Doha, Qatar – A little-known word became a rousing hymn of national pride, first for a country under a regional diplomatic boycott in 2017 and again when Qatar, against all odds, won the Asian Cup football tournament in 2019.
Shoomilah, Shoomilah didn’t come off the field, but that didn’t stop it from becoming the unofficial anthem of the Qatar national football team.
Using the language of courtship as a metaphor to describe a relationship of support and admiration between a nation and its leader, the song instantly captured hearts and minds in Qatar. It played everywhere, even at weddings.
Shoomilah (strive for him) is an old Arabic expression, used in a more recent tradition to advise young women of marriage age to choose the best warrior as their suitor.
The song first came to prominence on December 18, 2017, when Qatar celebrated its first national holiday after its neighbors Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain announced a blockade.
On June 5 of that year, the four countries severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar and imposed a naval, land and air blockade, claiming that Qatar supported “terrorism” and was too close to their rival Iran. Qatar denied the allegations.
شومي له😭🇶🇦🇶🇦🇶🇦🇶🇦 pic.twitter.com/pmBxRMeSpN
— Fatma Alzahraa (@Fatalzaa) February 1, 2019
The blockade lasted for more than three years, during which expressions of defiance spread in Qatar, motivating poet and lyricist Ayedh bin Ghidah who said he wanted to “provide a metaphorical response to the attacks on Qatar – which sought to undermine the loyalty of Qataris to question their leadership. – during the blockade”.
Its lyrics urged a metaphorical woman “with beautiful eyelashes” to “strive for the swordsman, a true sheikh whose views please those around him”, who “has been special since a young age” and whose “actions show his perseverance” .
The Mystery of Shoomilah
The meaning of shoomilah was a mystery to many.
“I had heard of it, but wasn’t sure of its exact meaning… it’s not used very often,” said Sabah Al Kuwari, the general manager of Al Rayyan TV at the time, who oversaw its production.
“It is mainly the elderly who use it,” Al Kuwari told Al Jazeera Arabic in 2019 for the documentary Songs of the Gulf, adding that he liked the song from the start, but that when he played it for someone, “they said, ‘I don’t think you should do the production or promote it because it’s not going to be a hit’.
Bin Ghidah, who started writing poetry in grade school, said when he shared the piece, “some people said the lyrics were too stiff”, but he felt they would be “mysterious and intriguing”.
“People still ask me about the meaning of Shoomilah to this day,” bin Ghidah told Al Jazeera.
“It means ‘to strive for him’. It is an expressive image of the Qatari nation that rose to the occasion and showed loyalty and support to its leader in the midst of the blockade.”
In the lyricist’s imagination, the Emir is “steadfast … shows unwavering will.”
“We are the supporters of his rule and we are his army. We bow to him. Tell him your people have pledged allegiance to you. Tell him,” it says.
In Songs of the Gulf, bin Ghidah clarified that while the word may be uncommon today, it is “part of our tradition, our environment and our language”.
It comes from Nabati Arabic poetry, he said, referring to a Bedouin language style that differs from classical Arabic.
When Qatar won its first Asian Cup in 2019, Shoomilah, Shoomilah crossed borders and grew in popularity, especially in Kuwait and Oman, neutral countries in the Gulf crisis.
Some fans said they liked Kuwaiti singer Ibrahim Dashti’s energetic version with its artful percussions, while others prefer Yemeni singer Maria Qahtan’s rendition.
Instagram influencer Zahra Al Ansari told Al Jazeera that the song evoked a “feeling of pride” [of] being a Qatari”.
Human resources professional Ghaliya Al Baker compared the national anthem to a ‘logo’ like Tamim Al Majd, but set to music.
She was referring to the famous silhouette of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, which became a familiar sight when Qatari and locals displayed it on cars, shop windows, walls and more in a show of support and national pride during the boycott.
“It’s a good song to represent Qatar and its football team worldwide,” said Al Baker.
So how did Shoomilah, Shoomilah end up being associated with The Annabi, the Qatar national team?
In 2019, so the story goes, players of the Qatar national team sang it in their dressing room on January 29 after defeating the UAE in the Asian Cup semi-final in Abu Dhabi, urging the cup to find the right suitors select.
A video of the team singing was shared on Twitter a few days later, the day of the last game against Japan.
Shoomilah, Shoomilah was played for the team by one of the players, according to Thomas Ross Griffin, author of Homeland: National Identity Performance in the Qatar National Team, a chapter in the book Football in the Middle East.
The player told Griffin, “I made a deal with my teammates… before we start the game, we put Shoomilah on to motivate us and also after the game to celebrate.”
Even players who couldn’t understand all the lyrics, Griffin noted in the book, felt the team was “increasingly empowered to represent Qatar.”
Qataris feel the song will stick as their football anthem and encourage their players to win.
Last year, around 60,000 people gathered at Al Bayt Stadium and chanted after Qatar defeated Bahrain 1-0 in the opening match of the FIFA Arab Cup.
On November 20, Qatar will make its World Cup debut as host country and will face Ecuador in the same stadium. Shoomilah, Shoomilah will be heard from the galleries like a rallying cry as fans urge the Maroons to give it their all.