When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Sayḥūt and Wadi Masīla

Sayḥūt and Wadi Masīla are the westernmost provinces of al-Mahra. Although these districts were critically important in al-Mahra’s premodern history as a staging ground for Mahri territorial ambitions to the west (which reached as far as al-Shiḥr) and were contested turf between the ʿAfrārī sultanate and their Kathīrī rivals from Ḥaḍramawt, the districts of Sayḥūt and Wadi Masīla remained decidedly peripheral to al-Mahra through the early 2000s (until construction on a paved road linking Sayḥūt, Qishn, and al-Ghaydha was completed in 2004). The inhabitants of these two districts orient more toward the Governorate of Ḥaḍramawt and its cities of al-Shiḥr, Dīs, and al-Mukallā than to Qishn or al-Ghaydha in al-Mahra. Because the coastal road from Sayḥūt to Qishn was paved in 2004 and tunnels bored through coastal mountains, greater commerce between far western al-Mahra and the central coast of al-Mahra may restore the formerly close ties between the far western districts and the rest of the governorate to which they belong.

As a result, I met no Mahri speakers from Sayḥūt or Wadi Masīla during my fieldwork in al-Ghaydha, even during trips to the westerly district of Qishn. I have no specimens of poetry from the far western districts with the possible exception of “Tea With Milk” (see below) which was composed by Muḥammad Sālim al-Jidḥī when he passed through Sayḥūt on his way back home to Qishn.

My consultants from Qishn and al-Ghaydha claimed that the Mahri-speaking population of Sayḥūt and Wadi Masīla is composed largely of the descendants of African slaves who do not speak “proper” Mahri but rather a mixed Ḥaḍrami Arabic-Mahri creole they referred to (in Arabic) as ẓanniyya. This term was generally used to describe any mixed Arabic-Mahri dialect spoken by non-indigenous residents of al-Mahra and was often associated with low social status. Due to the prevalence of agriculture in Sayḥūt and Wadi Masīla, it is possible that Afro-Mahra do comprise a significant percentage of the local population, although linguistic performance judgements by native speakers tend to be clouded by racial and socioeconomic factors. However, it is possible that traditional Mahri poetics is simply not as prevalent in the far western districts as it is elsewhere in al-Mahra, and that its inhabitants prefer composing poetry in Ḥaḍrami-dialectal Arabic.

The chief tribes of Sayḥūt and Wadi Masīla are the Zwēdī (who share a linked history with the Āl ʿAfrār), Āl ʿAḳīd, Āl Mḥāmed, Bayt ʿAršī, and Bayt Ḳamṣeyt. The chief mšōyekh lineages of Sayḥūt and Wadi Masīla are Āl Bākrīt and Āl Bā ʿAbūd.

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