When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


The district of Qishn is named after al-Mahra’s second largest and historically most significant city: Qishn. The district of Qishn is bounded by the mountainous spine of Raʾs Darja to the east and by Raʾs Sharwīn to the west. While these two steep ridges sheltered Qishn from hostile incursions during the premodern era (with the exception of the Kathīrī occupation in the sixteenth century CE), the lack of any paved roads to Qishn until 2005 kept it isolated from economic development during the first three decades of the republican era. For this reason, Qishn was one of the last redoubts of the Yemeni Socialist Party after Yemeni unification, and, despite its geographical and economic disadvantages, it enjoyed effective local governance and a strong commitment to education for its young boys and girls alike.

The district of Qishn extends inland as far as the divide that separates the watershed of Wadi Źḥawn from Qishn’s inland watershed to the north and the divide that separates the watershed of Wadi Masīla from Qishn and the rest of al-Mahra to the east.

Qishn is the primary residence of the Āl ʿAfrār lineage, even though the actual capital of the ʿAfrārī sultanate was relocated to Hadiboh (also called Tamarida) on the island of Soqōṭrā in the late nineteenth century. Except for a period of Kathīrī occupation during the sixteenth century CE, Qishn was the economic and political center of al-Mahra and hosted a regular tribal assembly. To this day, it shows traces of its former wealth and prestige in its large, well-appointed (if slightly decayed) homes and mosques and the outlines of its ample agricultural plots and date palm groves worked by former slaves. Qishn was also the chief transfer point for goods moving to and from Soqōṭrā.

Echoing its politically significant past, an older generation of Qishnites can recall a significant amount of Arabic and Mahri poetry that related to the political and diplomatic functions of the ʿAfrārī state. Composers and transmitters of traditional political and tribal poems that have elsewhere been forgotten exist in high numbers in Qishn. For this reason, the native inhabitants of Qishn are commonly regarded across al-Mahra as being particularly eloquent.

The chief tribal lineages of Qishn are Āl ʿAfrār, Ǧeydeḥ (Ar. Jidḥī), Ḥrēzī, Ḳamṣeyt and the mšōyekh lineage Bā ʿAbduh, which supplied the ʿAfrārī sultanate with its judges.

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