Doha, Qatar – A little-known word became a rousing anthem 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 did not originate on the pitch but that did not stop it from becoming the Qatari national football team’s unofficial anthem.
Using the language of courtship as metaphor to describe a relationship of support and admiration between a nation and its leader, the song captured hearts and minds in Qatar right away. It played everywhere, even at weddings.
Shoomilah (aspire to him) is an old Arabic phrase, used in more recent tradition to advise young women of marriage age to choose the finest warrior as their suitor.
The song first came to prominence on December 18, 2017, when Qatar celebrated its first national day after its neighbours Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain announced a blockade on it.
On June 5 that year, the four countries severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar and imposed a sea, land and air blockade, claiming 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 more than three years, during which expressions of defiance proliferated in Qatar, motivating poet and lyricist Ayedh bin Ghidah who said he wanted to “give a metaphorical reply to the attacks on Qatar – which tried to question Qataris’ loyalty to their leadership – during the blockade”.
His lyrics urged a metaphorical woman “with beautiful eyelashes” to “aspire to the swordsman, a true sheikh whose stands please those around him”, who “has been special since a young age” and whose “actions show his persistence”.
The mystery of Shoomilah
The meaning of shoomilah was a mystery to many.
“I’d heard of it but wasn’t sure about its precise meaning … it’s not often used,” said Sabah Al Kuwari, then-general manager of Al Rayyan TV, which oversaw its production.
“It’s mostly elders 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 won’t be a hit’.”
Bin Ghidah, who started writing poetry in primary school, said that 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 to this day about the meaning of Shoomilah,” bin Ghidah told Al Jazeera.
“It means ‘aspire to him’. It is an expressive image of the Qatari nation that rose to the occasion and showed loyalty and support to its leader amid the blockade.”
In the imagination of the lyricist, the emir is “steadfast … shows unwavering will”.
“We are the supporters of his rule and we are his army. We bend for him. Tell him that your people pledged loyalty to you. Tell him,” it goes.
In Songs of the Gulf, bin Ghidah clarified that while the word might be uncommon today, it is “part of our tradition, our environment, and language”.
It originates from Nabati Arabic poetry, he said, referring to a Bedouin vernacular style deviating from classical Arabic.
When Qatar won its first Asian Cup in 2019, Shoomilah, Shoomilah crossed borders, growing 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 are partial to Yemeni singer Maria Qahtan’s rendition.
Instagram influencer Zahra Al Ansari told Al Jazeera the song evoked a “proud feeling [of] being a Qatari”.
Human resources professional Ghaliya Al Baker likened the 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 as Qataris and residents 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 associated with The Annabi, the Qatar national team?
In 2019, the story goes, Qatari national team players sang it in their locker room on January 29 after defeating the UAE in the Asian Cup semifinals in Abu Dhabi, urging the cup to choose the right suitors.
A video of the team singing was shared on Twitter a few days later, the day of the final game against Japan.
Shoomilah, Shoomilah had been 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 give us motivation and also after the game to celebrate.”
Even players who could not understand all the lyrics, Griffin noted in the book, felt it gave the team “more and more power to represent Qatar”.
Qataris feel the song will stick around as their football anthem, encouraging their players to win.
Last year, about 60,000 people gathered at Al Bayt stadium and sang it after Qatar defeated Bahrain 1-0 in the inaugural match of the FIFA Arab Cup.
On November 20, Qatar will make its World Cup debut as hosts, taking on Ecuador at the same stadium. Shoomilah, Shoomilah will be heard from the galleries as a rallying cry as fans exhort the Maroons to give it their all.