When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Mahra, the Āl Kathīr, and the Portuguese (1495 CE - 1548 CE)

By 1495 CE, the Bā Dujāna family appears to have been in control of al-Shiḥr for at least eighteen years, although the Kathīrī sultans of Ḥaḍramawt continued to threaten the city throughout this period, going so far as to attack and establish control over some portion of it in 1488 CE (Muqaddam, 2005: 301, citing Shanbal). Anticipating such an incursion, the Bā Dujāna family (or possibly the Āl ʿAfrār) had previously prepared the island of Soqotra as a refuge and settled it with their confederates from the Slōyem, Zwēdī, and ʿAfrār tribes (Muqaddam, 2005: 300, citing ʾAḥmad b. Mājid [d. ca. 1500 CE] from his maritime navigation treatise, al-Fawāʾid fī ʾuṣūl ʿilm al-baḥr wa-al-qawāʿid; also see Serjeant, 1974: 157-58). This decision carried an important consequence: from this time onward, Soqotra would remain socially linked to al-Mahra through bonds of consanguinity and politically tied to al-Mahra under a common sultan. Indeed, the sovereign Mahri sultanate that existed until 1967 was ruled by the Āl ʿAfrār from their capital of Hadibo on Soqotra and the political and administrative union of Soqotra and al-Mahra remains a popular ambition in al-Mahra today.  However, Mahri foresight in extending their authority to Soqotra in the fifteenth century CE had more immediate payback: when Badr b. Muḥammad al-Kathīrī attacked al-Shiḥr in 1488 CE, Saʿd b. ʾUmbārak b. Fāris, the leader of the Bā Dujāna family, called upon his allies on Soqotra to sail to their aid; this they did and forced the Kathīrī army to retreat from al-Shiḥr (Muqaddam, 2005: 300-301, citing Shanbal). 

