When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


A fundamental division exists within the Mahri poetic practice: poems that take an occasion or historical event as their cue and those that express a sentiment or feeling. The primacy of this distinction was articulated to me by two Mahri poets I spoke with, Ḥājj Dākōn and ʿAlī Nāṣir Balḥāf, who categorized poems according to whether they address a specific event (Ar. ḥadath muʿayyan) or they do not address a specific event (Ar. lā yūjad ḥadath). Therefore, the distinction between poems of sentiment and those that address a specific event exists within the native metapoetic practice, unlike the other classificatory parameters such as length or line structure. These latter features were described to me by my Mahri consultants only within the context of specific poems and not as globally relevant classificatory features.

Despite the straightforward distinction between sentimental and occasional poems made by Ḥājj Dākōn and ʿAlī Nāṣir Balḥāf, these categories exist in their purest forms only at the extreme ends of a spectrum whose intermediate range includes poems that link events with personal sentiment or vice versa. An event may lead to an emotional reflection on the part of the poet, or, conversely, a mood or feeling may be subsequently tied to an historical occurrence. Whether a poem is judged occasional or sentimental is a function of authorial inspiration and the audience’s surmise: Has the poet been provoked to poetic expression due to a specific event or by a sentiment? Which of the two appears to have been the motivating factor behind the poem? Thus, the poem’s occasionality or sentimentality may be judged through an initial impression, not by how the poem ultimately concludes.

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