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Nouveaux accents de la poésie dialectale en péninsule Arabique

Mahri Oral Poetry and Arabic Nabaṭī Poetry: Common core, divergent outcomes

Samuel Liebhaber

Résumés

Les recueils et études critiques de poésie vernaculaire bédouine de la péninsule Arabique (la poésie nabaṭī) publiés au cours du siècle dernier ont révélé celle-ci en tant que pratique culturelle dynamique dont les spécificités régionales n’affectent pas sa cohérence globale. C’est aussi une tradition multilingue. En termes de thèmes, de motifs et de modèle structurel, la poésie orale dans la langue Mahri du Yémen et celle d’Oman semble être étroitement liée à la poésie nabaṭī. Cet article examine les divers points d’interférence entre la poésie orale Mahri et la poésie nabaṭī en dialectes régionaux de langue arabe, ainsi que ce qui les distingue. En utilisant les traditions poétiques strictement orales du Mahra comme référence, on peut mesurer les variables de l’impact de l’arabe littéraire sur les traditions vernaculaires de la péninsule Arabique dans son ensemble. Ainsi, cet article tente de présenter une étude historique de la poésie orale bédouine prenant en compte les imbrications temporelles et géographiques, ainsi que sa proximité à la tradition poétique arabe littéraire.

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  • 1 Al-Ṣuwayān, 2000, p. 68 and Sowayan, 1985, p. 147; Rosenthal, 1967, p. 412-440.
  • 2 For a history of the scholarship on nabaṭī poetry from Ibn Khaldūn through the present era, see Sow (...)
  • 3 The historical relationship between the pre-Islamic qaṣīda and modern nabaṭī poetry had been propos (...)
  • 4 Sowayan, 1985, p. 165.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 147-167.
  • 6 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 34 and Sowayan, 1985, p. 168.

1The medieval polymath Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406 CE) was the first to provide written evidence to the fact that the Bedouin vernacular poetry of his era echoed the topics and themes of the pre-Islamic Arabic qaṣīda1. Even though Ibn Khaldūn provided a powerful rationale for scholars to engage with Arabic vernacular poetry, the first serious collection of Bedouin vernacular poetry from the Arabian Peninsula (“nabaṭī poetry”) did not appear until the dawn of 20th century with the publication of Albert Socin’s Diwan aus Centralarabian (1900–1901)2. More recent collections of nabaṭī poetry have brought social and academic respectability to a poetic tradition that had largely been left out of the spotlight; they have also provided solid footing for the presumed historical relationship between contemporary nabaṭī poetry and pre-Islamic poetry of the Arabian Peninsula3. Indeed, scholarly consensus holds that nabaṭī poetry —at least in its mono-rhymed, multi-line and hemistich guise— stems directly from the pre-Islamic qaṣīda, yet abandoned the latter’s characteristic desinential inflection and quantitative metrical patterns due to the fact that medieval and early modern practitioners of nabaṭī poetry were no longer able “to master and perpetuate [them]”4. For instance, Saad Sowayan has demonstrated that the meters of classical Arabic poetry can be reconstructed for contemporary nabaṭī poetry, despite phonological and prosodic shifts in the medieval and contemporary Arabic dialects of the Arabian Peninsula5. Equally convincing are the arguments based on thematic similarities between the pre-Islamic qaṣīda and contemporary nabaṭī poetry6.

  • 7 In formulating and executing this project, I hope to answer Sowayan’s call – eloquently stated in h (...)

2This article proposes to extend the scope of the communal Arabian poetic practice by demonstrating that the thematic repertoire of Arabic-language nabaṭī poetry is recapitulated in the oral poetic traditions of the Mahra, an indigenous, non-Arabic speaking community in Yemen and Oman. This suggests that Arabic-language, Bedouin vernacular poetry and Mahri-language poetry are two facets of a common poetic practice. With this as a premise, we may consequently map the unwritten history of Arabia’s oral poetic heritage by means of comparison. In doing so, we uncover within a common poetic genre —the multi-line, mono-rhymed narrative qaṣīda— a degree of variation that bespeaks of different historical trajectories within the tradition itself. By viewing these variables side by side, I believe that it is possible to identify regional poetic idioms whose distinguishing features are a product of their proximity to the literary Arabic qaṣīda, and to the written word in general. Thus, the goal of this article is to provide an historical view of oral Arabian poetry intertwining relationships of time, geography and thematic proximity to the literary Arabic poetic tradition7.

Common Structural Foundations

  • 8 Rubin, 2008, p. 62.
  • 9 In the pre-modern/pre-Republican era, most Mahra oriented towards Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Gulf s (...)

3The Mahri language, like Arabic, is a Semitic language, although it belongs to a different branch of the West Semitic sub-family (Modern South Arabian) than that occupied by Arabic (Central Semitic)8. Although the Mahri language shares many lexical and morphological features with Arabic due to their close proximity and common Semitic ancestry, the Mahri language is unintelligible to Arabic monolinguals. During my fieldwork in the early 2000’s, it was possible to find Mahri speakers living in remote districts of the Governorate of al-Mahra in Yemen whose grasp of Arabic was imperfect, even though the use of Arabic continues to grow as younger generations of native Mahri speakers are exposed to it at school, work and through the media. From an ethnographic standpoint, however, there is little to distinguish Mahri speakers from Arabic monolinguals living around and amongst them. This means that the Mahra share many cultural, economic and political practices with their Arabic monolingual neighbors despite their distinct language9.

  • 10 Holes, 2011, p. 6.

4The common foundations of Arabic-language nabaṭī poetry and Mahri oral poetry can be confidently asserted. At their most basic level, the topics (Ar. aghrāḍ) that motivate and direct the composition of Arabic-language nabaṭī and Mahri oral poetry are virtually the same. As summarized for the nabaṭī poetic tradition by Holes, these are: amorous or lyric verse, boasting, encomium, gnomic wisdom and advice, descriptions of nature, hunting and elegy10. If we add historical narrative to Holes’ list, then the main topics of nabaṭī and Mahri poetry are identical.

5Turning to the mechanics of composition, Sowayan’s elucidation of the constituent elements of the nabaṭī qaṣīda and the variations that can be achieved through creative use of its modular “building blocks” can be applied, word-for-word, to Mahri oral poetry:

  • 11 Sowayan, 1985, p. 95.

In its thematic development, the Nabaṭī poet follows very closely the structural principles employed by the ancient Arab poets. A long poem usually consists of several themes strung together and studded throughout with similes and images, all of which are conventional, but each of them is given a slight semantic turn or a new artistic twist. The goal of the poet is to strike a balance between the familiar and the unique. In his composition, the poet does not touch upon all the themes at his disposal, nor does he necessarily arrange the themes he chooses in a set and rigid order… He works within a modular structure in which the themes are components that can be augmented, truncated, added, deleted, and moved around for artistic effect11.

