When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Gunfight in Niśṭawn

This poem was composed by Sālim Muṭīʿ al-Sulaymī in 1997 in response to a gun fight in the port town of Niśṭawn (Ar. Nishṭūn) between local Mahra and a group of North Yemeni troops stationed there. An argument between a political security officer and a fish seller became heated and the officer discharged his pistol in the air. The Mahra nearby heard the shots and ran to the scene, loading and cocking their own weapons as they did so. Feeling threatened, the North Yemeni troops who had responded to the commotion began to shoot at the armed Mahra. The fighting escalated to the point that heavy machine guns were brought to bear and a number of local shops and residences near the port were severely damaged. By the time the confrontation ended, four Mahra had been killed and two more had been wounded. This event is described by al-ʾAhdal in his book as “Ḥadithat Nishṭūn al-dāmiyya” (“Nishṭūn’s Bloody Incident” [al-ʾAhdal, 1999: 111]).

This poem follows the general outlines of a traditional ʾōdī we-krēm krēm tribal poem in an abbreviated fashion. It breaks from the conventions of tribal odes in one significant way. The traditional actors of a tribal ode (the poet’s tribe, their tribal allies, and their tribal enemies) are transferred in this poem to non-tribal entities: the collective Mahra versus an obliquely referenced national army. This poem contains a rare reference to the Mahra as a unified community: ḏe-mhərēh (“the Mahra”) [10]. This is an unintended consequence of political campaigns against tribalism in al-Mahra since the onset of the republican period in the late 1960s. As demonstrated in this poem, tribal identity has been sublimated into a pan-Mahri regional identity (in alliance with al-Mahra’s erstwhile foes, the Āl Kathīr) that stands in opposition to the Yemeni military.

In light of its sensitive political content, this poem cloaks its subject through references that only its intended audience (Mahri speakers from western al-Mahra) would comprehend. The subject of the first line is ʾāśer (“comrade, friend, spouse,” Ar. ʿashīr), a term that can be used to refer to people without revealing their names (including that of the speaker if he is uncomfortable about revealing his identity). Secondly, the poet never mentions the site of the incident (Niśṭawn) by name; instead, he refers to the surrounding areas such as Arḳas, Mźōbī, and Maklayt. A kenning listener is expected to triangulate the location of the incident through these hints and others that are laced throughout the poem. For instance, the poet speaks from a vantage point in the outlying districts of “western” Masḳōt [1] (not to be confused with the Omani Muscat) and must therefore be facing the approaching thunderclouds (ḥaklīl [4]), which typically come from an easterly direction. Based on these indications, a Mahri listener familiar with current events and geography will understand that the poet is looking down on Niśṭawn from a vantage point on the east-facing flanks of Jabal Fartak.

Despite the fact that this poem avoids explicit mention of the “bloody incident,” the final line [14] is meant to echo the partisan tone of a traditional Mahri ʾōdī we-krēm krēm poem. Rather than beginning with the signature formula of the ʾōdī we-krēm krēm genre, the poem ends with a variant of it: we-ṣrōma we-krēm (“And now, O Generous One” [14]). The rest of the line, šī mǧawnī men eḫawf // b-karmaym ḥawrōt (“I have a refuge from fear // in the Black Mountain” [14], amplifies the partisan sentiment because it echoes the famous dāndān exchange between a poet of Ḥbēs and a poet of Raʿfīt, the latter claiming to “have a refuge from fear…in Leǧlīǧ and the domains of Ḥawf” (šī mǧawnī men eḫawf // b-leǧlīg w-bātī ḥawf).

Sung by Muḥammad Mushaʿjil under the title al-Mahriyya and released on his third cassette album, Dumūʿ al-ʿayn (2004). The melody to which Muḥammad Mushaʿjil sings ʾĀśer šeh drīyet lā is based on the traditional melody of ʾōdī we-krēm krēm tribal poems. The melody of this performance renders the poem recognizable to a Mahri audience as a partisan tribal-historical poem, despite the deliberate cloaking of its content.

Recitation by young Mahri speaker, name unknown, and recorded on the road to Ḥawf, October 2003.

1) ʾāśer šeh drīyet lā // be-rḥōyeb ḏ-ġarbēt // we-ttəḥawdī ḏ-mesḳōtI have a friend who doesn’t know // living in the western towns // at the edges of Masḳōt
2) we-mḥabbī hayya beh // has yqōbel we-śhēr // zmī waḳb ḏe-ṣfōtMy friend, I say “welcome” // when he draws near and shows up //  “Give me a summary of the news!”
3) ʾāmūr wezmenk men eṣidḳ // hel ḏ-ber ǧrōh ḥlōk // ān tźōṭ mnī ḥlōtHe says: I’ll give you the truth // of everything that happened there // if you’ll take the story from me
4) neǧm ertəbūb w-hen // men ḥōmer ḏ-ḥeklī // nēweh ʾādeh ān ťbūtThe rain-star about to burst and thunder // at the edge of the eastern clouds // the downpour is about to come
5) ḥemlet arḳās // men eremš ḏe-kṣē // yeḫlīlen ebyūtThey fall upon Arḳās // from mouths of the black thunderheads // they come through the roofs of the houses
6) ār ḫlūṭem šeh nǧūm // men ʾāṣef ḏe-ryiḥ // we-tḳawleb ḏ-bīlōtOther rain-stars have arrived with them // on the storms of winds // that become like those of desert
7) we-mḫōyel l-arḳās // we-mźōbī w-mekleyt // we-hzōyem ḏ-meṣlōtIt rains on Arḳās // and Mźōbī and Maklayt // and Hzōyam and Maṣlōf
8) ṣeyyet yʾaǧībem bīs // w-yeślūles bād eǧed // we-k-ǧēma ḏe-ǧḥōtThey enjoy their reputation // they carry it from their ancestors // and from every direction
9) ṣaḥfəyīn nśōrem tēs // hel eǧēma ḏe-dwēl // we-b-sets weṣlōtJournalists broadcast it // in every country // when the news comes on at its hour
10) w-ǧrāyed b-sūḳeyn // ke-ḏ-nūka ḏ-īśtōm // śōref ḏe-mhərēh drōtThe newspapers in the markets // everyone who comes buys them // about the fame of Mahra that keeps on coming around
11) we-ḳbōyel ḏe-mhərēh // ġrōysen ʾākīd // mīwet mōh w-law ḥyōtThe tribes of al-Mahra // their word is certain // whether dead or alive
12) w-el-kťīr ber šeh ḫbēr // men ʾāṣer ḥawlī // ǧōhez be-ssəyeryōtThe Kathīrī also have the news // from the very moment it happened // and are ready with their cars
13) we-ḏ-berh mhektīb // men hel bālī meḫḫəṭeyṭ // we-mḳeyyed b-eyyōtThat which is, is written // written in ink by our God // and bound by His āyāt
14) we-ṣrōma we-krēm // šī mǧawnī men eḫawf // b-kermeym ḥawrōtAnd now, O Generous One, // I have a refuge from fear // in the Black Mountain [of Karmeym Ḥawrōt]

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