‬

‬The Union of Yemeni Writers and Authors gave high praise to the departed Dammaj.  A mourning statement issued by the union read:  “With the death of the great poet and veteran freedom fighter, Ahmed Qasim Dammaj, Yemen has missed one of the most influential patriotic persons who had actively and effectively contributed toward establishing the NGO’s, on top of all the Union of the Yemeni Writers and Authors." The Union's mourning statement went on saying: "Dammaj was one of the founders who played a key role in promoting Civil Society organizations and he had  heralded the notion of the country’s reunion." The statement added: “It is a grave lose to miss the wisdom of this great man and it is saddening to miss his patriotic voice at this critical moment."
The Ministry of Culture paid Dammaj tributes in a press release describing Dammaj as a genius poet and pioneer activist. The statement read: “The late Ahmed Qasim Dammaj had led a colorful patriotic career and played an enlightening cultural role. Dammaj had made significant contribution to Yemen's modern culture and literature". The Ministry of Culture's statement continued: “Ahmed Qasim's ordeal during his detention as a hostage had inspired the genius novelist Zaid Moti'ea Dammaj, Ahmed's cousin, to compose his magnificent novel titled: "Al-Rahinah", which means hostage." Al-Rahina was translated into several languages and described as one of the best 100 novels in the 20th century. The late Ahmed Qasim was frequently referred to as the character hero of Al-Rahina.

The Ministry of Culture also held a mourning  session in the Yemeni embassy in Cairo. The Minister of Culture, Marwan Dammaj, the son of the late Ahmed Qasim, received condolences from Arab diplomats, Egyptian and Arab writers and authors. The president of Arab Writers and Authors, Dr Ali Aoqla Arsan, extended his  own condolences and on behalf of Arab writers and intellectuals to Mr Marwan and Yemeni people on the death of Ahmed Qasim.

The highly respected poet Ahmed Qasim had led a terribly troubled life. He was born in 1939 in the village of Dhi el-Mahasin of al-Naqilain district of Asyani area in Ibb governorate. Five years later, 1944 he had been ruthlessly pulled out from his mother and family to be taken as a hostage by the official authority. He was held as  a hostage along with 12 more boys of his family by the Imamate despotic regime that used to hold young boys of the prominent and influential sheikhs as hostages to ensure their loyalty. Ahmed's Qasim uncle, sheikh Moti'ea Dammaj had been a leading figure of the opposition movement against the regime of Imam Yahya Hameed al-Din. At that time Moti'ea moved to Aden to act against the Imamate’s oppressive and theocratic ruling. The unfortunate boy Ahmed Qasim had to suffer for seven years as a hostage in Al-Qahira castle in  the city of Taiz. Two boys out of the dozen who were held hostages had survived, Dammaj was one of them.  At the meantime 16 men of the Dammaj family had been imprisoned in the Imamate regime's jails in Hajjah governorate, among them Ahmed's father, Sheikh Qasim Dammaj.

After Ahmed had been released as one of the youngest hostages, his uncle Moti'ea was able to commit him to a very strict teaching program aimed to enable him to compensate for the years he spent out of schooling. As a bright young man, Ahmed Qasim had early come to realize that the Imamate theocratic ruling was the grassroots of Yemen's problems and Yemen’s long standing ordeal; therefore he desperately sought for political change. To this end, he engaged in political activities and trade unions.

In 1959 Ahmed Qasim Dammaj joined the Pan-Arab Nationalist Movement in Yemen in which he had been one of its prominent founders and outstanding leaders. Later on, he contributed to establishing the Revolutionary Democratic Party. As a zealous leftist young man, Dammaj was a member of a patriotic group that plotted a failed assassination attempt against the Imam Ahmed in the area of Al-Sokhnah of the Hodeida governorate. As a result Dammaj and his colleagues were subjected to a crackdown campaign by the Imamate authorities. Ahmed Qasim Dammaj contributed to creating the first clandestine trade union of the workers in the northern part of Yemen at that time. This was the Association of the Fourth Point where he had worked.

When the 26 September revolution broke out in 1962, he contributed actively and enthusiastically to the revolutionary change in different fields.  He contributed along with Abdullah Al-Wusabi, Malik Al-Iryani and others to the establishment of the journal Al-Thawrah in the city of Taiz. He also contributed toward creating the national guards and his was among the first patriotic battalions that had managed to destroy the royalist forces' barracks in the city of Sa'ada. He was involved in fierce battles and injured for the first time in the area of Harf Sufyan. Dammaj was appointed as Secretary General of the premiership, to be the first person to hold this posit in Yemen in the post-revolution era. However, he decided to resign in protest against the government participation in the conference of Haradh that brought the revolutionists and royalists together to explore political reconciliation.

In the wake of the political coup on November 5, 1967 he was detained, then he was released and contributed to create the popular resistance that helped to ease the siege on Sanaa. Later on, he moved to Ibb governorate in order to lead the popular resistance. He was wounded for the second time in the region of Kuhlan Yarim. After that he was arrested and imprisoned for a long time by the authorities that carried out a coup in August 1968. Dammaj had contributed actively toward creating the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate, where he acted as the chairman of the preparatory committee. Most importantly, he contributed to the establishment of the Union of the Yemeni Writers and Authors, which was the first united organization to be created in the country prior to the Yemeni reunion in 1990. He became the second president of the union following Yemen's great poet, Abdullah Al-Baradduni. He would retain that post for three consecutive times due to his good performance and as he proved a consensus man enjoying the trust of all writers and authors.

Ahmed Qasim Dammaj had proved to be a creative poet by all accounts. His original poetical talent enabled him to pen dozens of poems that are classified as first class in modern Yemeni poetry. Regretfully, Dammaj's deep involvement in politics and his engagement in the trade unions' activities did not give enough time to be a prolific poet.

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