6Detailed argumentation is not needed to confirm the applicability of Sowayan’s statement regarding the modular composition of nabaṭī poetry to Mahri oral poetry. The comparison of two or more similarly-themed poems from the Mahri Poetry Archive (such as “A Message from Sinǧēr” and “Asking a Mother’s Permission”) should suffice to establish the modular nature of Mahri poetry, as well as to trace the narrow path between convention and individual expression that the poets navigate12.

  • 13 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 30-31.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 26-28.

7Narrowing our perspective to the modular structure described by Sowayan, a comparison between the formulaic themes (the “modules”) of Mahri oral poetry and those indexed by Kurpershoek for the collected works of the nabaṭī master poet al-Dindān 13 clearly show that Mahri poets and Arabic-language nabaṭī poets visit the same “warehouse” of “prefabricated” themes14. Although Mahri oral poetry lacks the abundance of thematic formulas indexed by Kurpershoek for al-Dindān’s poetic oeuvre, the two overlap in a number of instances. The shared thematic modules of Mahri and nabaṭī poetry are: the ascent to the mountaintop, rainfall and the effects of rain, an itinerary, lyrical love, war scenes, tribal boasting and an address to the recipient of the poetic message. Importantly, close analogues to virtually all of the themes found in Mahri oral poetry can be found in Arabic-language nabaṭī poetry. Even if it is exceptional from a linguistic standpoint, Mahri poetry employs the same “building blocks” as those used in nabaṭī poetic practice.

  • 15 Ibid., p. 57.
  • 16 Holes, 2011, p. 10-14.
  • 17 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 30-31.
  • 18 Holes, 2009, p. 19-33.

8Despite evidence that Mahri poets visit the same “store of themes, motives, stock images, phraseology and prosodical options”15 as nabaṭī poets do, and moreover, that they affix these elements to the same narrative template, Arabic-language nabaṭī poetry and Mahri oral poetry have also clearly diverged in subsequent stages of development (with allowance for later points of contact between individual poets and regional poetic idioms). For instance, a number of the formulaic themes indexed for nabaṭī poetry by Holes, Kurpershoek and Sowayan are conspicuously absent in Mahri poetry. Of the five common structural elements listed by Holes that “occur with great frequency” in nabaṭī poetic practice, three are absent in Mahri poetics: an opening invocation to God, pride in the poet’s own ability as a poet and a closing invocation to God or prayer for intercession16. Of the twenty-one themes indexed by Kurpershoek for the nabaṭī poetry of al-Dindān, at least five are missing from the Mahri poetic repertoire: the deserted camp, the poet’s self-assertion, the affirmation of his faith, a meditation on the fickle world or fate and the depiction of camel herds17. Of the six common tropes in nabaṭī poetry documented by Holes —animals, a world turned upside down, fate, “the bitter cup,” coffee and rain18— only animals and rain appear regularly in Mahri poetry.

  • 19 Holes, 2011, p. 20.
  • 20 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 59 and SOWAYAN, 1985, p. 175-179.
  • 21 Holes, 2009, p. 13; HOLES, 2011, p. 10 and Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 62-64. God is most commonly invoke (...)

9A number of these “missing” tropes and themes can be used to establish a terminus ante quem as to when Mahri poetry started diverging from the Arabian (and Arabic) poetic mainstream. For instance, mythological figures from the Qur’ān and stock figures from the Arabic literary tradition such as Qays and Layla19 never occur in traditional Mahri oral poetry. Similarly, the deserted campsite motif —the aṭlāl, whose presence in the nabaṭī tradition may be due to familiarity with the expectations of the Arabic literary tradition20— is absent from the Mahri poetic tradition. The absence of pious invocations to God, the Qur’ān or Muḥammad in traditional Mahri poetry is particularly noteworthy given their frequent and formulaic appearance in the nabaṭī tradition21. In the case of nabaṭī poetry, these three thematic elements have obvious roots in the literary and religious culture that developed in the Arabian Peninsula during the historical era from the 7th century CE onwards. Their absence suggests that the thematic syntax of Mahri poetry was established prior to the canonization of the literary qaṣīda, common knowledge of the Qur’ān and the widespread adoption of Islam. As a result, we may date the initial divergence of Mahri and nabaṭī poetry to the pre-Islamic and pre-literary eras; that is, to an indeterminate period prior to the 7th century CE.

The Messenger Motif: Text or Utterance?

  • 22 Holes, 2009, p. 11.
  • 23 Holes, 2011, p. 12 and Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 37.
  • 24 Olson, 1977.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 270.
  • 26 The binary of “oral” versus “written” communication has been replaced by more nuanced models that s (...)
  • 27 Al-Ṣuwayān, 2000, p. 187-196.
  • 28 In working with Mahri-speaking consultants to translate Mahri poetry into Arabic texts, I noted occ (...)

10Moving beyond thematic discrepancies occasioned by economic and cultural differences between Central and Southern Arabia (the Mahra regularly drink spicy ginger tea rather than coffee, rendering “the bitter cup” theme incongruous in Mahri poetry), other discrepancies between nabaṭī and Mahri poetry point to more significant ramifications in their evolutionary histories. For instance, one of the most obvious discrepancies between the two is the lessened presence of the messenger motif —a mainstay of the nabaṭī tradition— in Mahri oral poetry. In the nabaṭī tradition, the lexical formula that introduces the messenger motif —yā rākib (O Rider!)— is declaimed to a messenger who is enjoined to deliver the verses that follow to whomever the poet designates as the primary addressee. More than just a simple motif, the “messenger” is a fundamental organizational principle in nabaṭī poetry since it frames the primary topic of the poem as an embedded text22. A highly conventionalized stock figure, the “messenger” cannot be presumed to be an actual member of the listening audience; indeed, the messenger is often metonymically subsumed by his mount —a camel, horse or a motor vehicle23— which further suggests a gap between the imagined world of the poem and the physical reality of its performance. As a result, this brief invocation generates a conceptual existence for the poem outside of the moment of verbalization; the composer relinquishes a text to an abstract messenger who will carry it beyond the listening range of the physical audience. Thanks to the prospect of existential autonomy in the meta-poetic imagination of performers and audiences alike, nabaṭī poems achieve the standing of “texts” according to the model of “utterance” versus “text” developed by cognitive psychologist David Olson24. Unlike an “utterance” which requires direct contact between a speaker and his or her audience to convey the complete intended meaning of a communicative act, texts “[permit] the preservation of meaning across space and time and the recovery of meaning by the more or less uninitiated”25. Thus, a message dictated to a messenger —even if the dictation occurs entirely within an oral framework— hews to Olson’s cognitive category of textual communication. It is significant to this article that Olson develops the distinction between “text” and “utterance” within the contrastive framework of literary and oral modes of communication26. While nabaṭī poems are indisputably orally conceived and transmitted, their textual aspect in the meta-poetic imagination of nabaṭī poets and their audiences (as evinced through the yā rākib motif) points to a literary or “lettered” consciousness at some point in the history of the nabaṭī poetic tradition. The gravitational pull of the literary Arabic poetic tradition on the oral Arabic-language poetic traditions of the Arabian Peninsula should come as no surprise; Sowayan has documented how the former has exerted itself over the composition and transmission of the latter27. Indeed, the adoption of a textual imagination within nabaṭī practice needn’t stem from a facility with the literary poetic practice; simple awareness of a written practice in the Arabic language would suffice to shift perceptions of language use and the poetic act amongst nabaṭī poets and their audiences. Such shifts would include, for instance, the demarcation of word boundaries within a phrasal utterance and the textual imagination described above.28

