When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Jamīla and the Sultan

Poem composed and recited by Raġbōn birt Saʿīd Ḥawr from Kzayt (“near the schoolhouse”) in the mountains overlooking Jāḏeb. Recorded by Sam Liebhaber at Raġbōn’s home, March 2004.

Raġbōn begins this evening dāndān (Ar. dāndān laylī) by praising the qualities of her niece, Jamīla (Ǧmīla) birt Makdōh and describes the contest for her affection between Jamīla’s cousin (Raġbōn’s son?) and her pet calf on the one hand, and her father and Sultan Qābūs of Oman on the other. Jamīla’s cousin and her pet calf would like her to stay with them (it is unclear in what capacity), while Jamīla’s father would like her to marry Sultan Qābūs. “Sultan Qābūs” should not be taken literally here; Raġbōn has likely chosen the sultan as an idealized suitor to reflect the high expectations that Raġbōn has for her niece. However, there is a kernel of realism in this poem. The story of young Mahri women who have been married by wealthy Arabs from the Gulf is a recurrent trope in Mahri poetry and points to the social and economic disparity between Yemen and its wealthier neighbors. Mahri women are believed to make good wives since they preserve the ʾaṣāla (“authentic virtue”) of rural bedouin women. They are highly sought after as wives in the Gulf states; indeed, Sultan Qābūs’s own mother was from Dhofār, a region heavily settled by the Mahra.

This poem should be compared to Muḥammad bir Marṭayf’s poem on the same topic, although the narrative of wounded national pride evident in Muḥammad bir Marṭayf’s poem is absent in Raġbōn’s poem. For Raġbōn, Jamīla comes out the winner whether she is married to her cousin or to the sultan.

1) ǧmīle śōleš hummeš // wel rōdeš beh yeźyāJamīla, you have raised aloft your name // you have not given it up for lost
2) w-tēš reḥmōne ezyīn // w-ṭerḥayš meśśōref tḳāThe Merciful made you attractive // and allowed you to be distinguished
3) hūǧēśeš bātī śḥayr // we-lyē reḥbēt šūrɛ̄You’ve out-competed the girls of the mountains // and those of the villages stand back [from the dancing floor]
4) eḥḥōrem w-ber ǧzōm // l-enḫōṭer men hal tenkāThey made an oath and gave it up // [saying]: “we’ll not compete with her whenever she comes [to dance].”
5) hes seh ḫaddes erḥīm // we-ḳdēr ḫa ṭāṭḏe-rwāHer cheeks are lovely // and her stature is as though someone had drawn it by luck.
6) w-ād el tāmōr mekyeǧ // wel bōder etē teźyāNo one does make up // or powders [as good as she] so that [Jamīla] loses
7) w-ān hedlūt we-ǧrūt // šīs ʿād tḳaṣyenIf she gets up and goes sauntering // none can go with her to the end [of her promenade]
8) ṣānīn etē k-ḥerḳet // teltūwī thaṣfer[They are] like the partridges in the heat of the day // that curl up and do not sing
9) we-mġōren hayb w-ḫōl // bīs līḥešyenFurther, her father and uncles // forbid her nothing
10) telbōs ār ṭarz ǧdīd // we-yšaklen hīs ʿanwāShe always is dressed in the newest fashion // and puts together outfits of different types [of clothes].
11) w-ḥōkem līs šūṣōf // w-qābūs ār tēs yenkāThe Sultan received a description of her // and Qābūs decided to approach her
12) ār bir beḳrēt šākūb // w-bir raġbōn ehhelāBut the cow’s calf was distressed // and the son of Raġbōn [Jamīla’s cousin] swore: “Never!”
13) ʾāmūrem ǧmīle ǧnēh // tselmeh ṣawten lāThey said: “Jamīla is like guineas // tell him our answer is ‘no’
14) tawlā ḏ-wūzem lkūk // ḏhēb mīzōnes yḳāEven if they give her weight // in lakhs of gold.”
15) ār haybes ber šēmūn // w-āzūm yeḳtīleb ṭmāBut her father went along with [the Sultan] // resolved on it and turned greedy
16) teḳhērem teh b-ḳawwēt // w-l-ād ḥasbem lāSo they conquered him by force // and didn’t take anything into account
17) we-ḥźawrem bāź šbāb // w-kel ḏe-ḳhēb essəbāA number of young men showed up // and everyone who came, became allies
18) ʾāmūr ġībem ġrōy // ḏōme śī ḏ-el ʾādeh yḳāSaying: “No more talking // there are some things not meant to be.
19) ār sēlem ṣōdeḳ eḥassek // we-mġōren erdēd we-hmāSālim [Jamīla’s father] trust your instincts // and then come back and listen,
20) ḏe-nḥā neślūl eṯṯəḳayl // we-sḫōm yehwarʾenWe’ll bear the weight // and the expense will not cripple us.”
21) ār sālem ār ḏ-īḫayṣ // wel tōhem mšemne lēBut Sālim still refuses // and doesn’t follow their counsel,
22) ʾāmūr ḥōm ḥōkem eḫayr // ḥōm lešizd menh nḳāSaying: “I think the Sultan is a better idea // and want to get recompense from him.”

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