When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Tribal Governance

In addition to the Islamic and civic legal codes that apply to the Mahra as Muslims and citizens of the Republic of Yemen - on the ropes though the unified Republic may be - inter- and intra-tribal relations are further regulated by ʿurf, the collected dictates of tribal custom passed down through the generations and adjudicated by specialists (Ar. marjaʿ pl. marājiʿ) who are versed in its application.  Typically, the leader (muqaddam) of each tribe or lineage is also its marjaʿ.   Currently, the "general marjaʿ " (Ar. al-marjaʿ al-ʿāmm) of al-Mahra is appointed from within the Bin Yāsir lineage of the Raʿfīt tribe.

In the pre-Republican era, the paramount rulers – the sultans – of al-Mahra were drawn from the Ṭawʿarī lineage of the Āl ʿAfrār tribe.  The selection of a new sultan proceeded as an internal election within the Āl ʿAfrār tribe since (in principle) the title of sultan was not inherited from father to son.  The right of the Āl ʿAfrār to select the Mahri sultan was balanced by the fact that their candidate needed to find general approval among the Mahri tribes, who judged the acceptability of a candidate on the basis of his impartiality, the strength of his personality, and degree of education in social and religious matters (al-Mahrī, 1983, 143). Until 1967, the ʿAfrārī sultan was the head of the nominally independent Mahri Sulṭānate of Qishn and Soqōtrā.  However, the Mahri Sultanate was a British protectorate from 1886 onwards and surrendered control of its foreign policy to the British in exchange for financial and diplomatic support.

Under the Mahri Sulṭānate, different responsibilities were assigned to different tribes; this practice is customarily attributed to “the era of Saʿīd bin Tawʿarī al-ʿAfrār” (al-Mahrī, 1983, 143); that is, prior to the Kathīrī occupation of Qishn in 1546.  For instance, the muqaddams of the Zwēdī tribe claimed the title of “sayf al-dawla” (chief military commander) of the Mahri state and the Zwēdī bore the responsibility for the personal safety of the ʿAfrārī sulṭāns. This honor was no doubt linked to the tradition that the mother of Saʿd bin ʿIsā, the first ʿAfrārī sulṭān, sought the protection of her Zwēdī relatives against the depredations of the Kathīrī sulṭān, Badr bin Ṭuwayriq. For more information on the relationship of the Āl ʿAfrār to the Zwēdī tribe, see "The Mahra, the Āl Kathīr, and the Portuguese". 

Under the ʿAfrārī Sultanate, the Bayt Yāsir lineage of Raʾfīt (based in Jāḏeb) was charged with determining the size of fines and penalties owed by wrongdoers (al-Mahrī, 1983, 143).  This crucial responsibility has persisted through the Republican era; Bayt Yāsir is still viewed as the highest authority in matters of customary law.  Similarly, the Bā ʿAbduh shaykhly lineage (based in Qishn) was responsible for providing the ʿAfrārī state with its chief judicial authorities; this responsibility is currently echoed in their role of nominating the chief religious authority of al-Mahra (muftī al-diyār al-mahriyya) from their midst.

Other tribal or shaykhly lineages are distinguished by their specialization in particular fields of ʿurf due to a long history of association with a certain line of work.  For instance, the marājiʿ of Bayt Kuddah (who inhabit the inland deserts) are famously equipped to deal with questions relating to camels while the marājiʿ  of Gēdeḥ (from the coastal districts of Qishn) specialize in issues relating to fishing.

In the pre-Republican era, tribal assemblies were occasionally convened that brought together different tribes and different tribal confederacies to discuss and resolve issues that concerned them. The largest of these semi-regular, ad hoc assemblies was convened in al-Ghaydha; the last one was convened in 1962, a few years prior to the dissolution of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate and its annexation to the PSRY (renamed the PDRY shortly thereafter) in 1967.  After the ʿAfrārī sultans adopted Soqōṭrā as their primary residence, a tribal assembly  was convened in Qishn on an annual basis to coincide with the sulṭān's month-long visit to the mainland.  Membership in this assembly was open to all tribes that abided by the government’s decisions concerning intertribal treaties and agreements.  Membership in the ad hoc tribal assemblies was open to all the tribes of al-Mahra, including Arabic-monolingual tribes that had settled in al-Mahra in historical time (the Āl Kathīr and the Manāhīl) even if they were not formally subjects of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate.  A pan-Mahri tribal assembly has recently been reconvened in al-Mahra in response to the collapse of the Republic of Yemen in 2014.  This assembly is linked to the current scion of the Āl ʿAfrār, ʿIsā b. ʿAlī b. ʿAfrār, who has become very active in al-Mahra and Soqōṭrā in the last few years and likely views the restoration of a tribal order as a means for the rehabilitation of his family's political fortunes.   

Finally, moral and religious authority could be brought to bear on political and social matters by the class of ʾashrāf (or sayyids) as well as the caretakers of shrines dedicated to saints (Ar. ʾawliyāʾ) since these sites served as demilitarized zones where truces could be negotiated and oaths sworn.  While the lineage of Belḥāf generally bore the responsibility for the maintenance of saints’ graves, this work was also undertaken by ūfīs who played a far more prominent role in the pre-Republican era (as in the case of Bir Frēǧ) than they do at present.  One such site was the Qubbat al-Fanṭūs at the coastal debouchment of the Wādī Gēzaʾ near Mḥayfīf.  At one time, “The Man of the Fanṭūs” (Ṣāḥib al-fanṭūs, “fanṭūs” being a clay-lined, covered trough used for storing sardine-oil) was the presiding genius of the sardine-oil storage industry; nowadays, the shrine dedicated to him is a derelict ruin.

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