11Turning to Mahri poetry now, we find the messenger motif as articulated in nabaṭī poetry is entirely absent. There is no standard formula to introduce such a motif in Mahri poetry and in the rare instances in which it does occur, the messenger is never depicted as a human being. Rather, the messenger is always a bird —specifically a little falcon, ṣwāḳār who carries a lover’s greeting to the beloved29. The message is limited to “sweet-nothings” whispered by the poet and the motif is therefore restricted to amorous or sentimental poetry. The message never constitutes the entire poetic text as it frequently does in the Arabic-language nabaṭī tradition. Since the messenger motif never occurs in a Mahri poem as its chief structural or narrative principle, the poem itself is never imagined to go through a mediated stage outside of the immediate physical range of the poet and his audience. In the Mahri meta-poetic imagination, poems are thus conceptually limited to a direct exchange between poet and audience. Whether we follow Olson’s model of the oral “utterance” versus the written “text”30, Wallace Chafe’s distinction of spoken “involvement” versus written “detachment”31 or Deborah Tannen’s binary of spoken “interpersonal involvement” versus written “message content”32, Mahri poetry unswervingly tends towards the “oral” end of the spectrum, whereas Arabic-language nabaṭī poets and audiences bear the trace of a written (and even literary) influence on their meta-poetic imagination.

  • 33 Sowayan, 1985, p. 170.
  • 34 Holes, 2009, p. 13 and Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 40.
  • 35 Sowayan, 1985, p. 168-179.
  • 36 The exception to this are the poems contained in the Dīwān of ājj Dākōn (http://sites.middlebury.e (...)

12A related phenomenon in Mahri poetics is the absence of pen-and-ink imagery, not infrequently invoked by nabaṭī poets in the introductory lines of their poems to describe the act of poetic creation33. This leitmotif is inconsistent with the actual composition of nabaṭī poetry since it, like Mahri poetry, is composed and transmitted without the aid of writing tools34. However, even the illiterate practitioners of Arabic nabaṭī poetry are familiar with the practice of writing, since the Arabic language, unlike Mahri, has a socially esteemed practice of written literature, in addition to its more prosaic applications35. Through reference to these tools of writing, nabaṭī poets imbue their creations with the prestige and permanence associated with Arabic literary culture, despite the oral nature of their artistic medium. In the absence of a literary tradition for the Mahri language (or even a rudimentary written practice), there is no prestigious alternative to oral composition that poets might evoke in the body of their works. Mahri poets have no cause —or even the means— to depict their poetic practice as anything other than it actually is: an unmediated, oral and interpersonal communication. In short, the “pen-and-ink” and messenger motifs are incompatible with the strictly oral conception and articulation of the Mahri language36.

The Mountaintop Motif: Geographical Distribution

  • 37 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 38-40 and Sowayan, 1985, p. 97-98.
  • 38 Holes, 2009, p. 12-13.

13In place of the messenger motif, the “ascent to the mountaintop” motif typically introduces and frames the narrative content of a Mahri oral poem. Not merely an pictorial trope, this motif serves as the modular keystone upon which the poetic narrative is constructed; its structural significance is much greater than that borne by any other recurring motif in Mahri poetry. The mountaintop motif is also well known in nabaṭī poetry37 and is an obvious point of overlap between the nabaṭī and Mahri traditions. However, the correlation with its usage is not absolute as the nature and frequency of the mountaintop motif varies widely within the nabaṭī tradition itself. As Holes has demonstrated for nabaṭī poetry, the frequency of this motif is inversely proportional to the frequency of the messenger motif38; indeed, the two motifs never occur in the same poem. This thematic opposition appears to stem from the internal logic of nabaṭī poetics: if a poet submits his poem to a messenger, he never ascends the mountaintop to compose and declaim it.

  • 39 Ibid., p. 172.
  • 40 Bailey, 1991, p. 46, 52, 64 and 315.
  • 41 Musil, 1928, p. 283-326.
  • 42 Palva, 1992, p. 44.
  • 43 Holes, 2011, p. 85.
  • 44 Ibid., 2011, p. 136.
  • 45 Sowayan, 1985, p. 32, 98 [x2] and 114.
  • 46 The two other poets featured in the third volume of Kurpershoek’s Oral Poetry and Narratives from C (...)
  • 47 The following poems in the Mahri Poetry Archive (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/) contain (...)
  • 48 Poems that begin with formulas associated with the mountaintop are: “The Charm of Old Age” (http:// (...)
  • 49 This is the case for the poem “Tribal Ode: Gunfight in Niśṭawn” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahri (...)
  • 50 Jahn, 1902, p. 136 (VII), p. 138 (VIII), p. 139 (XII) and p. 141 (XIX).

14Secondly, the frequency of the motif in nabaṭī poetry is geographically skewed towards the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. As noted by Holes, the mountaintop motif is found more frequently in the collected poetry of al-Dindān, a poet from Wādī Dawāsir in the southern Najd (15 out of 31 poems), than in his 2009 collection of nabaṭī poetry from Jordan and the Sinai, where it occurs in only one out of 41 poems39. Holes’ impression is confirmed by surveying the occurrence of the motif in other nabaṭī collections. In Bailey’s collection of nabaṭī poetry from the Sinai and Negev, it occurs in four out of 101 poems40. None of the seventeen poems presented in Alois Musil’s ethnography of the Ruwalla tribe of the Syrian Desert, The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins (1928), contain the introductory mountaintop motif41. Only one poem in Heikki Palva’s collection of 15 poems by a single author from al-Balqā’ in Jordan, Artistic Colloquial Arabic (1992), contains the motif42. Holes’ 2011 collection of nabaṭī poetry from the United Arab Emirates contains the mountaintop motif in one poem43 —and possibly a second44— out of a total of 53 poems. Moving towards the center of the Arabian Peninsula, Sowayan’s study of nabaṭī poetry from the northern and central Najd contains the mountaintop motif in four out of 39 poems45. Continuing south, Kurpershoek’s third volume of nabaṭī poetry features the mountaintop motif in seven out of the ten poems composed by Ibn Batla who, like al-Dindān, is from Wādī al-Dawāsir in the southern Najd, and in an additional four out of 15 poems by al-Dindān46. In the 64 Mahri language poems featured in the Mahri Poetry Archive, four explicitly begin with the mountaintop motif47. Seven other poems begin with pictorial formulas that are closely associated with the mountaintop motif, such as invocations to the mdīt wind, the growing shadows of dusk and the setting sun48. One other poem uses none of these formulas, yet the poet’s mountain vantage point is assumed by native audiences thanks to references to well-known geographical indicators49. Finally, four of the 25 poems and poem-fragments in Alfred Jahn’s Die Mehri-Sprache in Südarabian (Jahn, 1902) contain elements that evoke the mountaintop motif (references to climbing, mountains, etc.)50.

