When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


There is no required number of lines that a Mahri poem, whether it is marked by genre or not, must adhere to. Poems last as long as the poet wishes or has the creative stamina to sustain, or as long as an audience is willing to listen. Unlike line structure, the parameter of poem length cannot be neatly divided into mutually exclusive categories. However, certain tendencies are discernible.  The first is that the poems in this collection that represent a complete expression of an idea or feeling (as opposed to a partially documented poem) run for twelve to twenty lines. This is most readily evident in the Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn, in which virtually all poems fall within this range. The other poems in this collection that consist of twelve to twenty lines typically cohere around a single idea or theme, which, when successfully articulated, come to a close. Such poems are labelled “multiline monothematic” and form the bulk of poetry composed in the Mahri language.  Other poets—particularly those better trained in the traditional formulas and who possess a share of talent in deploying them—may draw from the entirety of their repertoire, yielding poems that shift from event to event or sentiment or sentiment. At times the shift in focus may appear disjointed and the topics unrelated; however, an underlying aesthetic and thematic logic may be discerned through symbolic and metaphoric resonances. For example, the motif of a rainy deluge preceded by an account of conflict may evoke the trope of vengeance in Arabian poetry: the rain suggests a violent cleansing of personal and collective honor. Indeed, the ritualized progression of apparently unrelated motifs in the literary Arabic qaṣīda has been amply document by Suzanne Stetkevych (Stetkevych, 1993).  Read in this light, Mahri poetry, contemporary Arabic vernacular poetry (nabaṭī), and the pre-Islamic qaṣīda bear a number of intriguing structural and thematic similarities (Liebhaber, 2015). Despite their potential for conceptual unity, poems that traverse different motifs and topics are labelled in this collection “multiline polythematic.” Finally, the shortest expression of poetry is the couplet: two lines of verse. All poems in the Mahri language may be thought of as an accumulation of couplets; a minimum of two lines is apparently needed to express a complete thought. Such couplets may fall outside of the realm of Euro-American poetry and would be labelled “aphorisms” instead. This distinction is not always made in Mahri (and Arabic) orature in which proverbial utterances are often embedded in poetry as stand-alone lines that clarify or emphasize the poetic expression at hand. The Mahri poetic landscape is ripe with rhymed and metered couplets—some earnest and some in jest—that are composed, transmitted, and enjoyed in the same way as longer forms of verse.  

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