When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Specified Referent

In the Mahri poetic tradition, sentiment—and the sentimental poems that stem from it—is the product of a relationship or encounter between the poet and another person. Interior reflection bereft of any other human presence is not an act expressed through poetry in al-Mahra. This means that there is always an other in Mahri poems of sentiment.

As a issue of etiquette, a sentimental poet may choose to withhold the name of this poetic other (particularly if the relationship to the other is a romantic one). If the other were portrayed through the lens of desire, naming that person publicly could result in social sanction. On the other hand, many affectionate relationships are publicly celebrated in al-Mahra, such as that between parents and their children or younger kin. Even some relationships that might result in scandal elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula are looked upon in al-Mahra as harmless fun and a source of frivolity. Good natured flirtation, ribbing, and even wistfulness are all acceptable contexts for naming the other as long as the poet’s intentions are harmless. In these latter cases, naming the other is natural and acceptable.  

Sentimental poems in which the love object (“the referent”) is specified—that is, known by name to the intended audience—tend to be more common in the traditional poetic practice of al-Mahra. I suspect that this is due to the generally more relaxed conventions regarding intermingling in the pre-republican era (before 1991); the ribald poetry in this collection inevitably dates from an earlier time. Conversely, sentimental poems in which the love object is not specified, either through social decorum or because the love object is merely an abstraction, tend to be more recent compositions and are imitative of cosmopolitan Arabic lyric poetry.

Sentimental poems with a named referent share an important similarity with occasional poems, namely that both address a verifiable and specific entity outside of the poet’s creative imagination (either a person or an event). Because named referents are more common in the sentimental poetry of the premodern era, the distinction between occasional and sentimental poetry may be less important in the traditional poetic practice and has only become so with the development of clearly defined, non-specified sentimental poetry at the present time.