15The percentage breakdown of the introductory mountaintop motif by region (from north to south) is as follows:

    • 51 Bailey, 1991, Holes, 2009, Musil, 1928 and Palva, 1992.

    Jordan, the Negev, and Sinai51: 3%

    • 52 Holes, 2011 and Sowayan, 1985.

    Northern and Central Najd, and the Gulf52: 7%

    • 53 Kurpershoek, 1994 and Kurpershoek, 1999.

    Southern Najd53: 36% (limited to two poets, al-Dindān and Ibn Batla)

  • al-Mahra54: 18% (used by multiple poets)

  • 55 On the mountaintop motif in Central Najdi poetry, Sowayan writes: “Or the poet may begin his poem d (...)
  • 56 A similar evolutionary process may explain the variation between the highly stylized and formulaic (...)
  • 57 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 38.

16Use of this motif is clearly concentrated to the south, indicating that it either originated south of the central Najdi core of nabaṭī poetry and diffused northwards; or that an originally brief and non-integral “budding” mountaintop motif —inherited by all practitioners of the common Arabian poetic tradition— was shaped by southern poets (Mahri and Dōsiri, at least) into a baroque and heavily formulaic frame motif, whereas it retained its original character amongst northern poets. This latter alternative is supported by the fact that northern nabaṭī poets utilize the mountaintop motif for different purposes than those that motivate its use amongst southern vernacular poets. In northern nabaṭī poetic practice, the mountaintop may function as a literal vantage point from whence the poet watches his beloved depart; it is not the same metaphysical space that South Arabian poets visit to seek inspiration for the creative act55. The mountaintop motif is shorter in northern nabaṭī iterations and tends to attract fewer formulaic additions than its southern, especially Mahri, counterpart. These facts suggest that northern and central nabaṭī poets did not borrow the mountaintop motif from South Arabian poets, but rather have preserved the archaic prototype56. Indeed, the less frequent use of the mountaintop motif in central and northern nabaṭī poetry echoes its use in the pre-Islamic qaṣīda57, where it is a similarly rare and threadbare sketch compared to its modern Southern Najdi and Mahri articulations. This fact suggests that the development of the mountaintop motif in its South Arabian version is an innovation within the common repertoire of vernacular poetic themes.

  • 58 Bauman, 1984, p. 15-24. As demonstrated by Bauman and other specialists of performance theory, the (...)
  • 59 Liebhaber, 2013, p. 130.
  • 60 Idem.
  • 61 Tribal Ode: Atop the Peak of arbūt,” line 16 (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode- (...)

17The mountaintop motif is not only highly stylized and formulaic in Mahri oral poetry, it is also ubiquitous. The mountaintop is a psychically charged space where the poet’s emotional tumult is answered by the tempestuous, misty gusts of the monsoonal mdīt wind. The fact that climate and setting respond empathetically to the poet’s own turmoil is critical towards cueing poetic composition and audience receptivity in al-Mahra. Similar to the messenger motif of nabaṭī poetry which serves as the meta-communicative key for poetic performance in northern and central nabaṭī poetry, the Sturm und Drang of the mountaintop sets the tone for the heightened emotional receptivity expected between poet and audience in South Arabian poetics58. In the Mahri poetic tradition, the mountaintop motif is accompanied by secondary formulas that emphasize its metaphorical significance. The mdīt wind signifies the seasonal transition from the torpor of summer (ḳeyẓ) to the blustery monsoon and is emblematic of the disruption of political stability and quiescence59. Secondly, the poet’s arrival to the mountaintop coincides with the evening gloaming; the growing shadows of dusk reflect immanent social and political change on a smaller scale60. Finally, the poet often seeks shelter from the wind behind a low rock wall, a symbolic refuge from, in the words of Mahri poet Bir Laʿṭeyṭ, “the howling winds of war”61.

  • 62 Alternate explanations concerning the distribution of the mountaintop motif relative to the mdīt mo (...)

18As indicated previously, secondary formulas relating to the sunset, the evening shadows and most frequently, the monsoonal mdīt wind may stand in place of explicit references to the mountaintop in Mahri poetry. However, my Mahri consultants generally felt that these secondary formulas presuppose the mountaintop as the proper setting of the elegiac introduction. The gap between a Mahri audience’s expectations of a poetic text versus its actual content suggests a mechanism for the historical evolution of formulaic themes and motifs in the oral poetics of the Arabian Peninsula. The mountaintop motif, developed to its fullest in Southern Arabia, may be in the process of replacement by these secondary motifs that have accrued to it: the evening shadows and the mdīt. While the mountaintop motif is still indirectly preserved thanks to its endurance in the cultural memory of Mahri audiences, this may not be the case for future generations of Mahra. In that case, secondary motifs that feature the mdīt wind and evening shadows may overtake the mountaintop motif as the main introductory motif in Mahri poetry62.

Narrative versus Static Metaphors

  • 63 The extended metaphor is a well-established compositional device… which allows the poet to expand (...)
  • 64 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 43-47.

19Moving beyond the realm of individual motifs and themes, it is possible to distinguish between Mahri and nabaṭī poetry in terms of the aesthetic tools brought to bear in their composition. For instance, the elaborate metaphors and similes used to communicate the fathomless depth of the poet’s sentiment are developed at much greater length in the nabaṭī poems collected by Kurpershoek(1994 and 1999) and Sowayan (1985) from Central Arabia than they are in the Mahri poetry from Southern Arabia or in the nabaṭī poetry collected by Bailey (1992) and Holes (2009 and 2011) from the northern and eastern margins of the Arabian Peninsula. For instance, in the nabaṭī poetics of the central Najd, the elegiac introductory sequence frequently segues into an extended allegorical vignette that unfolds within the poem’s primary narrative. The distinguishing characteristic of the extended metaphor in the nabaṭī poetics of the Najd is its temporal dimension, which allows a narrative to unfold within its framework63. For example, Kurpershoek provides a close analysis of the stock metaphor in Najdi nabaṭī poetics of the laborer (sānī) and his camel (sānya) drawing water from a well64. In the hands of a masterful poet such as al-Dindān, the metaphor moves beyond a static description of their communal labor to depict the increasingly exploitative nature of their relationship, echoing, perhaps, al-Dindān’s callous treatment at the hands of his kin.

  • 65 Sowayan, 1985, p. 115.
  • 66 My phrase “abstract meaning” is equivalent to Stetkevych’s “conceptual correlative,” an idea formul (...)