While the Bā Dujāna family remained secure in al-Shiḥr for the next seven years (1488-95 CE), the seeds of their political displacement were taking root. In 1493 CE, a rivalry between two formerly allied tribes from western al-Mahra, the Bayt Ziyād (Mhr. Zwēdī) and the Bayt Muḥammad (Mhr. Mhōmed), led to open conflict, and the Bā Dujāna took the side of the Bayt Muḥammad/Mhōmed against their former allies, the Bayt Ziyād/Zwēdī. In response, the Bayt Ziyād sought an alliance with the Kathīrī sultan in Ḥaḍramawt, who agreed to attack the Mhōmed in their fortress in Qishn—the first Kathīrī incursion into a region squarely within the current boundaries of al-Mahra (Muqaddam, 2005: 302, citing Shanbal). Sensing an opportunity to wreak further havoc on the Bā Dujāna, the Kathīrī sultan, Jaʿfar b.ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAmr, reinforced his army in 1495 CE with newly minted Zwēdī allies and invested al-Shiḥr with siege works. Despite reinforcements brought by his son, ʿAbdallāh, who arrived from Dhofar, Jaʿfar b.ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAmr was forced to abandon the siege after twenty days and decamped to the agricultural settlement of Tabāla on the outskirts of al-Shiḥr, the first stop on his way back to his capital in Ḥaḍramawt, Sayʾūn (Muqaddam, 2005: 301, citing Bā Faqīh and Shanbal). Receiving news that Jaʿfar b. ʿAbdallāh had divided his troops and retained only a small escort for his personal protection, Saʿd b. Umbārak Bā Dujāna leapt at the chance to finish off his Kathīrī antagonist once and for all. Against the advice of his councilors, Saʿd b. Umbārak Bā Dujāna left the safety of al-Shiḥr and personally led an assault on the fortified position in Tabāla held by Jaʿfar b. ʿAbdallāh, who, as it turned out, was well supported by his Zwēdī allies. The attack turned into a rout: over one hundred of Saʿd b. Umbārak Bā Dujāna’s men were killed, and Jaʿfar b. ʿAbdallāh launched an immediate and successful counterattack against al-Shiḥr, achieving in a short time what a decade of concerted effort had failed to accomplish (Muqaddam, 2005: 302-3, citing Shanbal and Bā Faqīh). From his position in control of al-Shiḥr, Jaʿfar b. ʿAbdallāh al-Kathīrī was able to dictate favorable terms for a cease-fire: in exchange for control of al-Shiḥr and the reduction to rubble of the Bayt Muḥammad/Mhōmed’s fortress in Qishn, Bā Dujāna and his men were given safe passage to their home turf, Ḥayrīj (Muqaddam, 2005: 303-4, citing Bā Faqīh and Shanbal). At this point, the power of the Bā Dujāna family was effectively broken, and the family faded into obscurity: Saʿd b. ʾUmbārak Bā Dujāna would later be killed in Mombasa along with some men from the Mhōmed tribe (al-Jidḥī, 2013: 164-65, citing al-Kindī, Bā Faqīh, and al-Ḥāmid), and the last scion of the Bā Dujāna family would be forced out of Ḥayrīj by the ambitious Kathīrī sultan, Badr Bū Ṭuwayriq, in 1539 CE (al-Jidḥī, 2013: 167, citing al-Kindī). In their stead, the ʿAfrārī family, based in Soqotra and Qishn and supported by their Zwēdī kinsmen, would assume preeminence in Mahri political affairs as the primary standard bearers of the revanchist tendency in pre- (and post-) republican al-Mahra. For instance, in 1531 CE, Saʿīd bin ʿAbdallāh bin ʿAfrār coordinated an attempt to wrest al-Shiḥr from Kathīrī control; the attempt came to naught after Muḥammad bin Ṭawʿarī (a name associated with the Zwēdī tribe and later to be claimed by the ʿAfrār as their sole tribal subsection) refused to assist in the campaign (al-Jidḥī, 2013: 167, citing al-Kindī and Bā Faqīh; also Dostal, 1989: 30). While Saʿīd bin ʿAbdallāh bin ʿAfrār does not yet merit the label of an independent sovereign in this account, the fact that he receives mention indicates that ʿAfrārī power and leadership was ascendant in al-Mahra.   

With the exception of the abortive attack on al-Shiḥr in 1531 CE, Mahri military activity from the early sixteenth century CE onward would be defensive: having surrendered al-Shiḥr to the Kathīrī sultans, the energies of the ʿAfrārī sultanate would be devoted to defending the borders of the core territory of al-Mahra, which at the time included Soqotra. The success of the ʿAfrārī sultanate in holding the line can be measured by the fact that the western borders of the ʿAfrārī sultanate would be the same as those of the administrative governorate of al-Mahra by the end of the republican era in 2014 (with the exception of Soqotra, which was annexed to the Aden Governorate in 1967 and the Governorate of Ḥaḍramawt in 2004). In short, the western border of the Mahri-speaking territory after 1495 CE would thenceforth be located 200 km. to the east of al-Shiḥr at Ḥayrīj and Sayḥūt, where Wādī Masīla meets the Arabian Sea.

The political situation in al-Mahra in 1495 CE—Kathīrī expansionism and the eclipse of the Bā Dujāna family by the Āl ʿAfrār—sets the stage for one of the most famous chapters in Mahri history. Faced with the loss of al-Shiḥr on their western border, the Mahra were dealt an unexpected blow in 1506-7 CE when sixteen Portuguese caravels led by Afonso de Albuquerque (d. 1515 CE) sailed into in the Arabian Sea and seized Soqotra from the Mahra, killing ʿĀmir b. Ṭawʿarī al-Zuwaydī, son of the Zwēdī sheikh in Qishn, and fifty Mahra soldiers in the course of fierce hand-to-hand fighting to take the fortress at Sūq (Muqaddam, 2005: 313, 321-29 and Serjeant, 1974: 43, citing Shanbal and Bā Faqīh). In 1510 CE, the Zwēdī launched their response: two sons of the Zwēdī sheikh, Khamīs and ʿAmr, led a force that sailed from Qishn, landed in Soqotra, and, after brief negotiations, killed ten of the Portuguese and reclaimed the island for the Mahra and the Zwēdī-ʿAfrārī shaykhdom (Muqaddam, 2005: 334 and Serjeant, 1974: 46, citing Shanbal).

