When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Mahri or Mehri?

Despite the fact that “Mehri” is used in virtually all scholarly writings dedicated to this language (including the online Ethnologue where it is indexed as “Mehri” [ISO 639-3: gdq]), I have chosen to depart from convention by referring to the language as “Mahri” and not “Mehri.” Although “Mehri” hews more closely to a theoretical pronunciation by a native speaker, I never heard this term used by native speakers as a label for their own language. Instead, native speakers use the region-specific terms for the three basic dialects of Mahri: mehrīyet (western Mahri), mehriyōt (eastern Yemeni Mahri), and mehráyyet (Omani Mahri). The concept of a single “Mahri” language only exists from a non-native perspective, and, in Arabic at least, this language is referred to as mahrī (or more grammatically as al-mahriyya). When speaking about their language in a general sense, native Mahri speakers will typically use the Arabic term.

Secondly, the demographic heartland of the Mahri tribes, roughly coterminous with the current Yemeni Governorate of al-Mahra, is exclusively referred to as “al-Mahra” in historical sources. The Mahra may refer to specific locations or topographical features within their territory in the Mahri language, but they reserve the Arabic label al-Mahra for the region of eastern Yemen in which their language is (or was, until the last decade or so) the primary language. This was true for the politically sovereign ʿAfrārī Sultanate of Qishn and Soqōṭrā, which even among the local population bore the shorthand title in Arabic: “the Sultanate of al-Mahra” (sulṭānat al-Mahra). Indeed, one rarely hears the collective term for Mahri speakers in the Mahri language; traditionally, lineage, family, or regional origin were more relevant for personal or tribal identification than belonging to the internally segmented population of Mahri speakers.

I have therefore chosen to rely on the Arabic nomenclature for the Mahri language (mahrī) and its speakers (the collective denominal adjective al-Mahra) due to the fact that these terms possess historical validity and official status and are used widely by the Mahra themselves.

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