When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Charm of Old Age

Lyric poem composed and recited by ʿĪsā Kedḥayt and recorded by Sam Liebhaber at ʿĪsā’s home in Jāḏeb, January 2004.

ʿĪsā Kedḥayt describes his hopeful pursuit of a young woman whose good looks have attracted a legion of young admirers and who herself is no stranger to coquetry. ʿĪsā begins with a traditional formula: “We left in the late afternoon, at sunset” [1]. Following one solemn formula with another, ʿĪsā goes on to describe his elevated vantage point: in this case, a “lofty castle, like a little mountain” [2]. The tone breaks from the sonorous inflections of tribal-historical poetry at this point. The “lofty castle” is not an isolated mountaintop but the castle “where Beauty lives, sweet and desirable” [3]. Moreover, he is not heading toward Beauty’s castle but away from it, in rejection: “I couldn’t get up and leave, I just wanted to look at her” [6]. The poet’s age disqualifies him from competing for her attention despite the fact that his company is preferable to that of the other young men who surround her “like a circle around a campfire” [8]. ʿĪsā has the benefit of wisdom and cunning (“I could perhaps deceive her” [7]); failing that, he can at least keep her amused, unlike the other young men who tire her with their unceasing attention [11]. In his presence, at least, she is able “to laugh or to joke around” [14]. However, ʿĪsā recognizes that in the end, he is merely “the day’s entertainment until she goes packing [to someone else]” [15]. This poem echoes another poem in this exhibit in terms of its subject matter: “Tea With Milk.”

1) šūǧōśen nḥā // berk eśfēḳWe left in the late afternoon, // at sunset
2) men ḳāṣer enawf // hīs edwēhēḳFrom the lofty castle, // like a little mountain
3) hēl ǧīd yeḥlūl // ḥōlī w-māśēḳWhere Beauty lives, // sweet and desireable.
4) eǧēdel erkēz // w-reġb ṭlēḳLegs strong and supple, // [above them] a branch that sways
5) ḥaftetsen kel // b-mēken ṭnēḳShe surpasses all [the other women] // in so many qualities.
6) l-ād śettelk lā // ḥōm ār leġlēḳI couldn’t get up and leave, // I just wanted to look at her
7) tē wlū hwāḫār // bērī leġfēḳEven if I am an old man, // I could perhaps deceive her
8) hēm mēken hnīs // ḏ-ōd ḥeylēḳThere are so many with her, // they’ve become like a circle around a campfire
9) yešfedren kel // eḏ-hēm yesbēḳThey are all jockeying // for who will get to her first.
10) ḥād men enǧūd // w-śī men ḥyēḳOne of them is from the Najd // and another from the coast
11) hēm bāź le-ttōt // we-mḳalle tfēḳSome have come just for pleasure // – how little she enjoys it!
12) w-bāź men hēm // śī lā mrēbēḳAnd for some of them, // there is nothing in common between them [in age]
13) tḥafleh lā // ḫā heh l-ḫeylēḳShe’s indifferent to him, // as though he had never been created
14) ʾāsē w-ṭeźḥōk // wlē teḥzēḳExcept perhaps to laugh // or to joke around
15) maġlīl ḏ-waḳt // tē ǧīd yūśēḳThe day’s entertainment // until she goes packing [to someone else].

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