Mahri Poetry Archive



Two Mahri poets I spoke with (Ḥājj Dākōn and ʿAlī Nāṣir Balḥāf) pointed to a fundamental distinction between poems that address a specific event (Ar. ḥadath muʿayyan) and those that 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 other classificatory parameters such as length or line structure.

The occasionality of marked genres such the tribal historical ode (ōdī we-krēm krēm) and “dueling” couplets (reǧzīt) is unambiguous since poems belonging to these genres are meant to articulate a collective response to a specific act (a murder, theft, boundary dispute, etc.).  Sentimental poems reflect the interior state of an individual whose ruminations, psychic turmoil and emotional agitation have virtually no bearing on the broader circle of the poet’s kin, friends, associates or tribe.  Strictly sentimental poems are, for the most part, recent compositions that imitate Arabic lyric poetry.  Such poems are adverse to political commitment and their sentimentality may reach such a degree of detachment from exterior reality that the object of the poet’s desire is rendered solely in the abstract.  Virtually all of the poems in The Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn adhere to this sentimental maximalism.  Traditional sentimental poetry may not be as circumspect; the object of the poet’s affection or the cause of his or her distress is often explicitly named by older poets or those who maintain a more traditional poetic praxis.

Traditional lyric poetry in al-Mahra may combine elements of occasionality and sentiment, thereby rendering a strict separation between the two categories difficult to discern. For instance, the poem Homesick in Najrān is an expression of a father’s longing for his two sons who left him in Najrān in order to visit relatives in al-Mahra.  The poet retraces their route from Najrān to Wādī Ǧēza in central al-Mahra, the core territory of the tribe of Kalšāt.  Towards the end of the poem, the poet alludes to a specific event: the kidnapping and murder of a man from Kalšāt by tribesmen from Maʾrib in Northern Yemen.  This crime, in fact, likely precipitated the sons’ return to al-Mahra in order to defend their kin and avenge the murder.  The tone of this poem shifts from lyric sentimentality to the cadence of tribal historical odes (the ōdī we-krēm krēm genre in particular).  This poem clearly crosses the dividing line between sentiment and occasion.  This is the case for another poem, Hays and the Saudi Prince, which opens as a typical šemrēt poem (praise for a young girl).  By virtue of their topic, šemrēt poems are intrinsically sentimental.  However, at the hands of Mahri poet Muḥammad bir Marṭayf, the topic of Hays’ marriage to a Saudi prince is elevated to the national and political stage and verges into the realm of occasionality (despite the fact that the occasion is treated in a fantastical manner).  Finally, tribal historical odes always begin with a description of the poet’s emotional tumult, occasioned by an egregious violation to tribal custom (ʿurf).  In this way, the events described in tribal historical odes are almost always bracketed by sentimental thematic formulas.

In summary, many traditional Mahri poems (particularly those belonging to the ōdī we-krēm krēm and reǧzīt genres) can be unequivocally catalogued as occasional.  We can also discern a recent tendency to compose lyric poems that are strictly sentimental (such as the lyric poems included in The Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn).  However, the bulk of traditional Mahri poetics tend to lay at different points along the spectrum of occasionality and sentimentality and thereby defy easy categorization.




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