When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Native Mahri speakers belong to one of three basic, although fungible, groupings: 1) those who possess a tribal lineage (Mahri-speaking or otherwise), 2) those who lack a publicly recognized familial or tribal affiliation (primarily the descendants of foreign manual laborers and manumitted slaves), and 3) those who claim a sacerdotal or trade-specific lineage.

What follows is not meant to be taken as a comprehensive analysis of Mahri society; rather, the following analysis is meant to reflect the quasi-imagined world—the idealized al-Mahra—that the poems in this collection both construct and inhabit. The reality of Mahri society is more nuanced than anything the segementary-lineage model might suggest; however, both foreign anthropological shorthand and the vision of Mahri society as shared by the Mahra themselves converge on a notion of a society built from discrete lineages that stem from common ancestors. In actuality, historical shifts have occurred—and are still occurring—that alter the way that the Mahra perceive each other, local authorities, and foreign powers. Employment, natal site, area of residence, degree of public piety, and access to governmental resources are more relevant to interpersonal interactions in present-day al-Mahra than tribal affiliation or the lack thereof.  

However, since poetry relates a largely idealized world of kinship and responsibility to one’s kin, the following description of Mahri society is framed according to the idealized principles of tribal and familial kinship, even if such accounts reflect a nostalgia for a pre-republican imagined community.

The data presented on these pages is derived from interviews with individual Mahri consultants as well as Arabic-language sources written by Mahri authors (Bākrīt, 1999; al-Qumayrī, 2000 & 2003; al-Mahrī, 1983) or non-Mahri residents of al-Mahra (al-ʾAhdal, 1999).  Analysis of Mahri and South Arabian society that emphasizes its historical dynamism and looks beyond the segmentary-lineage model of Arabian tribalism may be found in excellent scholarly works by Serge Elie.

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