When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


This region includes al-Mahra’s largest city — al-Ghaydha — and the coastal towns of (from west to east) Źbūt, Mḥayfīf, Yarūb, and al-Feydamī. The port of Niśṭawn, al-Mahra’s sole military and cargo port, is located at the southeasternmost point of the district of al-Ghaydha, where the eastern slope of Jabal Fartak meets the sea in dizzyingly high, sheer cliffs that extend westward. Traveling westward to Ḥaṣweyn by skiff is one of the delights of travel in al-Mahra: during the months of calm weather, the coastal waters along the bottom of the cliffs are clear straight to the sandy bottom 30-40 feet below, the water line punctuated by gigantic rocks that have detached from the cliffs above.

Due to the fact that al-Ghaydha is also the administrative capital of al-Mahra, it hosts a large Arabic-speaking population and is considered cosmopolitan by local standards. As of 2008, “The Friends Restaurant” (Maṭʿam al-ʾAṣdiqāʾ) located in the Jiḥi district served some of the best food I've ever eaten in Yemen: a fist-sized chunk of the fresh catch of day (usually sardine or shark), lightly fried, served over a pile of biryani rice, and topped with fresh radish greens. A long-standing establishment in al-Ghaydha, the lunch hour was always packed with Mahra visiting the capital and civil servants from the nearby administrative offices on their lunch break.

Many Mahra come to al-Ghaydha to take care of administrative matters, to buy or sell goods, or to visit relatives. If they are reasonably wealthy, many Mahra will purchase houses and property in al-Ghaydha as well. This gives al-Ghaydha and its suburbs a pan-tribal social atmosphere, which has contributed to the development of the translocal, Arabic-influenced, Mahri dialect of al-Ghaydha. The inland districts of al-Ghaydha extend north along Wadi Ǧēza into the broad watershed of the Wadi Mahrūt, the traditional territory of Bayt Kuddah and Bayt Kalšāt. In addition, the following tribes are indigenous to the central coast region: Bayt Raʿfīt, Bayt Slōyem (Sulaymī), Bayt Maġfēḳ, Bayt Ḥrēzī, and Bayt ʿĀmr. The mšōyeḫ lineage of Āl Bālḥāf is prominent in the towns of Yarūb and al-Feydamī. The coastal cliffs near al-Feydamī are laced with shallow hollows where those Mahra who resist the general taboo against chewing qāt will occasionally partake.

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