Category Archives: Mahra

AIYS in Denver

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AIYS Panel Members
left to right: Dr. Mohammed Sharafuddin, Dr. Sam Liebhaber, Dr. Marieke Brandt, Dr. Najwa Adra, Dr. Daniel Martin Varisco, Dr. Waleed F. Mahdi

On Sunday, November 22, AIYS sponsored a panel at MESA in Denver entitled “Turmoil and Tolerance: Unpacking the Current Crisis in Yemen.”  The panel was well attended, with over 50 present at one point.  Details on the papers presented can be found here.

Mahri: A language or dialect?

MahriTribesMen
from Bertram Thomas’ “Arabia Felix” (1932)

[The article below features research by AIYS Board Member Sam Liebhaber.]

by Ali Abulohoom, Yemen Times, October 2,  2014

“My father told me that [in his village in Mahra] back in the day, they did not use any language but Mahri in their daily lives, as there was no need to use ‘formal language’ [Arabic],” said Saeed Bin Basheer, 52, who lives in Al-Ghaiyda, the capital city of Mahra governorate.

Basheer still speaks the Mahri language and urges his four sons to do the same.

I always tell my sons not to forget Mahri as it is part of our culture and identity. Arabic, English, and other languages have become easy to learn anywhere, whereas Mahri [is in danger of dying],” Basheer added.

In 2009, the Yemeni Central Statistical Organization estimated the population in Al-Mahra governorate at 101,701—many of whom speak the region’s traditional Mahri language.

Like Arabic and Hebrew, Mahri is a Semitic language. Unlike its two Semitic counterparts, however, it lacks a written tradition. Except for a few short lines and word lists, which have been published in Arabic, the Mahri language has only been written down for scholarly audiences.

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Thesiger of Arabia: #1

 thesiger

Anyone who knows anything about Arabia has no doubt heard of Lawrence of Arabia, even if only via Peter O’toole’s dazzling Hollywood version.  But there is also Thesiger of Arabia, especially his extraordinary trips across the Empty Quarter in the 1940s.  While in al-‘Ayn two weeks ago I was able to visit the old fort, now a museum displaying a number of photographs that Wilfred Thesiger took on his trip from Yemen to the Emirates and his visit with Shaykh Zayed.  The albums of Thesiger are preserved online at the Pitt Rivers Museum website.  It is well worth looking at these.

I photographed several of the images in the al-‘Ayn exhibit dealing with Yemen, and these are reproduced below:

thes5Sa’ar at Minwakh, Hadramawt, drawing water (1947)

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South Arabia and the Berber Imaginary

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Mahri camels at the International Festival of the Sahara in Douz, Tunisia,  December 24, 2012. Photo by Sam Liebhaber.

by Sam Liebhaber

One of the long-standing myths of Berber ancestry places their origins in Yemen from whence they were dispatched to North Africa in the service of ancient Ḥimyarite kings.  Although this chapter in the mythological prehistory of the Arab world can be refuted on the grounds that the Berber are indisputably indigenous to North Africa, the offhand dismissal of the South Arabian-Berber imaginary overlooks an important sociolinguistic kinship between the Berber of North Africa and one of the last indigenous linguistic communities of the Arabian Peninsula: the Mahra of Yemen and Oman.

A number of socio-cultural parallels distinguish the Berber and Mahra from the other minority language communities of the Middle East. For one, the Mahra and Berber are members of the Islamic ʾummah, unlike many of the other minority language communities of the Arab world where linguistic boundaries are frequently coterminous with religious divisions. Further, the Berber and the Mahra did not inherit a written tradition that includes religious and literary texts. As a consequence, the Mahri and Berber languages are frequently consigned to the category of “lahja,” an Arabic term that signifies any non-prestigious, vernacular idiom that lacks of historical or social value.

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