When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


In the Mahri poetic practice, pithy and humorous proverbs often take the form of couplets. These couplets are circulated by poets and non-poets alike and their attribution is often legendary. Certain poetic genres, especially exchanged dāndān and reǧzīt, can only be expressed through couplets since this short, easily memorized format is best suited to extemporized and collectively chanted lines of verse. In the absence of the highly formalized exchanges of dāndān and reǧzīt, couplets may be exchanged between individuals as versified debates, greetings, or conversations on personal or quotidian matters. Further, couplets are often composed as minimalist yet memorable statements on a matter that has piqued the poet’s interest. Because the format is brief and does not require an extended period of composition, couplets may be composed by virtually anyone, although the most widely circulated couplets are generally attributed to al-Mahra's finest poets.

Given the accumulative and paratactic nature of Mahri poetry, particularly powerful lines of poetry may be culled from a multiline poem and circulated as a couplet. Indeed, some longer poems may be heard as a series of couplets joined together for convenience.  Conversely, two (or more) couplets may be joined together to form a brief poem. For instance, Race Relations in al-Mahra evokes an exchange of couplets, even though the “couplets” under consideration are in fact four to six lines long. It is thus worthwhile to think of couplets as the essential building block of longer poems which yet may stand on their own as coherent miniature poems.   

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