When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

ʾŌdī we-krēm krēm

All poems belonging to the ʾōdī we-krēm krēm genre have the following parameters:

Line Structure: Tristich

Topic: Occasional

Length: Multiline Polythematic

Performance: Recited or Sung

Poems belonging to this genre marked category are referred to in al-Mahra by their signature formulaic phrase, ʾōdī we-krēm krēm, which typically occurs at a thematic transition point in the poem. I have translated the phrase ʾōdī we-krēm krēm as “I begin in the name of the Noble, the Generous,” although this translation is based on an assertion made by a number of my consultants that this phrase is equivalent to Arabic bismillāh (“In the Name of God”). Most Mahra who are not poets simply regarded it as an untranslatable pious formula. In all likelihood, ʾōdī is an imperative of the verb wōdī, awōdī, translated by Alfred Jahn as “die Religionspflichten erfüllen” (Jahn, 1902: 234, quoted in Liebhaber, 2013: 121). While Jahn’s translation suggests that wōdī, awōdī is cognate with Arabic ʾaddā, yuʾaddī (“to convey or bring to completion”), none of my Mahri language consultants responded positively to this etymology. One consultant, Musallim bir Rāmes, understood ʾōdī to be derived from Mahri hōdī and therefore equivalent to Arabic nashwa (“an ecstatic state”). Whatever its meaning, this phrase has a functional value: it encodes the pattern of rhythmic stress that is shared by every line (ʾṓdī wé-kerḗm kerḗm, schematically: | –  ̌ –  ̌ –  ̌ – |) and evokes the traditional melody that accompanies sung performances of poems belonging to this genre.

ʾŌdī we-krēm krēm poems may be viewed as a thematically linked string of monorhymed reǧzīt couplets, much as the Arabic qaṣīda is viewed as “a string of pearls” according to traditional Arabic literary theory. Like the Arabic qaṣīda, poems belonging to the ʾōdī we-krēm krēm genre accrue the highest degree of social esteem when compared with the other genres of Mahri poetry. ʾŌdī we-krēm krēm poems are felt to encapsulate the codes and customs of traditional Mahri society and to preserve its official tribal history for posterity. Moreover, they do so using the Mahri language’s unique poetic formulations and a lexicon that is specific to al-Mahra’s geography and material culture. It is arguably the most “Mahri” of all possible forms of Mahri poetry.

Since their constituent elements are reǧzīt couplets, ʾōdī we-krēm krēm poems always address occasional topics, are formulated in tristich lines, and are meant for public circulation. These poems address communal issues that concern the tribe, tribal confederates, and, in recent years, the entire population of al-Mahra regardless of tribal affiliation. As a reflection on incidents that demand a communal response, ʾōdī we-krēm krēm poems demarcate the lawful and unlawful ranges of collective and personal action during periods of political and social turmoil. ʾŌdī we-krēm krēm poems are more than a versified articulation of tribal custom—that is the purview of reǧzīt couplets exchanged by tribal leaders—but rather engage their target audience in a persuasive discourse.

For detailed analysis of the ʾōdī we-krēm krēm genre, see Liebhaber, 2013

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