When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

The Waning Years of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate

This is an exchange between Bir Frēǧ Kalšāt, a ṣūfī and caretaker of the shrine of al-Mahwī in Ṣaḳr, and Muḥammad ʿAlī bir ʿAfrār, the ʿAfrārī sultan’s representative (Ar. nāʾib) in Qishn. Muḥammad ʿAlī is the uncle of ʿAbd al-Saʿīd bir ʿAfrār. Detailed analysis of this exchange can be found below.

Recited by ʿAbd al-Saʿīd bin ʿAfrār (“Shaykh Hamza”) and recorded by Sam Liebhaber at ʿAbd al-Saʿīd’s home in Qishn, January 2004.

Recited by ʿAmr Sālim Šalmōten al-Jidḥī and recorded by Sam Liebhaber at ʿAmr Sālim’s home in Qishn, January 2004.

Bir Frēǧ:Translation
1a) tawwen nemdēd esseyr // we-nbōleġ b-ʾadēd // hal eǧerf ywūṣōlLet us now continue our journey // and cast our fishing net // where it may arrive at the sardine grounds
2a) we-rbōn ḏ-heh fḳēh // śōreḥ le-msawreḥ kel // w-meśtīwer yekhōlThe discerning skipper // keeps control wherever action is called for // and the skilled one has good sense.
Muḥammad bir ʿAlī:Translation
1b) ḏeybar we-ḥmō ḏ-hōh // be-ḳwōyem we-śhūd // brī men āṭōlThe land and water are mine // by proofs and witnesses // that are free from fault
2b) ār w-bēr eśōra leh // we-ḳdōm hṭ̌er essed // be-ǧzē w-heflōlExcept for that which is beyond the law // on borders established before me // by bands of men and armies.
Bir Frēǧ:Translation
1c) tōǧer neǧḥedh lā // men emōl ḏ-berh šeh // we-nʾawmer yešhōlWe don’t deny what belongs to the traders // and the property that he owns // we say that he deserves it
2c) ār ḫṭeyr eṭ̌almīt // śbeḥ mens yerdūd // w-maksēres yehbōlBut [upon] the dangerous, dark sea // the swimmer must turn back // or the waves in narrow places will smash him to pieces.
Muḥammad bir ʿAlī:Translation
1d) ḳyūd ḏ-ke-nnehōr // ebrī men eġwōṭ // we-mšettem hāḥwōlThe bonds of time past // free from any uncertainty // whose terms were perfect and complete
2d) we-ṣrōma lad zhedk // hes essībeh berkeh // we-ḥrīh mhaġwōlNow I don’t understand them // as though the swimmer is in the sea // but the heads are hidden.
Bir Frēǧ:Translation
1e) rōyes yezhōd eśśebk // w-ḳawwet men ṣnāt // wel ṭawreḥ heḏbōlThe mindful fisherman knows his net // and the strength of its manufacture // and doesn’t overlook the fringes at the ends
2e) we-wǧāʾ ḏ-heh ḳwey // yṭefh kel yawm // yḥawzer mentəhōlWhere its weak points are most severe // he checks it over every day // and tries to limit any damage.
Muḥammad bir ʿAlī:Translation
1f) hōyem meḳtīda lā // w-elmeth ḏe-ssewīṭ // wel ġayṭ̌eh yedwōlThe grasping person is bound by nothing // his dorsal fin thrashes above the water line // his ill intentions do not lessen with time
2f) ār w-deḥmeh ṭbīb // be-mḳawdeḥ eśśəyēḫ // we-ḫdōmem tēh bīḫōlExcept if a doctor attacks him // with a large bore instrument // and is busy against him, like an untreatable illness.
Bir Frēǧ:Translation
1g) ṣrōme šōhī ṣār // be-ssennēt emaḥmūt // we-mnawśī eṭṭīwōlNow the communists have arisen // with an exchange of piercing iron // and their massive tools of war
2g) we-ḏ-hēh brēk edawr // ḳaṣf ṭ̌eyreh kel yawm // we-mwōź nwīġ abōlThat one in the fortress // they strike it every day // and the percussions trouble the mind.
Muḥammad bir ʿAlī:Translation
1h) kel ḏ-lad efōker lā // w-ḏīḳawleb le-dmēm // we-ǧdemh ḏ-yeġdōlThe one who acts without thinking about others // it burdens his conscience // woe unto the one who bears it!
2h) ṯēḳel yelḥōḳ eǧawf // we-zmōmer yāźeyd // we-mġōren yefšōlThe weight of it sinks into his chest // his body’s strength is stricken with pain // and in the end, it fails him.
Bir Frēǧ:Translation
1i) ḥāmel tē wlū zyūd // ślūlen tēh rīkōb // we-l-ewōber yeshōlEven if the weight were increased // the beasts-of-burden could carry it // and the best camels would do it with ease
2i) tē wlū leḳā ykūn // twaḥyen kel yawm // w-berkēhem eǧīhōlEven if things are as they are // they are able to do it every day // though amongst them are wrong-doers.
Muḥammad bir ʿAlī:Translation
1j) tewwen nemdēd emawl // be-śśrūṭ mwetteḳeyn // we-mreddef heḳdōlIt’s best we loosed the rope // with all the conditions agreed upon // and the tie bound twice over
2j) we-ḫzōyen neṣkēk // elyēk henyōb // sdēd w-hāḳfōlThe storage rooms are closed // though they be spacious // they are blocked off and locked.

