When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Shiḥn, Ḥāt, and Manʿar are the three land-locked interior districts of al-Mahra. The majority of its inhabitants engage in seminomadic camel husbandry, although a substantial percentage of the population descends to the coasts on a seasonal basis to fish. The inhabitants of these three districts are generally characterized as bedouin by the Mahra living in the coastal regions. There are, however, limited opportunities to grow date palms afforded by springs and wells, particularly around the settlement of Fūǧēt, whose limestone caves hold ample reserves of fresh water.

Due to the “authenticity” (Ar. ʾaṣāla) of their bedouin lifestyle, the Mahra who live in these three districts are commonly viewed as speaking the purest and most eloquent (Ar. ʾafṣaḥ) dialect of Mahri. Indeed, much of the intrinsically Mahri vocabulary that relates to geographical features and bedouin material culture is retained in the inland Mahri dialects, versus the western Mahri coastal dialects that are more influenced by dialectal Arabic. In general, the most frequent examples of Mahri tribal odes that I recorded originated in the inland districts, leading me to suspect that this tradition remained more vital among the bedouin Mahra than among the Mahra living along the coasts. It is possible that tribal identity is stronger among the inland bedouin Mahra, leading to a continued relevance of tribal poetics through the end of the twentieth century. Poetry stemming from the inland districts, as well as the Mahri dialect in which it is couched, tended to evoke the highest esteem from Mahri listeners.

Until the opening of a paved road and tunnels linking Niśṭūn, Qishn, and Sayḥūt in 2004 and the onset of regular passenger flights from al-Rayyan airport in Ḥaḍramawt to al-Ghaydha by 2008, the only paved road linking al-Ghaydha to the rest of Yemen ran through Shiḥn, Ḥāt, and Manʿar in the deep interior of al-Mahra. Indeed, the road was laid with a defensive purpose in mind and thus skirted the northern border of Yemen and the Empty Quarter as closely as possible. Having passed through these districts en route to al-Ghaydha from Sana'a and Ḥaḍramawt multiple times, this writer can attest to the fact that the apparent blankness of the landscape is otherworldly, and that the summer time heat feels like a blow to the face when you first step out of an air-conditioned bus at a rest stop.
The most prominent bedouin tribes of the interior are the Ṣmōda, Ḳamṣeyt, Sāteyn, Zaʿbenōt, and Ḥrēzī tribes.

This page has paths:

Contents of this tag: