When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Theory of Classification

There have been excellent, thoughtful and detailed publications of Arabic-language, oral vernacular poetry from the Arabian Peninsula (Bailey, 2002; Holes and Abu Athera, 2009; Holes and Abu Athera, 2011; Kurpershoek, 1994–2005; Sowayan, 1985). Yet, for the most part, such collections have focused on the multiline, hemistich qaṣīda—the most prestigious form of Arabic vernacular poetics—to the exclusion of quotidian and less revered poetic acts. While this emphasis on the qaṣīda is consonant with local appraisals of poetic value, the greater number of lyric, sung, and strophic poems is eclipsed as a result. A consequence of this approach toward the collection of Arabian vernacular poetry (nabaṭī poetry) is that it gives a preeminent role to genre in the archiving of poetry and holds poetry that doesn’t easily fit into any generic categories at a distance.
This yields a picture of Arabian oral poetry that is weighted toward the tribal historical ode and fails to capture the daily recitation of oral poetry by its many amateur practitioners. While the traditional approach to the study of bedouin vernacular poetry gives a thorough picture of the finest poetry composed by Arab bedouin poets, it is also an unbalanced representation of its multifaceted nature.
As a result of a genre-based conception of the poetic system, the poems are presented as whole, integral, and predetermined text, and not as one—often accidental—outcome of a generative process that commences at the moment of creative inspiration. In print scholarship, poems are thus encountered as unique, unalterable, and irreducible to more fundamental parameters. For instance, vernacular poetry has previously been archived or indexed according to conceptual theme and melody (Sowayan, 1985: 139-140), performance mode (Sowayan, 1985: 140-44), or the individuals who excel in their composition (Holes and Abu Athera, 2009Holes and Abu Athera, 2011; Kurpershoek, 1994-2005). Historically speaking, the poem’s genre or composer provides the basic framework for studies on nabaṭi poetry, with more detailed analysis occurring through the divisions of the tribal qaṣīda into reflexes of the classical literary nasīb, riḥla, and gharaḍ.
The absence of a more granular schema of vernacular poetry from the Arabian Peninsula conveys the perception that its genres are independent, unchanging artifacts, and that, moreover, genre is the basic criterion for defining a poem and cueing its reception amongst listeners. My own fieldwork in al-Mahra suggested differently: that only a subset of poem fit neatly into genre-based categories, and that poems must therefore be generated according to more atomistic parameters. As a consequence, we should expect to find such parameters guiding the creation of a poetic text and steering it toward a performance and subsequent transmission. This process, I believe, occurs as a series of steps that, when rendered in binary fashion, offer a road map to poetic creation within the strictly oral poetic practice of al-Mahra. Such a schema is presented in "Poetry," whereby visitors may travel the route from poetic inspiration to final text in an informal fashion.  
The goal of this site is to set forth a comprehensive scheme for the vernacular poetic traditions of the Arabian Peninsula that indicates the relationships among the various types of poetic act on the basis of primary and fundamental parameters as opposed to the criterion of genre, which is a secondary expression of those parameters. Not only do Mahri poets work through a hierarchical decision-making process on the way to the composition of a poem, but the expression of these parameters is critical in cueing the reception of an individual poem among Mahri audiences. The result is the following classificatory scheme upon which any Mahri poem may be plotted; that is to say, each poem in al-Mahra lies at a unique intersection of the three structural parameters. The various possible intersections resolve upon the composer’s sense of his or her own capacity as a poet; therefore, the intersections are linked to a preferred performance mode (public recitation? collective recitation? private song? etc.). This approach holds true for poems that are commonly assigned to a genre and those that are not. Indeed, this approach encourages us to re-envision genre in Arabian vernacular poetry as nothing more than a preset intersection of the three parameters (and a semicontingent performance mode); that is to say, genre is regular patterning of variables that serves at recurring occasions.

At the heart of this approach to the Mahri poetic system was the realization that many, if not most, of the poems I recorded could not be confidently placed within any particular genre category by my consultants and that a broader means of analysis was required to provide a comprehensive picture of Mahri poetry. 

The four parameters: