When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


The Arabian Peninsula is not widely regarded as a site of linguistic diversity. Arabic, the sacred language of Islam, the keystone of Arab nationalism, and the chief vehicle of colloquial and literary expression across the Middle East had already established itself as the primary language of the Arabian Peninsula by the early Islamic period, if not earlier (Hoyland, 2001: 234-36). Yet pockets of non-Arabic, indigenous language speakers have persisted into the present era in small enclaves in southern Arabia. As a graduate student in 2003 with the support of a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Grant and an American Institute for Yemeni Studies Research Fellowship, I took up an eighteen-month residence in the Governorate of al-Mahra in Yemen in order to record the oral poetry of the Mahra, a formerly seminomadic people of southern Arabia who speak one of the last indigenous, non-Arabic languages remaining on the Arabian Peninsula: Mahri (or Mehri, ISO 639-3: GDQ). My interest in recording Mahri poetry was motivated by questions occasioned by my doctoral work in the fields of comparative Semitics and Arabic literature at the University of California at Berkeley under the supervision of Dr. John Hayes, Dr. Margaret Larkin, and Dr. James Monroe. Specifically, I wondered what the contemporary oral poetic traditions preserved by the Mahra could reveal about the composition, performance, and transmission of Arabic poetry in prehistoric antiquity, before written documentation and literary canonization forever altered the nature of the poetic act in the Arabic language.

My initial residence in al-Mahra in 2003-4 and subsequent visits to Yemen and Oman in 2008 and 2012—the latter trips undertaken with the generous support of Middlebury College, the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities—yielded approximately twenty recorded hours of poetic performance in the Mahri language, in both digital audio and video formats. Recording poetry in the Mahri language was the easy part: the Mahra are proud of their orature, and poetry is readily declaimed by the Mahra from all walks of life. The difficulty lay in interpreting the recordings, working out word-by-word transcriptions of individual poems, and rendering accurate translations from the original Mahri to Arabic and thence to English. For this portion of the research, I am eternally grateful to Ḥajj Dākōn, a brilliant discussant and composer of Mahri and Arabic poetry, a patient mentor, and a walking archive of Mahri culture, history, and customs. I am also indebted to many other Mahri speakers in Yemen and Oman who took the time to generously offer their linguistic and cultural expertise to me at various points in my research: Saʿīd Musallim ʾĀmer Ǧīd, Thābit Musallim Bakhīt Hāshim ʾĀmer Ǧīd, ʿAbdallah Ḥabraysh, ʿAskarī Ḥujayrān, Tammām Bu Saʿd Kiddeh, ʿAbdallah ʾAḥmad Sheyl al-Mahrī, ʿAlī bir Nǧēma ʾĀmer Ǧīd al-Mahrī, Muḥammad bir Nǧēma ʾĀmer Ǧīd al-Mahrī, Muḥammad Mushaʿjil, Sālim Luḥaymer al-Qumayrī, Musallim bir Rāmes and Suhayl Zaʿbanōt. I am deeply grateful to Muḥammad Sālim ʿAkkūsh who received me at his home in Aden, welcomed me to al-Ghaydha when I first arrived in 2003, and settled me into a comfortable rental home. I would like to thank ʿAbd al-Sayf al-Qaḥṭānī, my companion during my residency in al-Mahra, who offered support, encouragement, and friendship throughout this very busy time. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the office of the director of the District of Qishn for organizing extraordinary research itineraries whenever I visited Qishn and the work of the Yemeni civil administration and security forces in al-Ghaydha who insured my comfort and well-being in al-Mahra.

This site is about poetry and the recordings contained in this site constitute the largest collection of poetry in the endangered Mahri language currently available to the scholarly community and the public. The audio and visual components of the recordings foreground the oral and frequently extemporized nature of poetic performance among the Mahra. While the poems are accompanied by lexical information and a glossary, the site is best understood as a curated exhibit of poetry rather than as an archive. The latter resource is available through the Endangered Language Archive at the SOAS University London—“The Documentation and Ethnolinguistic Analysis of the Modern South Arabian: Mehri” (depositors: Janet Watson and Miranda Morris)—an extraordinary collection of texts and recordings that cover all aspects of life in al-Mahra and Dhofar. The Mahri language in particular has benefitted by the ongoing scholarship of Antoine Lonnet, Aaron Rubin, Alexander Sima, Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle, and many others. In this regard, I am indebted to Miranda Morris, who offered sage council and encouragement at the start of my fieldwork, and Alexander Sima, who provided crucial advice in transcribing the Mahri language from audio recordings. I would also like to thank Janet Watson, whose scholarly work and advocacy for the Modern South Arabian languages are peerless. I would also like to acknowledge the Language and Nature networking group, the Seminar for Arabian Studies, and the OmanSaM working group for providing me with opportunities to build upon and refine the theoretical core of this work at workshops, conferences, and symposia.­

The development of this site from initial conception to its final form was possible only with the support, guidance, and collaboration of many wonderful people who share the trait of patience in working with a digital neophyte such as myself. As a first step, I would like to thank my student research assistants at Middlebury College, Richard Chen and Dona Tatour, for digitizing and indexing the mini-DV and audio cassette tapes that formed the core of the recordings I brought back from al-Mahra, and Cassandra Wanna for starting work on a lexical index of the poems.  I am deeply grateful to Jim Ralph, dean of faculty development at Middlebury College, and Michael Roy, dean of the library at Middlebury College, for setting me on the path toward digital publication and for putting me in touch with specialists in the digital humanities at Middlebury College and beyond. I would like to thank Rebekah Irwin, director of special collections and archives at the Davis Family Library at Middlebury College, for offering her technical expertise in helping me build the initial version of this site during my sabbatical leave year in 2011-12. The project would not have evolved beyond that initial site if not for the collective insight, guidance, and support of the Digital Liberal Arts (DLA) Initiative at Middlebury College under the directorship of Jason Mittell, who saw how my digital archive could be transformed into a narrative digital exhibit. The project never would have gotten off the ground without the help, guidance, and technical expertise of Alicia Peaker, digital liberal arts postdoctoral fellow at Middlebury College (2014-16), who translated my vague ideas into a workable and meaningful product and who introduced me to the possibilities of digital scholarship. Alicia played a critical role in the conceptualization and execution of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” suite of this exhibit. Thanks to a grant from DLA at Middlebury College, I was able to engage the support of an outstanding summer student research assistant, Jeffrey Holland, whose suggestions and help constructing the site were critical and who built the glossary from ground up. I would like to offer additional thanks to the DLA and the Davis Family Library for hosting the Digital Liberal Arts Exchange Workshop in June 2016, where I was able to present the project to an audience of scholars and technologists for critique and feedback. It was at this event that I met Curtis Fletcher, associate director of the Ahmanson Lab at USC, who provided important help in ensuring the long-term compatibility between the project and the Scalar platform on which it is built. This workshop also introduced me to Steven Braun, data analytics and visualization specialist at Northeastern University, who, with the support of a DLA grant, furnished the pathway visualization which is key to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” suite. My deepest thanks to all.

Throughout the process of building the site and afterward, I have relied on the advice, guidance, and support of Friederike Sundaram, acquisitions editor at Stanford University Press, who graciously gave her time and effort to see this project to the end. I am profoundly grateful to Friederike for shepherding this project to completion and enduring my errors, missed deadlines, and false starts. I am likewise grateful to Jasmine Mulliken, digital production associate at Stanford University Press, who edited and refined the project and brought it into the technical present.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife, Mabrouka, and children, Marwan and Selma, for gamely putting up with my research trips far from home.