When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra


Poems based on a tristich line (three isometric sense units divided by a brief pause) are almost always occasional compositions addressed to a public audience. ʿAskarī Ḥujayrān, the Mahri singer based in al-Ghaydha, described poems that utilize tristich lines as inevitably taking “events of the moment” (Ar. aḥdāth al-sāʿa) as their topic, as opposed to an expression of sentiment that is not linked to a single moment. Accordingly, tristich poetry in al-Mahra rarely deals with expressions of sentiment such as ghazal (love declaration), ʿitāb (rebuke of a lover), and waṣf (description of a beloved). The exception to this is the poem “Message from Sinǧēr,” a lyric poem regarded by my consultants as a poem of exceptional quality. For the most part, sentimental topics fall under the bailiwick of the other two formal categories of Mahri poetry: hemistich and strophic verse. Instead, tristich poems reflect upon an actual event, typically a murder or another grave injustice, that requires a collective response. In the form of ʾōdī we-krēm krēm tribal odes, tristich poems act as historical annals in Mahri society while at the same time fulfilling an immediate persuasive function.

The following example of a tristich line is from “Gunfight in Niśṭawn,” a poem which responds to a shootout between of a group of Mahra and members of the Yemeni security forces that took place in 1997:

ʾāśer šeh drīyet lā // be-rḥōyeb ḏ-ġarbēt // we-ttəḥawdī ḏ-mesḳōt
I have a friend who doesn’t know // living in the western towns // at the edges of Masḳōt

The tristich line appears to be unique to Mahri poetics and is not found in Arabic poetics. Mahri poetry utilizing tristichs should not be confused with Arabic trimeter rajaz. For one, the individual stichs of a Mahri tristich poem are of a different order of quantity: four heavy syllables plus three intervening light syllables: | – ˇ  – ˇ  – ˇ  – | (x3).  Secondly, the individual stichs of a Mahri tristich poem possess a grammatical and conceptual independence not found in a foot of Arabic trimeter rajaz. This distinction is clearly expressed in collective chants of tristich verse where a breathing pause is audible in between each stich.

Poems composed of tristich lines tend to be viewed as the most socially and aesthetically potent forms of Mahri poetry. The most prestigious genre of Mahri poetics, the ʾōdī we-krēm krēm tribal historical ode, is almost always composed in tristich lines.  Amateurish poets generally compose poetry in hemistichs, leaving tristich poems to those Mahra who are most comfortable with the more arduous constraints of poetic line composed of three isometric components.

This page has paths:

This page has tags:

Contents of this tag: