When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Humorous Couplets: Bir Laʿṭayṭ

In addition to his famous tribal ode, “Atop the Peak of Ṭarbūt,” and his gnomic poetry (Ar. ḥikma), Saʿīd bir Laʿṭayṭ composed a number of poetic zingers meant to poke fun at the foolishness and immorality that he saw around him. The following couplets were recited to me by Ḥājj Dākōn in al-Ghaydha, July 2008.

According to Ḥājj: "Once there was a man from Hōmīt Ḳebrəbōr. He was married to a woman who refused to sleep with him, so everyone told him to divorce her. He refused. She became pregnant(!), and they agreed that if the child was a boy, he would divorce her and keep the child. His wife delivered a boy, so he took custody of the child and divorced his wife, per their agreement. However, it became evident that he was unable to take care of the baby by himself. One day, Bir Laʿṭayṭ saw the man in the market carrying his baby son to his parents’ house. Bir Laʿṭayṭ told the man to take the baby back to its mother; still, the father refused. The baby cried all night and day until the father relented and took the baby back to its mother. Bir Laʿṭayṭ composed this couplet to commemorate the man’s stubbornness."
Couplet 1Translation
1) ǧēma ḏe-śkōyā kell // be-bdēn ḏ-maḫḫəlīḳ // faḳh hīsen we-ṭbūbAll of the complaints // in the body of a mortal // there is wisdom and medicine for them
2) hād eǧiśm we-ṭbāt // edwēsen ṭhēm // le šrāyeb w-le ktōbExcept for stupidity and human nature // their cure does not exist // neither folk medicine nor reading the Qurʾan
Another example: Many years ago, a Mahri man left home to work abroad. After a three-year absence, his wife had a child, and people began to gossip. Bir Laʿṭayṭ states the obvious fact of her infidelity by saying that no female camel (Ar. nāqa) ever stayed pregnant for three years; typical gestation is twelve months. If a nāqa stayed pregnant for three years, it would bear a fully grown foal able to stand and walk.
Couplet 2Translation
1) mōn yʾawmer hāyəbīt // teślūl snēt ṯrēt // w-b-śelṯet tehḳawṭWho says a camel // bears [a fetus] for three years // and gives birth in the third?
2) ḥebrē ḏ-berkīs // bēr šeḳnōh ʾātē fḏōm // hēs enaṭb ertəḳawṭThe child that is in her // has already matured until it can walk // when it is born, it can already stand

Another couplet about women who have extramarital affairs:
Couplet 3Translation
1) kell ḏ-ber zmōt hnefs // ʾālḳōt men essəbēḫ // ḳalb ṭawneḥ ke-hhəwēEvery [woman] who gives herself // she bears the child of the trackless desert [ie. boundless potential paternity] // [her] heart follows its desire
2) emḳalles tendōm // yektūlī men ešūš // tālōḳ b-hebrēAt the end of it, she regrets // she is hurt by the people’s blame // and finds herself in trouble because of the child.

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