By Theo Padnos
Theo Padnos holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and has lived and studied in both Syria and Yemen.
The worst moments in the siege of Dammaj came in late November and early December of last year. During those weeks, the villagers in this little-visited, extraordinarily pious settlement in the northwest corner of Yemen had no access to the only hospital in the region, and dwindling supplies of food. Meanwhile, from day to day, snipers in the hills picked off the citizens as they walked to their mosque.
The origins of this conflict lie in the age-old Sunni-Shia split. The attacking army is made up of fighters who adhere to a tradition within Shia Islam known as Zaydism. Most of the 10,000 villagers are students in an academy that considers itself one of the world's foremost centers for the study of Sunni Islam. The students say they have come to this high-altitude valley to live as scholars and to memorize. The Zaydis reply that their "academy" is a conspiracy funded by Saudi-Salafi zealots, and that the zealots have established themselves here in order to advance their dream of converting the globe to their Saudi-funded, Shiism-is-heresy version of Islam. On these points, the Zaydis may well be on to something.
ANYONE WHO has traveled in the region will know that Dammaj is an extraordinary feature in the Yemeni landscape. Most of the settlements on this desiccated, high-altitude plateau are ghost towns. Their young people have moved off to the cities or to nearby Saudi Arabia. With no one around to cultivate the land, the houses are being set upon by the advancing desert. Dammaj, in contrast, is a little jewel of grape vineyards, family garden plots, adobe neighborhoods, and makeshift mosques.
Its boom began in the early 1980s, in response to events that had occurred several hundred miles to the north, in Islam's most sacred city. Most of the conspirators who were involved in the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979 were either killed within the mosque or beheaded soon thereafter, but one figure, a professor who was suspected of acting as a spiritual mentor to the conspirators, was only jailed. When this teacher, Muqbil al Wadi, was released, he returned to his native village, a hamlet of grape growers and tall mud fortresses in Northern Yemen. Soon a new academy, funded by whom exactly no one knew, was flourishing there.
At first, the academy did a quiet business catering to Saudi and Yemeni students, along with a sprinkling of ambitious seekers from North Africa and the Levant. In 2001, however, following Sheikh Muqbil's death, a new sheikh permitted internet cafes to open in the village. He allowed the existing students to bring in wives and daughters.
Then came Sept. 11. Far away, in Europe and America, Muslims began to complain of a climate of hostility, especially on airplanes and in subways. Many Western Muslims felt that their governments were expelling the best imams, and that their mosques had become second homes for agents in the state spy agencies. Meanwhile, rumors circulated in the mosques across the West: In a village in Northern Yemen, Islam was as it had been in the time of the Prophet—pure, uncompromising, and gathering strength.
Not long after Sept. 11, cell phone service arrived in the village of Dammaj. Social networks spread across the internet. The students trickled in. When John Burns of The New York Times wrote about the village in 2000, he spoke of "dozens of Westerners, mostly of Arab descent." Nowadays, the Westerners number in the hundreds—and they are not only of Arab descent but also come from Pakistani, Turkish, Nigerian, and Indonesian families who have been living in the West for generations. It's not easy to put an exact number on the Westerners in Dammaj, even when one is living in the village, because the students' wives and daughters, most of whom are not official students, rarely leave their homes. Not all the men have four wives, as Islam allows, but many of the Westerners have more than one.
During the past several weeks, trucks bearing food and medical supplies have made their way into the village, but the students remain in a precarious position. According to their own tally, some 35 of them, including an American called Abdur Rahman Wheat, have been killed to date. Who will protect the rest? In previous decades, this task has fallen to the Yemeni government, but its armies are now too busy falling apart to look after the academy. At present, the Yemeni Shia control all the supply routes to the village. They have superior numbers and heavier arms. They have not yet wiped Dammaj off the map, but if they feel like it, they probably can.
On YouTube, the students have been posting videos which show how they've accommodated to the new order. To hinder incoming sniper fire, they have bricked up the windows in their mosque and draped plastic tarps over alleyways. They have transformed the village pathways into a system of battle trenches, with parapets made from stacks of sandbags.
Meanwhile, to judge by accounts the students have been posting to the internet, they are winning the war, though oddly enough, they are not really fighting. According to the campus discussion board (at aloloom.net) the young people there have rather been busy with their prayers, classes, and ceremonies. Allah himself is taking care of the battle: "The night is shadowed by the sounds of the sniper," writes Abu Laith al Britani in a dispatch from Dammaj that captures the dreamy quality of many of the students' posts, "and when the morning comes, you can see the wonders of Allah and his supreme ability as the Houthies [Shia fighters loyal to the Houthi clan] lay motionless, destroyed, as Allah has caused many to perish, and the praise belongs to Allah."
On this site, the students are always "the believers" and "the Muslims." As for the Shia fighters, they are "dirty dogs," "hypocrites," "the enemies of Allah," and often "raafidah." This last term, "raafidah," is a slur in Yemen which means "rejecters of Islam." It is everywhere on the student website, for instance as follows: "The raafidhah are a group of cowards they just try to snipe from far distance. SO ASK ALLAH TO DESTROY THE RAAFIDHAH." (Abu Fajr as Somali, Nov. 7.)
IN JAN. 2005, I took a job as a reporter for a local paper in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a. During the year I worked at the newspaper, I often bumped into American Muslims at fast food restaurants and at the public basketball courts in Sana'a. The fact that we were hanging around in the same parks and at the same imitation Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the same Yemeni city gave us an instant basis for friendship, I felt. They did not agree. Nor did they want to tell me how they were getting on in their studies, what they were learning, or why they had left America. This, I felt, was unfair. A clique of unfriendly basketball players meant to keep me from an education in Islam? How illiberal, I thought. I liked the Koran and was interested in studying it, even though I was not myself Muslim.
So, professing to share their faith, I enrolled in these students' school. Right away, before the first moment of the first class, I found myself distracted by the crowds in my mosque. Not only did American and Yemeni Muslims study here, I discovered, but so did dozens of Belgians, French, Chechens, Bosnians, and Britons. In subsequent days I heard rumors of far more westerners—"thousands" was the operative word—in the mountains along the Saudi border, in a village of students called Dammaj. It took me about a year to learn enough about Islam to be permitted to travel to this village. I arrived in the fall of 2006.