20Another illustrative example of an extended narrative metaphor occurs in a nabaṭī poem recorded by Sowayan in which the poet’s grief is compared to that of a wealthy nobleman whose camel herd is stolen by raiders65. The nobleman gives chase to the raiders and fights valiantly to reclaim his herd, but his mount is shot out from under him. He retreats home defeated and humiliated and is wracked with insomnia ever after. This metaphor extends over thirteen lines and has a narrative arc that traces the fortunes of the nobleman from high social status to abjection. Both this and the previous example of extended narrative metaphors emerge from the formulaic tropes of the poet’s aching heart and his many tears, and play a rhetorical (rather than strictly descriptive) role in imprinting the abstract meaning of the poem on the audience’s imagination66.

  • 67 Sells, 1994.
  • 68 Ibid., p. 136.
  • 69 Stetkevych, 2010, p. 211-214.
  • 70 According to al-uwayān: [Nisba] lā ba’s bihā, ‘in lam takun al-ghālibiyya al-‘uẓmā, min shu’arā al (...)

21In terms of their rapid expansion beyond a basic analogy or simile to arrive at an abstract meaning, the extended narrative metaphors of nabaṭī poetry resonate with the “dissembling similes” identified by Michael Sells in the pre-Islamic qaṣīda67. According to Sells, similes whose presumptive purpose is to describe the poet’s beloved through a simple correspondence, “[overflow] the original context of description of the beloved… [and] turns into an independent vignette”68. While Sells has brought attention to the narrative component of the “dissembling simile,” recent work by Suzanne Stetkevych has emphasized the ritual function of the extended metaphor in the literary Arabic qaṣīda, and significantly, has traced its rhetorical underpinnings back to the oral, pre-Islamic qaṣīda whose rich metaphorical language served both as a mnemonic function and as the sole means of communicating abstract concepts69. Drawing from both of these sources, we may thus trace the lineage of the “narrative metaphor” in the modern nabaṭī poetics of the Najd back to the oral, pre-Islamic qaṣīda (as per Stetkevych). Such a feature in Najdi nabaṭī poetry may not have evolved in isolation from the literary qaṣīda tradition, but rather thanks to sporadic reinforcement from it, since no small number of literate poets from the Arabian Peninsula engaged in the composition of oral nabaṭī poetry as well70.

22Metaphors in Mahri poetry do not sustain a narrative feature in any way similar to the vignettes found in nabaṭī poetry from the Najd. Unlike nabaṭī poetry in which extended metaphors may “make up the major portion of the poem”71, they never do so in Mahri poetry. Secondly, metaphors in Mahri poems are conceived as static images, unlike the framed narratives embedded in the extended metaphors of Najdi nabaṭī poetry. For instance, the Mahri poet ‘Alī bir ‘Awźet Ǧēdeḥ —a master composer of vivid, imagistic Mahri poetry— describes his beloved, Baḳlīt, through a series of paratactic metaphors: she is a fragrant tree, a rain-bearing cloud, and an irrigated and fertile garden72. All three metaphors signify Baḳlīt’s luxuriant beauty, yet none of the metaphors extend for longer than three lines and none have the narrative arc of the extended metaphors common to nabaṭī poetry from the Central or Southern Najd. In the same poem, ‘Alī bir ‘Awźet likens his inner turmoil to the tempestuous sea during the months of the monsoon: his feelings are likened to surging, boat-rocking waves and swift, unseen currents that catch even a seasoned captain unawares73. This is a powerful metaphor, not only in terms of the violence that underpins the comparison, but also due to the shared feature of concealment: like his heart, the ocean hides its temper until it suddenly and unexpectedly swamps the vulnerable fishing boat. Despite the vivid detail contained in this metaphor, it lacks the narrative element of similarly positioned extended metaphors in the nabaṭī poetics of the Central or Southern Najd. 

23The articulation of metaphors in Mahri poetry is mirrored in the poetry collected in Northern Arabia and the Gulf by Bailey (2002) and Holes (2009 and 2011), in which individual metaphors never take on the aspect of a vignette. In terms of its geographical distribution nowadays, the narrative metaphor is found exclusively amongst nabaṭī poets of the Central and Southern Najd. In other words, the use of metaphor in the pre-Islamic qaṣīda to express abstract meaning (Stetkevych’s “conceptual correlative”) appears to have been inherited by Najdi vernacular poets and the literary poets of the Islamic era, and yet was lost amongst the vernacular poets of the northern and southern peripheries of the Arabian Peninsula. This discrepancy suggests that regional practices of Arabic-language nabaṭī poetry have taken slightly different evolutionary paths. While direct lineal descent from the pre-Islamic qaṣīda or cross-pollination with literary Arabic poetry may explain the closer kinship between the vernacular poetics of the Najd and the literary qaṣīda, their shared use of narrative metaphors may stem from a communal ancestral practice which was lost in the peripheral vernacular poetic traditions. The uneven presence of the narrative metaphor across Arabian poetry —literary and oral— can thus be understood according to the same process that has led to various occurrences of the messenger and mountaintop motifs: the unequal loss, retention or development of individual components within a communal (and presumably archaic) thematic and rhetorical repertoire.

Conclusion

24Two forces are at work to distinguish the different character of the various collections of vernacular, oral poetry from the Arabian Peninsula. The first is literacy —or the awareness of literacy— which has established a fault line between Arabic-language nabaṭī poetry and Mahri-language oral poetry. On the Arabic-language side, the messenger and “pen-and-ink” motifs characteristic of nabaṭī poetry indicate that textual and performative abstraction is possible within the meta-poetic imagination of Arabic-language poets and audiences. The absence of these motifs and themes in Mahri poetry suggests the opposite: a Mahri poem is an oral utterance that has no autonomy or abstract existence beyond the moment of performance and recitation. As a consequence, the mountaintop motif has taken on primary structural importance in Mahri oral poetry since the messenger motif used in the nabaṭī tradition is incompatible with the Mahri meta-poetic imagination.

25A second fault line sets central Najdi nabaṭī poetry and the pre-Islamic qaṣīda apart from other oral poetic traditions of the Arabian Peninsula (including Mahri-language oral poetry). The key distinguishing criterion is the presence of the extended narrative metaphor in Central and Southern Najdi nabaṭī poetry and the classical, pre-Islamic qaṣīda, and its absence in the vernacular poetry of the northern and southern Arabian peripheries. The extended narrative metaphor gives the oral poetics of the Central and Southern Najd a literary aesthetic quality that is lacking in the other oral poetic traditions of the Arabian Peninsula and may be the reason for the excellent reputation that Central and Southern Najdi poetry has amongst connoisseurs of nabaṭī poetry.

