When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Pre-Islamic Period

The Mahra first appear in the historical record thanks to an Ancient South Arabian (specifically, Ḥaḍramitic) inscription composed in the monumental musnad script. The text, JA 954/RÉS 4877, is located among a cluster of epigraphs first photographed in al-ʿUqla in the Governorate of Shabwa by Harry St. John Philby in 1936 (Jamme, 1963: 3) and mentions a Mahri leader: “Šahrum, son of Wāʾilum, chief [kbr] of the Mahra [ʾmhrn]” (Müller, 2012). Epigraphic references to the Mahra are rare because the practice of composing monumental epigraphs common to pre-Islamic Yemen did not extend east of Ḥaḍramawt (with the exception of the ancient Ḥaḍramī trading outpost of SMHRM, 40 km. east of Ṣalāla). For this reason, the deserts and coasts of al-Mahra lack the epigraphic texts that would otherwise shed light on its pre-Islamic history. Al-Mahra and the province of Dhofār are fairly abundant in short graffiti; however, their translation has resisted the efforts of paleographers (al-Shaḥrī, 1994).

The fact that JA954/RÉS 4877 references a communal identity—“the Mahra”—is remarkable. Even though Mahri-speaking tribes are reckoned as a single unit outside of their local context (as was the case during the Islamic conquest of Egypt and North Africa), a collective Mahri identity in the pre-modern era only exists when projected onto them by outsiders such as Arab monolinguals or non-Arab visitors to al-Mahra.  In the republican and current post-republican era, a communal Yemeni Mahri identity that embraces all speakers of the Mahri language has been claimed by many Mahra; this, however, is different in scope from the effective boundaries of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate of Qishn and Soqōṭrā in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, which only claimed the fealty of the Mahri speaking population of the western half of the current Governorate of al-Mahra in Yemen and the island of Soqōṭrā.  Until very recently, reference to a single community of Mahri speakers (“the Mahra”) was not commonly heard within al-Mahra itself; instead, specific tribal or geographical origins were more pertinent descriptors of identity for Mahri-language speakers.  As a result, usage of the collective label "the Mahra" may be symptomatic of Arabic monolinguals who are not personally familiar with the territory inhabited by Mahri speakers; this may have been the case for  JA 954/RÉS 4877 which preserves an outsider's perspective on the Mahri social and political order.  One alternative to this possibility is that “Šahrum, son of Wāʾilum” was indeed the leader of a closely affiliated community of Mahri speakers, the Mahra,  that would dissolve into distinct and differentiated tribes by the first centuries of the Islamic period. One final possibility is that the term “the Mahra” refers to their geographical origin: the Wādī Mahrūt, which lies inland of the modern town of al-Ghaydha, or perhaps, as Walter Müller suggests, Burkat al-ʾAmhār, which lies in the neighborhood of al-Ghaydha (Müller, 2012). In this case, we should understand the label "the Mahra" in a narrow geographical sense, devoid of the ethnic, political, and linguistic communitarian dimensions that would accrue to it later during the Islamic era.

One final element of intrigue in this inscription involves the name of the leader of the Mahra: “Šahrum” (ŠHRM) son of Wāʾilum (W.ʾ.L.M.).” Leaving aside the word-final mimation (an attribute of the epigraphic South Arabian written tradition, for which see Beeston, 1984: 30), the name “Wāʾil” raises no Mahra-specific connotations, being fairly common in other Central Semitic languages.  “Šahrum,” on the other hand, evokes a constellation of nomenclature related to al-Mahra: Šaḫrīt, the leader of the Banī Šaḫrah (an early confederacy within the Mahra referenced by the Arab historian al-Ṭabarī), the town of al-Shiḥr, used historically as a metonym for al-Mahra (see al-Hamdānī, 1974: 277), the name of the related Śḥēri language of Dhofār spoken by the inhabitants of its coastal uplands (śḥēr in Mahri and Śḥērī), and finally the Šarāwaḥ (Mhr. Śreyḥī) tribal confederacy described in more recent treatments of al-Mahra (Bākrīt, 1999: 37; al-Qumayrī, 2003: 9-10; al-ʾAhdal, 1999: 80-81). The substitution of Arabic /š/ for Modern South Arabian /ś/is typical in speech and writing for Arabic monolinguals since the latter phoneme is absent in Arabic. The variation of /h/, /ḥ/, and /ḫ/ may be a function of the non-equivalent articulation of these three phonemes in Arabic and the Modern South Arabian languages; that is, /h/ is articulated closer to a /ḥ/ in Mahri while /ḥ/ is articulated more closely to /ḫ/, leading, in my experience, to overlapping perceptions among the three phonemes when they are acoustically parsed by Arabic monolinguals. Other than the metathesis of /r/ and /ḥ/ in the final example, a common phonetic pattern lies at heart of this cluster of nomenclatures—root: {Š/Ś}. {Ḫ/Ḥ/H}. R.—suggesting a conflation of territory, tribal names, and preeminent individuals at some point in the prehistory of the Mahra. While the label “the Mahra” may have originated as a limited geographical designation, overlapping nomenclatures derived from the root /{Š/Ś}. {Ḫ/Ḥ/H}. R./ hints at an unitarian identity for the non–Arabic speaking inhabitants of the South Arabian interior and coast from Wādī Masīla in the west to the Jibāl al-Qamar in Dhofār to the east.

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