When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Until fifteen years ago, the vitality of the Mahri language was vouchsafed thanks to its geographic isolation. Bounded by the Empty Quarter to the north, by the Arabian Sea to the south, and by mountains and desert to the east and west, the tribes of al-Mahra made their home in an isolated corner of Arabia that neither attracted outside attention nor enabled casual commerce. When the market for frankincense dwindled away in the premodern era, the Mahra turned to fishing, rearing camels, and working abroad in the Gulf states for their livelihood.

Yemeni unification in 1991 put a sudden end to the isolation of the Mahra. Paved roads, cell phones, and effective central governance pulled al-Mahra into the orbit of the Republic of Yemen, whose sole recognized language was Arabic. Schooling, civil administration, military affairs, and business were conducted in Arabic; indeed, tacit policies excluded the Mahri language from the public arena. At worst, the Mahri language was perceived by some Arabic-monolingual Yemenis to threaten the unity of the modern Yemeni state in which a communal, Arab identity presupposed a communal, Arabic language. For the most part, however, Yemeni policy towards the Mahri language was characterized by disinterest; most Yemeni civil servants had little interest in the Mahri language and tended to perceive it as remote, folkloric echo of Yemen's past.  While most young Mahra continue to speak the Mahri language, Mahra born after Yemeni unification may be more comfortable expressing themselves in Arabic than in their maternal language.

In the realm of scholarship and language policy, powerful language ideologies are at work to undermine the status of the Mahri language as a distinct language worthy of preservation. Throughout the Arabic-speaking world, only the written and oratorical register of Arabic (al-ʿarabiyya) is held in esteem; the unwritten languages of daily life are regarded as inelegant and chaotic patois. Because the Mahri language lacks a literary tradition, it fails to achieve the status of “language” (Ar. lugha) that is awarded to the other written indigenous languages of the Middle East, such as Aramaic or Tamazight. Instead, the Mahri language is relegated to the status of “dialect” (Ar. lahja), a term of sociolinguistic disparagement for the unwritten regional idioms of Arabic. Coupled with the disappearance of vital indigenous languages in the Middle East (excluding North Africa) in the last half of the twentieth century and the success of advocacy for a communal Arabic language, linguistic diversity in the Arab world has come to be viewed as laying exclusively within the dialectal continuum of spoken Arabic or between Arabic and foreign, colonial languages. This has led to the overall neglect of the Modern South Arabian languages (Mahri among them) in popular and academic descriptions of language diversity in the Middle East.

This negative assessment of the Mahri language by Arabic monolinguals (Yemeni and non-Yemeni alike) may have begun to shift in recent years. Section 1 Article 3 of the draft constitution proposed by the Yemeni National Dialogue in 2015 stated the obligation of the state "to pay attention to the Mahri and Soqotri language" (tawallī al-dawla al-ihtimām bi-al-lughatayn al-mahriyya wa-al-suquṭriyya).  Had this draft constitution been ratified, it would have marked a departure from the norm across the Arab world and may have spelled a new era for linguistic pluralism in Yemen.  Overall, pride and interest in the Mahri language has increased greatly within al-Mahra (and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula) in recent years and the Mahri language has become a respectable venue for local scholarship.  The increased involvement of Oman and the Emirates in al-Mahra in the last few years may be a factor: encouraging communal Mahri sentiment could serve to reorient al-Mahra politically, economically, and socially away from Sana'a and Aden towards Gulf patronage.

A final point is that many Mahra object to the characterization of their language as endangered since the Arabic language is not perceived as an alien or colonial language.  Rather, the Mahra embrace their identity as Arabs and venerate the literary and sacred legacies expressed through the Arabic language.  Most Mahra do not perceive the Mahri language as existing in a zero-sum relationship with the Arabic language since both are facets of a deeply rooted sense of belonging and rootedness in the Arabian Peninsula.

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