26Insofar as Mahri oral poetry partakes of a communal Arabian Peninsula poetic culture and yet is indisputably not a lineal descendant of Arabic language poetry, it may be fruitful to consider Arabic-language oral poetry —in particular the nabaṭī qaṣīda— within a similar historical framework. This reasoning suggests that the pre-Islamic qaṣīda (as documented) and nabaṭī poetry evenly diffused from a common, prehistoric ancestor: the former represented through written documentation (with subsequent canonization of its grammar and prosodic characteristics) and the other carried on through oral transmission. Since documentation of the nabaṭī tradition is —by virtue of its orality— non-existent in the pre-modern era, any diachronic view of it is necessarily speculative. However, thanks to the triangulation enabled by considering Mahri oral poetry, we can better reconstruct the evolutionary processes behind the development of the modern nabaṭī poetic idiom. This reveals a practice that has occasionally retained archaic characteristics (such as the minimal usage of the mountaintop motif in the northern peripheral idiom), innovated new features (such as the messenger motif in non-Mahri poetic idioms), or developed common features with the literary tradition (such as the narrative metaphor in the Najdi poetic idiom). The more conservative features embodied in the northern and southern peripheral idioms —Arabic and Mahri alike— are likely due to the absence of literary influence upon them; this stands in contrast with the Najdi poetic idiom, which more than any other nabaṭī poetic idiom betrays an interwoven history with the Arabic literary qaṣīda.

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Bibliographie

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Bauman R., Verbal Art as Performance, Prospect Heights, Waveland Press, Inc., 1984.

Chafe W., “Integration and Involvement in Speaking, Writing, and Oral Literature”, Spoken and Written Language: Exploring Orality and Literacy, ed. Deborah Tannen, Norwood, Ablex, 1982, p. 35-53.

Holes CL., and Abu Athera S., Poetry and Politics in Contemporary Bedouin Society, Reading, Ithaca Press, 2009.

Holes CL., The Nabaṭī Poetry of the United Arab Emirates, Reading, Ithaca Press, 2011.

Jahn, A. Die Mehri-Sprache in Südarabian, Vienna, Alfred Hölder, 1902.

Kurpershoek M., “Heartbeat: Conventionality and Originality in Najdi Poetry”, Asian Folklore Studies No. 52, 1993, p. 33-74.

Kurpershoek M., Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia I. The Poetry of ad-Dindan: A Bedouin Bard of Southern Najd, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1994.

Kurpershoek M., Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia III. Bedouin Poets of the Dawasir Tribe: Between Nomadism and Settlement in Southern Najd, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1999.

Liebhaber S., “Written Mahri, Mahri Fuṣḥā and Their Implications for Early Historical Arabic”, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, No. 40, 2010, p. 227-232.

Liebhaber S., The Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn, Ardmore, American Institute for Yemeni Studies, 2011a.

Liebhaber S., “The Ḥumaynī Pulse Moves East: Yemeni Nationalism Meets Mahri Sung-Poetry”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, No. 38/2, 2011b, p. 249-265.

Liebhaber S., “Rhetoric, Rite of Passage and the Multilingual Poetics of Arabia: A Thematic Reading of the Mahri Tribal Ode”, Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures, No. 16/2, 2013, p. 118-146.

Musil A., The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins, New York, American Geographical Society, 1928.

Olson D., “From Utterance to Text: The Bias of Language in Speech and Writing”, Harvard Educational Review, No. 47/3, 1977, p. 257-281.

Palva, H., Artistic Colloquial Arabic: Traditional narratives and poems from al- Balqā’ (Jordan), Helsinki, Finnish Oriental Society, 1992.

Rosenthal, F., The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (vol. 3), New York: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Rubin A., “The Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages”, Language and Linguistic Compass, No. 2/1, 2008, p. 61-84.

Sells M., “Guises of the Ghūl: Dissembling Simile and Semantic Overflow in the Classical Arabic Nasīb”, Reorientations: Arabic and Persian Poetry, Suzanne Stetkevych (ed.), Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 130-164.

Serjeant R., Prose and Poetry From Ḥaḍramawt, London, Taylor’s Foreign Press, 1951.

Sobol J., “Innervision and Innertext: Oral and Interpretive Modes of Storytelling Performance”, Oral Tradition No. 7/1, 1992, p. 66-86.

Socin A., Diwan aus Centralarabian, Leipzig, Otto Harrassowitz, 1900-1901.

Sowayan S., Nabaṭī Poetry: The Oral Poetry of Arabia, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985.

Sowayan S., “A Plea for an Interdisciplinary Approach to the Study of Arab Oral Tradition”, Oral Tradition, No. 18/1, 2003, p. 132-135.

Stetkevych S., “From Jāhiliyyah to Badīʿiyyah: Orality, Literacy, and the Transformations of Rhetoric”, Oral Tradition, No. 25/1, 2010, p. 211-230.

al-Ṣuwayān S., al-Shi‘r al-nabaṭī: Dhā’iqat al-sha‘b wa-sulṭat al-nuṣṣ, Beirut: Dār al-Sāqī, 2000.

Tannen D., “The Oral/Literate Continuum in Discourse”, Spoken and Written Language: Exploring Orality and Literacy, ed. Deborah Tannen, Norwood, Ablex, 1982, p. 1-16.

Online Resources Cited (accessed 6/17/2014)

All of the following poems can be found online in the Mahri Poetry Archive - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/

“A Message from Sinǧēr” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/a-message-from-sinǧer/

“Asking a Mother’s Permission” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/asking-a-mothers-permission

“The Charm of Old Age” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/1991-2/

“Desire” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/poems-by-hajj-dakon/diwan-9/

“Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/

“The Epic of ʿAnzī” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/the-epic-of-ʿanzi-ʿisa-kedḥayts-pickup-truck/

“Fuṣḥā Mahri: A Short Lyric Poem” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/fuṣḥa-mahri-a-short-poem/

“I Want to Write a Line” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/poems-by-hajj-dakon/8-ḥom-lekteb-ḫaṭ-i-want-to-write-a-line/

“Legal Proceeding in Poetry” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/legal-dispute-in-poetry-divorce-and-remarriage/

“A Message from Sinǧēr” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/a-message-from-sinǧer/

“Ōdī we-krēm krēm” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/ʾodi-we-krem-krem/

“Poem in Hobyot?” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/poetry-in-hobyot/

“She’s a Work of Art” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/shes-a-work-of-art/

“Tribal Ode: Atop the Peak of ‘Aḳəbbōt” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/ʾaḳəbbot/

“Tribal Ode: Atop the Peak of Ṭarbūt” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-atop-the-peak-of-ṭarbut/

“Tribal Ode: Conventional Invocation” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-conventional-invocation/

“Tribal Ode: Gunfight in Niśṭawn” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-the-gunfight-in-nisṭawn/

“Tribal Ode: The Times We Live In” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-the-times-we-live-in/

“Tribal Ode: A Three-Way Conflict” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-a-three-way-conflict/

“Yearning for Baḳlīt” - http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/other-poems-from-introduction/yearning-for-baḳlit/

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Notes

1 Al-Ṣuwayān, 2000, p. 68 and Sowayan, 1985, p. 147; Rosenthal, 1967, p. 412-440.

2 For a history of the scholarship on nabaṭī poetry from Ibn Khaldūn through the present era, see Sowayan, 1985, p. 6-10 and Al-Ṣuwayān, 2000, p. 69-73. In the latter, the historiography of nabaṭī poetry is presented through an historical analysis of the term “nabaṭī” itself.

3 The historical relationship between the pre-Islamic qaṣīda and modern nabaṭī poetry had been proposed prior to Sowayan (see Serjeant, 1951, p. 55-57, for instance), yet none engage in the same detailed analysis that Sowayan does towards establishing the lineal descent of the nabaṭī qaṣīda from the pre-Islamic qaṣīda. This argument forms the theoretical core of Sowayan’s comprehensive monograph on nabaṭī poetry, al-Shi‘r al-nabaṭī (2000), and is unequivocally stated as follows: al-sh‘ir al-nabaṭī huwa al-salīl al-mubāshir wa-l-mithāl al-ḥayy al-mu‘āṣir li-shi‘r al-jāhiliyya wa-ṣadr al-islām (“Nabati poetry is the direct descendant of pre-Islamic poetry and a living, contemporary example of it”), AL-Ṣuwayān, 2000, p. 93.

4 Sowayan, 1985, p. 165.

5 Ibid., p. 147-167.

6 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 34 and Sowayan, 1985, p. 168.

7 In formulating and executing this project, I hope to answer Sowayan’s call – eloquently stated in his “Plea for an Interdisciplinary Approach of the Study of Arab Oral Tradition” (Sowayan, 2003) - for greater attention to be paid to the extraordinary oral poetic heritage of the Arabian Peninsula.

8 Rubin, 2008, p. 62.

9 In the pre-modern/pre-Republican era, most Mahra oriented towards Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Gulf states rather than towards the Yemeni highlands. From a social and economic perspective, the semi-pastoralist lifestyle practiced by the Mahra aligned them with the Arabic-monolingual Bedouin from Central and Eastern Arabia far more than the settled farmers of the Yemeni highlands. For this reason, the present study draws heavily from collections of nabaṭī poetry from Northern, Central and Eastern Arabia, such as Bailey, 1991, Holes, 2009 and 2011, Kurpershoek, 1994-2005 and Sowayan, 1985, and less from works on vernacular poetry from the Yemeni highlands.

10 Holes, 2011, p. 6.

11 Sowayan, 1985, p. 95.

12 The Mahri Poetry Archive can be found at the following address: http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/. For the complete text and recording of “A Message from Sinǧēr”, see: http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/a-message-from-sinǧer/. For the complete text and recording of “Asking a Mother’s Permission”, see: http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/asking-a-mothers-permission/.

13 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 30-31.

14 Ibid., p. 26-28.

15 Ibid., p. 57.

16 Holes, 2011, p. 10-14.

17 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 30-31.

18 Holes, 2009, p. 19-33.

19 Holes, 2011, p. 20.

20 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 59 and SOWAYAN, 1985, p. 175-179.

21 Holes, 2009, p. 13; HOLES, 2011, p. 10 and Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 62-64. God is most commonly invoked in Mahri poetry as “The Generous [One]” (“krēm”) in the poetic formula: ōdī we-krēm krēm. The use of this formula is restricted to the Mahri tribal ode and as a result, the formula itself is commonly used as a label for the genre of tribal-historical odes in al-Mahra (/http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/’odi-we-krem-krem). Outside of this specific and formulaic usage, God is by no means absent in Mahri poetry (referred to as “bālī” from Mahri “bāl” [<B.ʿ.L.]: lord); however, the frequency of divine invocations is far less common in Mahri poetry than it is in nabaṭī poetry. Moreover, references to Muḥammad are completely absent in the 64 poems that I have recorded, translated and presented in the Mahri Poetry Archive (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/).

22 Holes, 2009, p. 11.

23 Holes, 2011, p. 12 and Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 37.

24 Olson, 1977.

25 Ibid., p. 270.

26 The binary of “oral” versus “written” communication has been replaced by more nuanced models that stress the intersections between written and oral communication (Sobol, 1992, p. 71-72). Thus, while nabaṭī poetry is justifiably described as an oral poetic tradition, conceptual features of writing and literacy may have trickled down to the production of nabaṭī poetry thanks to the prevalence, social esteem and lengthy history of written poetry in the Arabic language.

27 Al-Ṣuwayān, 2000, p. 187-196.

28 In working with Mahri-speaking consultants to translate Mahri poetry into Arabic texts, I noted occasional discrepancies in terms of how lines of poetry were heard (not just understood) between them. Phrases and words might be demarcated very differently by different consultants, and sometimes my consultants were unable to isolate specific words within an otherwise comprehensible phrase. I do not believe that this verbal “dark matter” affected the overall message relayed by the poem, nor did my consultants view its presence as a fault in the poem or its recitation. It was simply understood to be a feature of poetry. Insofar as the nabaṭī texts gathered by Sowayan et al. can be read word by word, I believe that a different conception of the communicative act is at work amongst Arabic language nabaṭī poets. Since the Mahri language has no written tradition whatsoever, it is possible that any meta-poetic differences between these two poetic traditions are occasioned by a lettered consciousness amongst nabaṭī poets, who, even if they are illiterate, have doubtless seen their language inscribed, ordered and comprehended as written texts.

29 Six poems out of the 64 Mahri poems in the Mahri Poetry Archive (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/) feature the messenger bird motif: the three short poems collected under the title of “Asking a Mother’s Permission” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/asking-a-mothers-permission/), “Yearning for Baḳlīt” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/other-poems-from-introduction/yearning-for-baḳlit/), “A Message from Sinǧēr” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/a-message-from-sinǧer/), and “Desire” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/poems-by-hajj-dakon/diwan-9/).

30 Olson, 1977.

31 Chafe, 1982, p. 45.

32 Tannen, 1982, p. 8.

33 Sowayan, 1985, p. 170.

34 Holes, 2009, p. 13 and Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 40.

35 Sowayan, 1985, p. 168-179.

36 The exception to this are the poems contained in the Dīwān of ājj Dākōn (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/). For instance, the poem “I Want to Write a Line” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/poems-by-hajj-dakon/8-ḥom-lekteb-ḫaṭ-i-want-to-write-a-line/) is framed as a letter written and sent via messenger to the poet’s beloved. Other poems in the Dīwān are structured as oral messages entrusted to a bird messenger. However, the poems contained in the Dīwān of ājj Dākōn are entirely unique in Mahri poetic culture insofar as they were conceived and written down as literary texts by a Mahri-language poet, ājj Dākōn. The thematic and structural shifts occasioned by ājj Dākōn’s adoption of a written poetic praxis is explored in detail in Liebhaber (a), 2011, p. 19-25.

37 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 38-40 and Sowayan, 1985, p. 97-98.