From the moment of Albuquerque’s appearance in the Arabian Sea at the beginning of the sixteenth century CE, the South Arabian littoral became an arena of conflict between the Portuguese and the Ottomans, with the Kathīrī sultanate of Ḥaḍramawt and the Mahra under ʿAfrārī-Zwēdī leadership maneuvering against one another by courting the support of the two imperial rivals. However, the fact that the Mahra occasionally partnered with the Portuguese has been held against the Mahra by Ḥaḍramī partisans as a blemish on their history; in contrast, the Kathīrīs appear to have generally collaborated with the Ottoman Turks (although not always; see Serjeant, 1974: 29). For instance, in 1523 CE, a flotilla of nine Portuguese ships attacked and pillaged al-Shiḥr, claiming that the property of a Portuguese merchant who had died in al-Shiḥr had been unlawfully seized by the Kathīrī sultan, Badr bin ʿAbdallāh Bū Ṭuwayriq. With the apparent collusion of some Mahra, the Portuguese killed a great number of the town’s defenders, including seven of its legal scholars and learned men who would collectively come to be a known as “The Seven Martyrs of al-Shiḥr” and whose tomb would become the site of an annual pilgrimage (Muqaddam, 2005: 343-46, citing al-Kindī and Bā Faqīh, and al-Jidḥī, 2013: 208-20).  Two Mahri historians, Muqaddam and al-Jidḥī, have recently set forth a challenge to the negative depiction of the Mahra as Portuguese collaborators, pointing out that the Mahra fought against the Portuguese and harassed their ships as frequently as they assisted them, and, moreover, that any collaboration needs to be understood within the context of Kathīrī aggression against Mahri territories in al-Shiḥr and Qishn, often with the direct support of the Ottoman Turks.     

The détente between the Kathīrī sultanate based in Sayʾūn in Ḥaḍramawt and the Mahra under the leadership of the Āl ʿAfrār and Zwēdī ended in 1545 CE when the Kathīrī sultan Badr bin ʿAbdallāh Bū Ṭuwayriq (r. 1516-65 CE) embarked on a massive campaign by land and sea to take Qishn and, having done so, compelled the head of the ʿAfrārī family and a coterie of his supporters to flee the city. Faced with an uprising by the Mahra west of Qishn in the following year, Badr bin ʿAbdallāh al-Kathīrī, supported by Turks, northern Yemenis and Mahra from the Mhōmed tribe, marched against a force of Zwēdī and ʿAfrārī tribesmen at the pass of Līban (or Layban), near Sayḥūt, killing approximately sixty of the Zwēdī and ʿAfrār confederates (Muqaddam, 2005: 281-82, citing Bā Faqīh and al-Kindī). However, we hear about Badr bin Ṭuwayriq’s conquest of Qishn only after the fact: Bā Faqīh (citing Bā Makhrama) reports that, in 1548 CE, a Portuguese fleet harassing the Ottomans along the South Arabian coast was accompanied by Saʿd bin ʿĪsā bin ʿAfrār, the apparent leader of the ʿAfrārī family, who had previously sent his brother to enlist the aid of the Portuguese after the ʿAfrār were forced to flee Qishn in 1545 CE. Having turned back from Aden in the face of a newly arrived Ottoman fleet, the Portuguese ships (along with Saʿd bin ʿĪsā bin ʿAfrār) made their way to Qishn and attacked its fort—now garrisoned by Kathīrī troops and their allies—and, after a heavy bombardment, forced its capitulation and restored it to ʿAfrārī control (Serjeant, 1974: 108-9, citing Bā Faqīh).

