When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

About the Mahra

Shams al-Dīn al-Muqaddasī (d. ca. 1000 CE): “At the borders of Ḥimyar is a tribe of Arabs whose speech no one understands” Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-ʾaqālīm, 96).

Abū ʿAbdallāh al-Idrīsī (d. 1166 CE): “The natives of the Kuria Muria islands near the southern coast of Oman are an Arab people, yet they speak an ancient ʿĀdite language which no Arabs of our time can understand” (Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ʾikhtirāq al-āfāq, vol. 1, 52).

Jamāl al-Dīn ibn al-Mujāwir (d. 1204 CE), quoting ʾAḥmad b. ʿAlī b. ʿAbdallāh al-Wāsiṭī: “[The Mahra] are a tall, good-looking people who have a language of their own that no one understands but them” (Ṣifat bilād al-yaman al-musammā bi-taʿrīkh al-mustabṣir, 271-272).

As attested by these and other geographers, travelers, and historians writing in the premodern era, the eastern reaches of Yemen and the western Omani province of Dhofār are home to a unique community of Arabs whose language is not Arabic. Not only that: many of these indigenous Arabs—known collectively as the Mahra—have historically pursued a pastoralist lifestyle in the remote interior of the Arabian Peninsula; that is to say, many Mahra are bedouin who embody the “authentic” lifestyle that lies at the heart of classical, and some contemporary, notions of Arabness. For social theorists who urge the equation of Arab identity with the Arabic language, the Mahra complicate the picture.

What follows is a brief tour of the human context behind Mahri poetry, including basic geographical information. These pathways are not meant to serve as a comprehensive overview of the Mahra and their language; for such detailed examinations of society, language, and culture in southern Arabia, visitors are encouraged to visit the two bibliographies included in this site: “Language and Linguistics” and “Society, History, and Culture.” Instead, the information provided in “The Mahra: Human and Geographical Context” is meant to inform the reading of the poems included in this digital exhibit.

Contents of this path: