When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Tribal Mahra

The majority of the population of al-Mahra (Mahri speaking or Arabic monolingual) belong to one of roughly twenty-five tribes, each of which is divided into lineages or clans (Ar. fakhīdha, pl. fakhāʾidh). Technically speaking, each tribe selects its political leader (muqaddam) from a single shaykhly lineage within its ranks; in reality, the position of muqaddam is inherited. The muqaddam avoids direct involvement in actual fighting between tribes; his person is generally held to be inviolable. During periods of intertribal hostility, a military leader is appointed on an ad hoc basis to lead the tribe on raids or into battle.

The tribal population of Mahri society can be divided into three primary confederacies: a) the Ṣāʿir/Ṣār/Sār, b) the Śrōweḥ (Ar. Sharāwiḥ) and c) the Šēḥaḥ/Šḥīḥ/Šaḥšaḥ. These confederacies (often reduced to a binary configuration through the elision of the third group, the Šēḥaḥ) echo tribal polarities found elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula. The two most prominent examples of moietization in Arabian tribal society are the Hināwī-Ghāfirī division in Oman and the Qaḥṭānī-ʿAdnānī division in the premodern Arab world, both of which reflect a similar divide in the popular imagination between an indigenous population and a population that is felt to be, if not entirely foreign, then less indigenous than its counterpart.

The ʿAfrār tribe has held the paramount leadership among the Mahra since at least the early sixteenth century and, for this reason, its leaders merit the title of sultan. A social and historical anomaly, the tribe of ʿAfrār is one of the smallest of the Mahri tribes and lists a single fakhīdha among its ranks: the Tawʿarā. It is possible that the ʿAfrār dynasty emerged from non-tribal roots and was granted tribal status to justify its preeminent political role.

While matrilineal lineages and uxorilocal marriage are not unheard of in present-day al-Mahra, they are not as prevalent as they were in the past, when it appears that tribal affiliation was frequently passed down through the maternal line.

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