The accounts in written historical chronicles may be buttressed by oral folk narratives that still circulate among the Mahra concerning the seminal years of 1545-48 CE. In popular oral narratives, the loss of Qishn and its restoration to Mahri control is linked to the foundation of the ʿAfrārī sultanate (which remained a nominally sovereign state until 1967 CE), and the events of 1545-48 CE are given a symbolic cast in popular retellings. Not all of the facts between the written chronicles and oral narratives add up: the role of the Portuguese is generally elided in oral narratives circulated by the Mahra; moreover, Serjeant points out that time is greatly telescoped in the oral history of the years 1545-48 CE (Serjeant, 1974: 156).  However, the significance of this narrative is deeply felt by the Mahra; no less than four versions of it have been recorded by foreign researchers (including one by myself) from Mahri and Soqotri consultants: Walter Dostal (1989: 30-31), R.B. Serjeant (1974: 155-56), and Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle (2002: 227-42).  The following version, recorded in 2008 in al-Ghaydha, was related to me by Ḥājj bir Ālī bir Dākōn:

When the Kathīrī invaded al-Mahra, the sayf al-dawla [“the Sword of the State,” i.e., the sultan’s standing army] and the Bayt Mhōmed, who lived near ʿItāb in the direction of Sayḥūt, switched to the side of the Āl Kathīr and so Badr bin Tuwayriq was able to take Qishn and depose the Āl ʿAfrār. The sultan’s wife—a woman of the Bayt Ziyād—was pregnant and gave birth to a son. She raised him amongst the Zwēdī and he thought he was Zwēdī as well. One day, he learned that his father’s family had been murdered and asked his mother whether any property was due to them. She responded: “Just a few slaves, and if you ever ask about them, Ṭuwayriq will kill you too!” When he grew older, the lad’s maternal uncle bought him some slaves and a boat and he sailed to Soqotra where he lived anonymously as the assistant to a wealthy merchant. He became close to the merchant, who had a daughter but no other relatives. The merchant’s daughter fell in love with the lad from the mainland, who was, in fact, the last living member of the Āl ʿAfrār. They were married but he refused to consummate the marriage. When she asked why he refused her, he revealed who he really was and swore that he would not lay with her until he had taken back his birthright, Qishn, from the Āl Kathīr. His wife urged him to ask her father for his assistance; her father agreed and offered boats and manpower. Even the daughter, the wife of the deposed sultan, participated in the campaign against the Kathīrīs. The last ʿAfrārī’s army—composed largely of Soqotris and slaves—defeated Badr bin Tuwayriq who fled from Qishn into the hinterlands of Mahra. While passing through the country far from Qishn, Badr came across a young Mahri Bedouin girl who was dancing the tanwīś: swinging her head and flipping her tresses in joy. He asked her why she was so happy and she replied that the ʿAfrār had retaken Qishn. Badr was shocked that the news had travelled quicker than he had fled and gave the girl his golden jambiyya—a dagger—and his belt as a token of his respect. When the girl returned to her family’s camp and showed them the gifts, they surmised that she had met Badr bin Tuwayriq. This story proves that news travels amongst the Bedouin faster than lightning! Back in Qishn, the wealthy trader died and left all of his wealth to his daughter, who funded the new ʿAfrārī state. 

Other versions of this tale differ only in the details. For instance, in the version recorded by Serjeant (1974: 155-56), the treasonous Sayf al-Dawla is an individual, and Badr bin Ṭuwayriq’s legacy is bloodier: he butchers the Āl ʿAfrīr/ʿAfrār to a person (Dostal, 1989: 30), and their grave markers may still be seen near Yabnī (Serjeant, 1974: 155). “Yabnī” here is probably the same place where the sixty Zwēdī and ʿAfrār tribesmen were killed in 1546 CE; “Līban” (or “Layban”) can easily be read in Arabic as a scribal error. The boy is given a name in most versions, Saʿīd (or Saʿd), that comports with the historical account of a Saʿīd (or Saʿd) bin ʿAfrār who was found travelling with the Portuguese in 1548 CE. In virtually all renditions of the tale, Saʿd bin ʿAfrār also adopts the nom de guerre Abū Shawārib (“He-of-the-Mustaches”) for his refusal to trim his whiskers and consummate his marriage until he reclaimed his birthright. In Serjeant’s version, the father of Saʿd’s Soqotri wife is “Sulṭān bin Mājid,” a reflection of the mythological stature that ʾAḥmad bin Mājid (d. ca. 1500 CE), the famed navigator and author of al-ʿUmda al-baḥriyya, attained in later centuries. In both Serjeant’s and Dostal’s versions, the ruler of Soqotra enlists the support of the Portuguese and together they expel Badr bin Ṭuwayriq from Qishn and install Saʿd Abū Shawārib bin ʿAfrār as the sultan. In Serjeant’s version Sa’d Abū Shawārib’s wife gives birth to a son, Ṭawʿarī, who in turn has two children, ʿĀmir and Saʿd, one of whom ruled Soqotra as its sultan, and the other, Qishn.

While we can take certain details of the oral narrative with a grain of salt, the basic gist of the tale comports with near-contemporaneous written accounts; moreover, the oral history includes important thematic elements that enable deeper and more detailed reading of premodern Mahri history. For one, the Abū Shawārib narrative confirms the deeply intertwined personal history between the Zwēdī and ʿAfrārī tribes insofar as it posits that the sole remaining member of the ʿAfrārī family was brought up among the Zwēdī and even thought that he himself was Zwēdī. Moreover, there appears to have been a long-lasting enmity between the Mhōmed and the Zwēdī tribes; it is therefore unsurprising to read that the Mhōmed participated with the Āl Kathīr in deposing the close confederates of the Zwēdī, the Bayt ʿAfrār. Finally, the Bayt Ziyād is understood to have served as the sayf al-dawla to the ʿAfrārī sultan in the pre-republican era; they appear to have inherited this title from the Mhōmed, who lost it after collaborating with Badr bin Ṭuwayriq against the Āl ʿAfrār.

As seen in the written chronicles, the Zwēdī and ʿAfrār may be referred to interchangeably, and it is often unclear where one family begins and the other ends; this is certainly the case for the settlement of Soqotra in the final decades of the fifteenth century CE. Walter Dostal addresses the confusion between the ʿAfrārī and Zwēdī tribes (Dostal, 1989: 31); however, whereas Dostal uses this fact to confirm a Zwēdī presence in Soqotra, we may also suppose that the Bayt ʿAfrār was initially a subunit (fakhīdha) within a larger Zwēdī tribe, and that only after the events of the mid-fifteenth century CE did the ʿAfrārī lineage emerge as an autonomous social and political entity. The relatively recent emergence of an ʿAfrārī lineage would explain their small number overall and the paucity of subdivisions within the tribe. (Only one subdivision, the Ṭawʿarā, is understood to exist within the ʿAfrār tribe.) Mahri storytellers, however, could explain the modest composition of Bayt ʿAfrār as stemming from their near-extirpation in 1545 CE: it certainly makes for a better tale and preserves the notion of an independent and sovereign ʿAfrārī lineage. Further, the origins of the most recent standard bearers of the Mahri revanchist tendency, the Āl ʿAfrār, at the moment of their near-extirpation brings us back to one of the earliest, quasimythical narratives about the Mahra: the wholesale slaughter of the Mahra during the Ridda Wars (632-33 CE), the flight of the Mahri women to the mountains, and the reconstitution of the Mahra through intermarrying with the folk who lived there. It is difficult to determine where historical fact can be disambiguated from folk parable or how the narrative of the Ridda War subsequently informed the Abū Shawārib narrative; however, the deep thematic correspondence between the two narratives suggests an archetypal, quasihistorical framework in which the Mahra confront their precarious state as a linguistic minority, juxtaposed with the means for their persistence.

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