When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Sentimental poems reflect the interior state of an individual whose ruminations, psychic turmoil, and emotional agitation may have no bearing on the broader circle of the poet’s kin, friends, associates, or tribe. Strictly sentimental poems are, for the most part, recent compositions that imitate Arabic lyric poetry. Such poems are adverse to political commitment and their sentimentality may reach such a degree of detachment from exterior reality that the object of the poet’s desire is rendered strictly in the abstract. Virtually all of the poems in The Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn adhere to this sentimental maximalism. Traditional sentimental poetry may not be as circumspect; the object of the poet’s affection or the cause of his or her distress is often explicitly named by older poets or poets who have preserved a more traditional tone.

Traditional lyric poetry in al-Mahra may combine elements of occasionality and sentiment, thereby rendering a strict separation between the two categories difficult to discern. For instance, the poem “Homesick in Najrān” expresses a father’s longing for his two sons who left him in Najrān in order to visit relatives in al-Mahra. The poet retraces their route from Najrān to Wādī Ǧēza in central al-Mahra, the core territory of the tribe of Kalšāt. Toward the end of the poem, the poet alludes to a specific event: the kidnapping and murder of a man from Kalšāt by tribesmen from Maʾrib in northern Yemen. This crime likely precipitated the sons’ return to al-Mahra in order to defend their kin and avenge the murder. The tone of this poem shifts from lyric sentimentality to the cadence of a tribal historical ode (the ōdī we-krēm krēm genre in particular). This poem clearly crosses the dividing line between sentiment and occasion. This is the case for another poem, “Hays and the Saudi Prince,” which opens as a typical šemrēt poem: parental praise for a young girl. By virtue of their topic, šemrēt poems are intrinsically sentimental. However, at the hands of Mahri poet Muḥammad bir Marṭayf, the topic of Hays’ marriage to a Saudi prince is elevated into a national and political drama. Finally, tribal historical odes always begin with a description of the poet’s emotional tumult, occasioned by an egregious violation to tribal custom. In this way, the events described in tribal historical odes are almost always bracketed by sentimental thematic formulas.

In the same manner as poems classified as occasional, the decision to classify poems as sentimental appears to lie with the initial creative inspiration and not necessarily with the final poetic outcome. One general tendency for sentimental poems can be noted. Whereas most traditional sentimental poems integrate occasional elements, we can discern a recent tendency to compose lyric poems that are strictly sentimental and eschew historical and political content. Such poems are, for the most part, modeled after cosmopolitan, Arabic lyric poems and songs. In this way, the sentimental category is becoming more clearly defined among a younger generation of Mahra as contemporary Arabic popular culture becomes ever more entrenched in listening and viewing habits.  

This page has paths:

This page has tags:

Contents of this tag: