When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Non-Affiliated Mahra: Non-Tribal or Tribal Dependents

Non-tribal Mahri speakers or tribal associates compose a substantial population of al-Mahra. This category is diverse because there are a number of reasons why individuals or families may not possess a recognized tribal lineage. In fact, many who belong to this category possess tribal lineages, but their clans have so few individuals that they have associated with other tribes for convenience and other services (mawālī). Many of the lineages within a tribe were no doubt once independent tribes that were subsumed by a larger tribe through marriage or for protection. While mawālī claim all of the rights and responsibilities of tribesmen, they may not participate in the election of the leadership of their adoptive tribes. Further, many tribesmen have turned to sharecropping due to economic hardship; this is particularly true along the banks of Wadi Masīla and its debouchment near Sayḥūt.  Having surrendered their economic autonomy to work for a wage, tribesmen who work in agriculture often surrender some of their social prestige as well.

Many contemporary Mahri speakers and citizens of al-Mahra are the descendants of East African slaves who were manumitted in 1967 or before. Although the Afro-Mahra may lack a tribal lineage, this is not necessarily an obstacle to economic or political advancement. Many currently occupy the important managerial and military roles in local government or have distinguished themselves in the cultural sphere. Indeed, wealth cannot be correlated to social status in al-Mahra. While many Afro-Mahra maintain close proximity with their former owners in the capacity of household retainers and agricultural laborers, others have departed for al-Ghaydha or have left al-Mahra entirely.

While tribal Mahra may disdain marriage with a Mahri of African descent, the opposite is also true because many Afro-Mahra consider tribal Mahra to be uncouth and poorly educated. Afro-Mahra may not be viewed as inherently Mahri by tribal Mahra since they neither claim an indigenous lineage or speak a mixed Mahri-Haḍrami Arabic patois known dismissively as ẓanniyya. This latter charge is dismissed by Afro-Mahra who indicate no linguistic differences between themselves and tribal Mahra. Indeed, many of the last speakers of the critically endangered Hobyōt language are Afro-Mahra from Hawf who have preserved this language even though it has died out among indigenous Arabian families.

After the US Embassy bombings in Kenya in 1998, a small number of Mahra who were born and raised in East Africa were involuntarily repatriated to al-Mahra. Many spoke Swahili and English more proficiently than either Mahri or Arabic, and they felt marginalized in al-Mahra due to their more cosmopolitan upbringing. They were accepted by neither tribal Mahra nor Mahra of African descent, and many chafed at being “exiled” to Yemen.

Between al-Ghaydha proper and the neighboring village of ʿAbrī, there is a very poor district inhabited by destitute Yemenis who pursue low-caste occupations such trash disposal, musical performance, and butchering. While a number were recent refugees from Somalia, many were not and appeared to be descendants of ʾakhdām or "Banī Khums” who had settled in al-Mahra many decades, if not centuries, earlier.

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