When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


The Mahra inhabit a swath of land from eastern Yemen through western Oman that extends from Wadi Masīla and Sayḥūt in the west to the highland plateaus of Dhofār in the east. The core of their territory is coterminous with the Governorate of al-Mahra (Ar. muḥāfazat al-Mahra) in Yemen, although indigenous Mahra-speaking populations can be found to the north, east, and west of the Governorate of al-Mahra, including the island of Soqōṭrā in the Arabian Sea. Along its north–south axis, the territory inhabited by the Mahra stretches from the coast of the Arabian Sea in the south to the Empty Quarter in the north. Toponymic evidence indicates that Mahri territories once extended further to the north and east into Oman than they currently do (Dostal, 1989). Historically, the western boundary of al-Mahra appears to have been more or less fixed at Wadi Masīla, although political domination by Mahri-speaking tribes and families has occasionally extended as far west as al-Shiḥr. Many Mahri speakers can be found on the island of Soqōṭrā due to familial ties between the Mahra and the native Soqōṭris (a relationship reinforced by their common political history under the ʿAfrārī sultanate of Qishn and Soqōṭrā); however, the Mahra are still a minority population among the native Soqōṭrī-speaking population.

Although the overall territory inhabited by Mahri speakers is extensive, the inhospitality of its terrain has traditionally been a check to agriculture and thence to settled populations on the scale of Ḥaḍramawt to the west or the coastal plain of Dhofār to the east. Lack of reliable pasturage means that flocks of sheep and goats, common elsewhere in southern Arabia, are limited; instead, the flora of al-Mahra (including the mountains of Dhofār) primarily support herds of the indigenous Mahri camel. The exception to the general desolation of al-Mahra’s landscape is the monsoonal forests of Ḥawf and Dhofār, which offer a verdant refuge to the Mahra and their livestock during the three months of the monsoon (Ar. kharīf). While al-Mahra is the Republic of Yemen’s second largest governorate (88,000 km. sq.), it is also its least settled.

Traditionally, the majority of Mahra have subsisted on their camel herds and the rich fisheries of the Arabian Sea. The coastal waters of al-Mahra abound in sardines, which are caught for immediate human consumption and dried for camel fodder or pressed for oil.  Shark, eaten fresh or dried, is likewise an important staple food in al-Mahra. The exportation of cuttlefish and lobster has become a profitable source of income across al-Mahra, and the appeal of its quick (but by no means easy) money attracts seasonal fishermen from across southern Arabia.

Al-Mahra is perhaps best known for its breed of swift and hardy camel. While few people outside of southern Arabia have heard of the Mahri language, the mahri (pl. mahāri) camel remains the most highly regarded riding camel among the nomadic Arab and Berber peoples of North Africa and the Sahara, where it was likely introduced to native populations by Mahri camel cavalry during the Islamic conquest of Ifriqiyya (modern-day Tunisia). The military virtues of the mahri camel were noted by the French colonial authorities of North Africa who organized Compagnies Méharistes to patrol the Sahara (and later the Syrian Desert).  To this day, the mahri camel is celebrated in poetry and prose across North Africa, at festivals dedicated to méhari races, and even by the French auto manufacturer, Citroën, which manufactured a “Méhari” utility jeep. For more information on the relationship of the mahri camel to the formation of the Touareg linguistic identity, see Liebhaber 2015. For a comprehensive collection of references to the mahri camel in medieval Arabic poetry and prose, see al-Jidḥī, 2013: 88-105.  

Agriculture is decidedly secondary to the economic fabric of al-Mahra. Irrigation-fed agriculture is practiced in Wadi Masīla thanks to the perennial flow of its waters; elsewhere, large agricultural plots are limited to the wadi beds around Sayḥūt, Qishn, and al-Ghaydha where the water table has historically been relatively high. Inland, small garden plots can be found near the few springs that dot the inland steppe or that receive mountain runoff channelled into cisterns by low stone walls. Coconut and date palm groves are found along the coastal strip and near the few spring-fed oases in the interior of al-Mahra.

Historically, the Mahra have been engaged in maritime trade at all points around the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The seasonal calendar of al-Mahra is based on the ocean’s dual moods. During the tempestuous monsoonal months (June to September), the majority of the Mahra turn to agriculture and their cottage industries, whereas the rest of the year can be devoted to fishing and oceanic trade. Thanks to their close relationship with the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, the Mahra have produced some of its finest navigators, among them Sulaymān al-Mahrī (d. 1554), a disciple of ʾAḥmad b. Mājid and author of al-ʿUmda al-mahriyya fi ḍabṭ al-ʿulūm al-baḥriyya.

The harvest and transportation of frankincense played an important role in the economy of al-Mahra and Dhofār through the first half of the twentieth century, although lubān is now solely harvested for local consumption. Another cash crop of sorts, the ambergris which occasionally washes ashore can fetch a high price and the Mahra always keep an eye open for it.

For a brief description of each region of al-Mahra represented in this poetic collection, click here.

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