By the 1960s, the authority of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate began to lose its luster as it faced serious domestic criticism. For one, the social underpinnings of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate were challenged by the militant antifeudalism espoused by the National Liberation Front (the NLF, al-Jubha), an umbrella revolutionary group that was the leading contender for authority in postcolonial South Yemen. By the mid-1960s, the NLF had gained the upper hand against its rivals; it was firmly entrenched in Ḥaḍramawt and had proven its mettle against the British Special Air Services group in their counterinsurgency campaigns in Radfān in 1963. Secondly, an organization of Mahri workers and students who had returned from the Persian Gulf, the Mahra Youth Organization (Munaẓammat shabāb al-Mahra), pushed local sentiment toward union with the NLF and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for the transition from sultanate to Marxist republic.

This exchange of reǧzīt captures the political and social uncertainty of the waning years of the ʿAfrārī Sultanate and is a witness to the breakdown of traditional lines of authority. Garbed almost entirely in maritime metaphors, this exchange discusses the obligations of the tribal muqaddam to his sultan and vice versa. Both sides seem to agree that these obligations are no longer being met.

In (a), Bir Frēǧ sets the metaphorical framework: their exchange will be like a fishing trip, their creativity will be their nets, and reǧzīt couplets will be pulled from “rich fishing grounds.” Continuing the metaphor, Bir Frēǧ adds that the sultan (the ship’s captain, rbōn) can bring the ship safely home provided that he is wise (fḳēh) and skilled (or well advised, meśtīwer).

The nāʾib sulṭān, Muḥammad bir ʿAlī, responds with a couplet that reflects a major concern for the Āl ʿAfrār: the security of property rights in the face of growing anti-feudal sentiment. In (b), Muḥammad bir ʿAlī sets out the first principle of his (i.e., the sultan’s) position: what is his, is his; beyond that, he makes no claims. His property is a function of inherited rights, through tribal custom (al-ʿarāf) and through his kin (ǧzē), as well as by the force of his armed soldiers (haflōl). In (c), Bir Frēǧ repudiates the most extreme rhetoric of the NLF and reaffirms the right of private property; the traders (tōǧer) shall not be deprived of the property (amōl) which they have earned (yešhōl). However, he warns that the sultan is one person swimming against an entire sea, and that some compromise (yerdūd) will be necessary lest he be “smashed to pieces” (yehbōl).

The nāʾib sulṭān responds in (d) by turning the metaphor around: the sultan is indeed a swimmer lost at sea because the heads (ḥrīh) of the other swimmers (i.e., the muqaddams on whom he depends for guidance) have disappeared and abandoned him (mhaġwōl). In doing so, the muqaddams have forsaken “the bonds of time past” (ḳyūd kennəhōr), which spelled out their duties and responsibilities to the sultan, were free from error (ebrī men eġwōṭ), and were always fulfilled (mšettem hāḥwōl). Bir Frēǧ responds in (e) by pointing out that the mindful fisherman knows his net (i.e., the sultan should know his subjects); in particular, the fisherman knows the sections that are weak and those that are strong. The implication here is that if the social “net” is broken, it is because the sultan has failed to check it and to make repairs.

In (f), the nāʾib sulṭān takes a fairly belligerent line. He describes the threat to the sultan’s authority as a shark swimming below the surface of the water whose dorsal fin betrays its predatory intention. In a like way, the sultan’s enemies believe they are silently moving in for the kill, yet their “thrashing” gives them away. To defend himself, the sultan will confront the danger like a doctor faces illness but with large calibre “instruments” and will show the persistence of an infectious disease (bīḫōl). In (g), Bir Frēǧ follows with a reference to current affairs, namely, to the attacks led by the NLF (šōhī) against the British in Aden (“that one in the fortress”). However, Bir Frēǧ describes this fighting in negative terms (“the percussions trouble the mind”) in order to demonstrate to the sultan that he takes a dim view of the conflict and prefers symbolic violence (such as this poetic exchange) over violent revolution. Yet the threat remains hanging: revolution is at the border of al-Mahra whether the sultan wants it or not.

In (h), the nāʾib sulṭān (?) warns Bir Frēǧ (?) against making decisions without considering “all of the others” (his tribal dependents) and then describes the effect of poor decisions as a burdensome weight that gets heavier with time and eventually leads to the disintegration of health (yefšōl). This is a fairly common trope in Mahri poetry (see “Atop the Peak of Ṭarbūt”); the negative consequences of selfish, antisocial decisions are expressed in insomnia and melancholy. In (i), Bir Frēǧ (?) counters that no weight is too heavy for beasts of burden and certainly not for the pedigreed camels of al-Mahra. Indeed, Bir Frēǧ (?) can endure the burdens of responsibility even if ignorant wrongdoers (eǧīhōl) should attempt to thwart him.

The nāʾib sulṭān concludes the exchange before ventures too far into vituperation. He asks that “the rope” between them (the tension) be loosed and their conflicts resolved. He offers a compliment to himself and his competitor: although they have locked up the storage rooms (ḫzōyen) of their creativity for the moment, he avers that both have ample (hanyōb) room for more. This final couplet is binding and the conversation is “blocked off and locked” (sdēd w-hāḳfōl); it is appropriate for the sultan’s representative to get the last word. 

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