When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Unlike the Governorate of al-Mahra in Yemen, the Province of Dhofār in Oman hosts a considerable degree of indigenous linguistic diversity. The Mahra who live there are merely one ethnolinguistic and/or tribal community among many; indeed, they are hardly the most numerous community to call Dhofār home. Alongside Mahri speakers, Śḥērī (Ar. Jibbālī) speakers comprise a substantial portion of the population of Dhofār, as do Arabic monolinguals. The question of who has a greater claim to being indigenous is a fraught one in Dhofār, although unlike the Governorate of al-Mahra in Yemen, the Mahra do not have a stronger case than any of the other linguistic populations. Most inhabitants of Dhofār are bi- or trilingual in Arabic, Mahri, and Śḥērī; even the historically Arabic-speaking Qarawī tribesmen of Dhofār have adopted Śḥērī as their lingua franca. At a minimum, Mahri and Śḥērī speakers have learned to understand each others’ speech, even if they can’t produce it themselves.

Despite having a potentially minority status in the Province of Dhofār, the number of Mahri speakers living there is still greater than that living in any single district of the Governorate of al-Mahra (with the possible of exception of the district of al-Ghaydha). Since census figures for the Province of Dhofār do not distinguish between members of the different language communities, it is impossible to derive a precise figure for the number of Mahri speakers living there. Given the overall population of 249,729 for the Province of Dhofār in 2010, one shouldn’t underestimate the absolute number of Mahri speakers in Dhofār relative to the total number of Mahri speakers in Yemen or in diaspora communities in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. Secondly, given the higher income of Omani citizens in general, Mahra living in Oman punch above their weight compared to Yemeni Mahra in terms of socioeconomic status and social privilege.

At the present time, the majority of the inhabitants of the Province of Dhofār—including Mahri speakers—are settled in the city of Ṣalālah and its neighboring suburbs and towns on the coastal plain. The demographic trend toward settlement on the coastal plain has been accelerated by government subsidies (given in exchange for loyalty—or, perhaps more accurately, the absence of disloyalty), which have made the amenities of urban modernity available to families who had previously subsisted on their livestock in the mountainous śḥeyr or the desert steppe of the nōǧed (Ar. najd) beyond it.

Historically speaking, the Mahri population living in Dhofār is quite diverse. Certain Mahri-speaking communities have doubtless inhabited Dhofār deep into early historical or prehistoric time. Historical records, oral tradition, and toponomy indicate that the Mahra once ranged far to the north and east of present territories (Dostal, 1967: 132-33). Other groups of Mahri speakers living in the Province of Dhofār are recent arrivals; this is the case for the Bīt ʿĀmr Ǧīd and Thawʿar tribes who left the eastern inland districts of al-Mahra in recent historical time. Many families living in the Jabal al-Qamar and Ḥawf were split by the imposition of the Oman-Yemen border and probably travelled back and forth without hinderance until the modern era. For this reason, many older Mahra from Ḥawf addressed their poetry to the sultan of Oman despite technically being citizens of the PDRY or the unified Republic of Yemen. In fact, a number of my consultants living in Ṣalālah were better equipped to understand poetry from Ḥawf than were my Mahri consultants from western or central al-Mahra in Yemen.

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