When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


The bulk of poetry composed in the Mahri language has poetic lines composed of two stichs (two isometric sense units) of verse. Formally speaking, Mahri poems in hemistichs are virtually identical to most forms of premodern literate and vernacular Arabic poetry (Ar. ʿamūdī, or “columnar” poetry, including the Arabic qaṣīḍa and most forms of colloquial nabaṭī poetry) when written on a page.  There are fewer genre marked categories under the formal heading of hemistich poetry because poems composed of hemistich lines are the workhorse of Mahri poetics and are accessible to all Mahra who dabble in poetry. Composing hemistich poetry requires less poetic talent or inclination on the part of the composer; this means that the examples of hemistich poetry in this archive run the gamut from the highest calibre of Mahri poetics to middling or even mediocre poems (as judged by my consultants).

Whereas tristich poetry is restricted to occasional topics, hemistich poems cover every potential topic of Mahri poetics. The fact that hemistich poems are open to a broad spectrum of poetic topics, performances, and talents means that they are generally viewed as more quotidian than poems composed of tristich lines. This disparity is expressed in gendered terms by Muḥsin Āl Ḥafīẓ who writes: “Rīwī [i.e., hemistich qaṣīda] poetry is considered by the Mahra to be more appropriate for the expression of intimate conversations, burning passions and the grief of cruel days, different from rajaz [i.e., tristich reǧzīt] poetry which is dedicated to praise [madḥ] and calumny [qadḥ] and is restricted to men and is not for women” (Āl Ḥafīẓ, 1987: 71-72). While Āl Ḥafīẓ specifies rīwī, an eastern Mahri term for a sung lyric poem, the basic point still applies: tristich poetry (specifically reǧzīt) occupies the highest rung in the hierarchy of social and aesthetic prestige compared to other forms of hemistich poetry, particularly multiline, lyric qaṣīdas.

There are a few genre marked categories within the domain of hemistich poetry; most of the clearly marked genres utilize more formal, tristich lines. However, one of the hemistich genres (nuṣṣ ḳṣīdet) is a modern poetic category that is not recognized outside of a circle of Mahri poetic literati based in al-Ghaydha.

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