When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Most Mahra use the term reǧzīt to refer to any couplet of poetry composed of tristich lines; however, this term more accurately refers to the two performative modes of tristich couplets: collective (Ar. maydānī) performances and individual exchanges (Ar. maraddāt).

Reǧzīt couplets are highly esteemed in al-Mahra; moreover, they have a long history of use in al-Mahra. To quote the Ḥaḍramī scholar Muḥsin Āl Ḥafīẓ: “If the Mahra takes pride in one particular aspect of their heritage, it is the art of the rajaz which they possess and which holds a special place and consideration in their consciousness (fī nafsiyyātihim)” (Āl Ḥafīz, 1987: 68). Since reǧzīt couplets are composed of tristich lines, they are unique to al-Mahra. However, similar genres of exchanged poetic couplets are well documented in the vernacular poetic traditions of southern Arabia and many bear a name that is cognate with Mahri reǧzīt. For instance, the rajza (alternately known as marjaz, mirjūza, or mirjāza) is a type of vernacular poetry from Ḥaḍramawt that is identical to the Mahri reǧzīt in terms of its performance and social function (Landberg, 1920–42, vol. 2: 1135-36). Mahri reǧzīt and Ḥaḍramī Arabic rajza are clearly cognate with literary Arabic rajaz, a written poetic form consisting of monostich lines (rather than hemistich lines) that possesses its own unique meter. There is a remarkable discrepancy in the social and aesthetic status between Mahri reǧzīt, which is viewed as one the most elegant and formal of Mahri poetic modes, and Arabic rajaz, which engenders none of the merit and prestige accorded to the more prestigious literary genre: the qaṣīda. This discrepancy is almost certainly the result of the intervention of a literary poetic practice and changing aesthetic valuation in the Arab world after the seventh century CE that favored the more formally complex qaṣīda composed in hemistichs. In the absence of a literary standard for their own language, Mahri poets and audiences continue to hold the reǧzīt in high regard; no literary genres have yet evolved to challenge its primacy.  

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