When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Unspecified Referent

Sentimental poems that do not name the object of affection may do so for two reasons. The first is decorum: in the relatively conservative, yet intimate, social context of Yemen and Oman, naming the object of one’s desire might put both the poet and subject at risk of social opprobrium. It would be bad manners to publicly implicate another person in scandal, real or imagined. At the same time, one should not imagine Mahri (or Arabian) society as more puritanical than it is: desire in al-Mahra is not exclusively restricted to marital relations, and poignant and lighthearted poetic commentary on when this happens to be the case is not unheard of. This is particularly true in the premodern era when mingling between men and women in public and private spaces was less sanctioned than it is nowadays (a consequence of the importation of Saudi/Gulf, urban cultural and religious values). For this reason, traditional sentimental poems are often more ribald than their contemporary counterparts.  

Another cause for maintaining a non-specific referent in sentimental poetry is the imitation of modern Arabic cosmopolitan lyric poetry and pop culture. Such poetry is divorced from the specificities of small town or village life and addresses love, heartache, longing, and desire from purely conceptual standpoint. Love in general is the topic of contemporary lyric poetry, not love for a specific individual. According to this mode of lyric poetry, named individuals detract from the universal ambitions of the poetic text. The poems in the Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn represent the culmination of this tendency: only a single poem in the entire collection (“I Want to Ask at the Wedding Party”) hints at desire for an actual person. In this way, non-specific referents in sentimental poems may mark the poet as belonging to a lyrical avant-garde, even as the personalized touch and regional specificity of the poem itself is lost in consequence.