When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Tribal Confederacies

There is a general conviction in al-Mahra that every Mahri tribe belongs to one of three confederacies: the Ṣāʿir/Ṣār/Sār confederacy, the Śrōweḥ (Ar. Sharāwiḥ) confederacy, and the Šēḥaḥ/Šḥīḥ/Šaḥšaḥ confederacy. The names are subject to considerable variation; this is due to their different articulation in Arabic and Mahri, as well as the fact that these groups are evolving phenomena whose constituent members, origins, and purposes lie in an immanent zone of the Mahri social and political consciousness. This appears to be most acutely the case for the Šēḥah group, which is perhaps the most recently emerged of the three confederacies and is therefore more open to interpretation. According to some Mahra, these groups should be understood as political confederacies or alliances but are not necessarily indicative of a shared lineage (al-Qumayrī, 2003: 10). In other cases, a common ancestor is claimed who binds members of the same group through consanguinity (as tends to be the case in online discussions posted to almahrah.net, which is currently defunct).

These divisions do not have much political or social significance in the recent history of al-Mahra, unlike, for instance, the Ghāfirī-Hināwī division of Omani tribes, which was reified during a dynastic struggle in the early eighteenth century CE and reflects a general religious distinction (Sunni vs. ʾIbāḍi Islam) in contemporary Oman. Similarly, the Qaḥṭānite-ʿAdnānite division of Arab tribes played a significant role in the dynastic politics of the medieval Arab-Islamic state, and its effects could still be felt in the early modern era. However, its influence on the contemporary politics of the Middle East is nonexistent.

In all cases, these social cleavages suggest a binary between indigenous and unmixed populations on the one hand, and immigrant populations who subsequently adopted local customs, languages, and lineages on the other. Thus, both the Qaḥṭānī group of Arab tribes and Hināwī group of Omani Arab tribes customarily evoke nativist associations. The Qaḥṭānī Arabs are considered to be Arabic speaking as far back as the lineage extends and to descend from “undiluted” Arab ancestry. The Hināwī group of Omani tribes is populated by indigenous South Arabian tribes that adhere to the local ʾIbāḍite sect of Islam (Peterson, 2003: 1).  Conversely, the ʿAdnānī and Ghāfirī groups are associated with northern, “Arabicised” peoples who adopted the language—Arabic—and customs of the early Qaḥtānite Arabs. However, the constituency of these groups does not always follow the logic described above and the assignment of individual social groups to a confederacy should be viewed within the construction of an idealized social and political imaginary.

However, the same logic that distinguishes between a nativist/revanchist group and and an assimilationist group within the Qaḥṭānī-ʿAdnānī and Ghāfirī-Hināwī groupings obtains for the Mahra between the Sharāwiḥ (Mhr. Śrōwiḥ) and the Sār confederacies (Dostal, 1967: 77 and Carter, 1982: 60). This is also the opinion of a contemporary Mahri scholar, ʿAlī Saʿīd Bākrīt: “The tribes of al-Mahra come in two types: the Mahri tribes that originated and reside in the land of al-Mahra and the others that arrived from beyond al-Mahra and with the passage of time, affiliated themselves [intasabat ʾilā] to Mahri society” (Bākrīt, 1999: 37).

The polarization of Mahri society described by Dostal, Carter, and Bākrīt is attested for al-Mahra in early historical accounts. For instance, al-Hamdānī describes a rivalry between two groups of Mahra, the Banū Khanzarīt and the Banū Thughrā, the latter of whom assimilated Arab immigrants from the tribe of ʾAzd into their ranks in order to expel the Banū Khanzarīt from Raysūt (al-Hamdānī, 1974: 66-67). Elsewhere, al-Hamdānī divides the Mahra into an “eloquent” (faṣīḥ)—that is, Arabic-speaking—group and an “incomprehensible” (ghutm) group whose speech is like that of “foreigners (ʿajam) (al-Hamdānī, 1974: 193, 277). Suggestively, al-Hamdānī places the Banū Thughrā, who include “Mahri-ized” Arabs in their ranks, in the eloquent Arabic-speaking group; presumably the incomprehensible group consisted of the Mahri “indigenes.” As Dostal indicates, al-Ṭabarī’s account of the Apostasy War (or, Ridda War) contains another suggestion of polarization in Mahri society between the indigenes and “immigrants.” When the  Muslim military commander ʿIkrima attempted to restore Abu Bakr’s authority over al-Mahra, he allied himself with a Mahri confederation led by Shakhrīt/Šaḫrīt against the recidivist Banū Muḥārib, who remained hostile to the caliphate and withdrew to the mountains. Dostal proposes an etymological connection between “Shakhrīt,” “Sharāwiḥ,” and Ibn al-Mujāwir’s reference to the Mahra as the “Saḥara” (Dostal, 1989: 29). However, I suggest that “Shakhrīt” and “Saḥara” are more probably Arabicised articulations of Mahri and Jibbālī term "śḥayr," which is roughly translatable as the mountain range overlooking the plains of Dhofār and is the etymological source for the Śhērī language and the people who speak it. But the point remains the same: early historical evidence documents a polarization in Mahri society between indigenes and immigrants that exists into the present era.

Given the fluid nature of tribal relationships, even this basic binary pattern is currently being redrawn. The most recent descriptions of Mahri society written by native Mahri authors describe a three-way distinction between the Ṣāʿir/Ṣār/Sār, the Śrōweḥ, and Šēḥaḥ/Šḥīḥ/Šaḥšaḥ. While the tribes that belong to the Śrōweḥ/Sharāwiḥ confederacy have remained the same (the “indigenes,” according to Dostal), many of the tribes listed under Dostal’s Sār heading (the “immigrant” Mahra) have since been recategorized as belonging to the Šēḥaḥ/Šḥīḥ/Šaḥšaḥ group. Because Mahri authors do not publicly identify indigenous versus immigrant groups, it is unclear what this shift entails. Based on discussion threads on www.almahrah.net, the implications of belonging to the Šēḥaḥ are not clear to the Mahra themselves.

I suggest that a number of Mahri tribes formally belonging to the immigrant Sār group are graduating to the intermediate Šēḥaḥ group on their way to full membership in the indigenous Śrōweḥ group. The reason for this shift may be prompted by the ongoing assimilation of Bayt Āl Kathīr tribes into Mahri tribal society. In contemporary accounts of tribal lineages in al-Mahra written by local authors, space is being made for the Āl Kathīr to assume common ancestry with their Mahri neighbors (Bākrīt, 1999: 42 and al-ʾAhdal, 1999: 81). As immigrant Āl Kathīr households adopt the Mahri language (the one case in contemporary al-Mahra where Arabic monolinguals are adopting Arabic-Mahri bilingualism), the mechanism of assimilation through shifting confederacies can be witnessed in real time. Formerly immigrant lineages are graduated to the indigenous Śrōweḥ confederacy through a Šēḥaḥ intermediary; this, in turn, leaves space available on the immigrant side of Mahri society for tribal newcomers to claim the resources and access due to local and indigenous tribes.

The tribal membership of the three confederacies can been found in the list of tribes. All tribes attributed to the Šēḥaḥ confederacy in the list that I have compiled are attributed to the Sār confederacy by Dostal (Dostal, 1967: 77).

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