38 Holes, 2009, p. 12-13.

39 Ibid., p. 172.

40 Bailey, 1991, p. 46, 52, 64 and 315.

41 Musil, 1928, p. 283-326.

42 Palva, 1992, p. 44.

43 Holes, 2011, p. 85.

44 Ibid., 2011, p. 136.

45 Sowayan, 1985, p. 32, 98 [x2] and 114.

46 The two other poets featured in the third volume of Kurpershoek’s Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1999), Nābit ibn āfir and Bkhētān ibn āfir, never use the mountaintop motif in the 16 poems between them. The extreme variation between al-Dindān and Ibn Batla on one hand, and Nābit and Bkhētān on the other hand, indicates the importance of personal taste (as suggested in Holes, 2009, p. 12‑13) alongside regional specificities in understanding the distribution of the mountaintop motif.

47 The following poems in the Mahri Poetry Archive (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/) contain an explicit version of the mountaintop motif: “Tribal Ode: A Three-Way Conflict” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-a-three-way-conflict/); “Tribal Ode: Conventional Invocation” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-conventional-invocation/); “Tribal Ode: Atop the Peak of ‘Aḳəbbōt” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/ʾaḳəbbot/) and “Poem in Hobyot?” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/poetry-in-hobyot/).

48 Poems that begin with formulas associated with the mountaintop are: “The Charm of Old Age” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/1991-2/); “The Epic of ʿ Anzī” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/the-epic-of-ʿanzi-ʿisa-kedḥayts-pickup-truck/); “Fuḥā Mahri: A Short Lyric Poem” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/fuṣḥa-mahri-a-short-poem/); “Legal Proceeding in Poetry” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/legal-dispute-in-poetry-divorce-and-remarriage/); “She’s a Work of Art” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/shes-a-work-of-art/); “Tribal Ode: The Times We Live In” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-the-times-we-live-in/) and “Yearning for Baḳlīt” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/other-poems-from-introduction/yearning-for-baḳlit/).

49 This is the case for the poem “Tribal Ode: Gunfight in Niśṭawn” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-the-gunfight-in-nisṭawn/) which opens with a series of geographical locations and weather features particular to the northern flanks of Jabal Fartak.

50 Jahn, 1902, p. 136 (VII), p. 138 (VIII), p. 139 (XII) and p. 141 (XIX).

51 Bailey, 1991, Holes, 2009, Musil, 1928 and Palva, 1992.

52 Holes, 2011 and Sowayan, 1985.

53 Kurpershoek, 1994 and Kurpershoek, 1999.

54 Mahri Poetry Archive (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/) and Jahn, 1902.

55 On the mountaintop motif in Central Najdi poetry, Sowayan writes: “Or the poet may begin his poem differently, by describing his climb to the top of the highest ridge to watch the early departure of his sweetheart with her kinsmen” (Sowayan, 1985, p. 32).

56 A similar evolutionary process may explain the variation between the highly stylized and formulaic version of the messenger motif in northern and central nabaṭī poetry and its less significant role in South Arabian vernacular poetry. Rather than claim that South Arabian poets adopted the messenger motif from northern poets and subsequently reduced its usage, it seems more probable that an archaic kernel of the messenger motif existed in an ancestral tradition and was retained by northern and southern poets alike. However, the emerging concept of literacy in the early Islamic era caused the messenger motif to flourish in Arabic-language nabaṭī poetry, whereas it remained vestigial in the purely oral milieu of Mahri poetry.

57 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 38.

58 Bauman, 1984, p. 15-24. As demonstrated by Bauman and other specialists of performance theory, the rhetorical cues that initiate an oral narrative performance poetry or prose typically offer instruction to native audiences regarding their interpretation.

59 Liebhaber, 2013, p. 130.

60 Idem.

61 Tribal Ode: Atop the Peak of arbūt,” line 16 (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/tribal-ode-atop-the-peak-of-ṭarbut/). The formulas that have accreted to the mountaintop motif in Mahri poetry define the highest rhetorical register of the Mahri language, what Mahri speakers often refer to as Mahri “fuḥā” (Liebhaber, 2010, p. 229).

62 Alternate explanations concerning the distribution of the mountaintop motif relative to the mdīt motif are possible; indeed, it is difficult to determine whether the mdīt motif is encroaching on the mountaintop motif or whether the mountaintop motif is a relatively recent intrusion from the Southern Najd which has been superimposed over an older mdīt motif. Further, variations in the distribution of these motifs amongst the regional specificities of Mahri-language poetry must be taken into account. For instance, introductory storm and wind motifs (including the mdīt) clearly predominate in the 25 poems and poem fragments included in Alfred Jahn’s Die Mehri-Sprache in Südarabien (Jahn, 1902). All of the poems published in Jahn, 1902 are from the coastal districts of Qishn, and as such, maritime, wind and storm imagery constitute their chief descriptive and metaphoric formulas. In this way, Mahri-language poetry from the western coastal regions of al-Mahra evoke aḍrami vernacular poems, which typically commence with a reference to floods, rain-clouds and thunder (Serjeant, 1951, p. 56). In this way, the two geographically proximate poetic traditions are linked by their shared introductory theme: a surge of wind or water that metaphorically evokes the poet’s own flood of emotion and poetic inspiration.

63 The extended metaphor is a well-established compositional device… which allows the poet to expand any of the themes in his poems through the suspension of the thematic development and the embedding of a short narrative or descriptive episode in the poem” (Sowayan, 1985, p. 113).

64 Kurpershoek, 1994, p. 43-47.

65 Sowayan, 1985, p. 115.

66 My phrase “abstract meaning” is equivalent to Stetkevych’s “conceptual correlative,” an idea formulated in her article “From Jāhiliyyah to Badīʿiyyah: Orality, Literacy, and the Transformations of Rhetoric” (Stetkevych, 2010, p. 213).

67 Sells, 1994.

68 Ibid., p. 136.

69 Stetkevych, 2010, p. 211-214.

70 According to al-uwayān: [Nisba] lā ba’s bihā, ‘in lam takun al-ghālibiyya al-‘uẓmā, min shu’arā al-nabaṭ al-qudāmā kānū yujīdūna al-qirā’a wa-l-kitāba wa-l-ba’ḍ minhum kānat lahu muāwilāt li-l-naẓm bi-l-faīḥ (a great many, if not the great majority of ancient nabaṭī poets were literate and some of them had even tried to compose poetry in literary Arabic), Al-Ṣuwayān, 2000, p. 188.

71 Sowayan, 1985, p. 113.

72 “Yearning for Baḳlīt”, lines 25-32. (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/other-poems-from-introduction/yearning-for-baḳlit/).

73 Ibid., lines 4-8.

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Samuel Liebhaber, « Mahri Oral Poetry and Arabic Nabaṭī Poetry: Common core, divergent outcomes », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2015, consulté le 24 juin 2017. URL : http://cy.revues.org/2973 ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.2973

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Samuel Liebhaber

Associate Professor of Arabic at Middlebury College

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