Category Archives: Mahra

Mahra Poetry Site

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Sam Liebhaber (Middlebury College) has just published a new book on Mahri Poetry, When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra. Associated with the new release is a website exhibit.

Details of the exhibit are described below:

The Mahra people of the southern Arabian Peninsula have no written language but instead possess a rich oral tradition. Samuel Liebhaber takes readers on a tour through their poetry, collected by the author in audio and video recordings over the course of several years. Based on this material, Liebhaber developed a systemic approach to Mahri poetry that challenges genre- based categorizations of oral poetry from the Arabian Peninsula. By taking into account all Mahri poetic expressions—the majority of which don’t belong to any of the known genres of Arabian poetry—Liebhaber creates a blueprint for understanding how oral poetry is conceived and composed by native practitioners. Each poem is embedded in a conceptual framework that highlights formal similarities between them and recapitulates how Mahri poets craft poems and how their audiences are primed to receive them. The web-based medium allows users not only to delve into the classification system to explore the diversity and complexity of the Mahra’s poetic expressions, but also to experience the formation of a poem in the moment. Through a series of questions designed to define the social context in which a poem is being created, the reader is taken on an experiential tour through the corpus that highlights the embeddedness of poetry in the Mahras’ everyday practices.

“Featuring Arabic as well as Mahran texts translated and annotated in English, When Melodies Gather is a superb educational resource for appreciating the verbal and performative skill of modern tribal bards.”—Flagg Miller, University of California, Davis

“Of vital importance to the documentation of Mahri, When Melodies Gather enables native speakers and scholars alike to examine and appreciate an endangered genre within an endangered language.”—Janet Watson, University of Leeds

Modern South Arabian

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T.M. Johstone sits with Abdul Qadr,
the head of education in Dhofar at the time.

T.M. Johnstone’s Modern South Arabian recordings: collaborative cataloguing and ‘footprints’ of biocultural change in Southern Arabia

Audio cataloguer Dr Alice Rudge writes:

Thomas Muir Johnstone made many recordings during his research trips to the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are of endangered and unwritten languages. The British Library now houses these open reel and cassette tapes, which were acquired from Durham University Library in 1995. The collection is archived within the World and Traditional Music collection with the reference C733. As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, these tapes have now been digitised and are being catalogued. The cataloguing of the tapes in this collection containing Modern South Arabian languages was made possible through a collaborative process, which revealed not only the content of the tapes, but also the webs of intertwining stories and lives that they document.

For the rest of this article and the podcast, click here.

Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

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Sam Liebhaber with Gregory Johnsen in Sanaa, 2004, having an evening cup of shay halib at Ali al-‘Imrani’s café in Sana’a, next to the Qubaat al-Mahdi, overlooking the Sayla.

by Sam Liebhaber

It is a daunting task for me to list the ways that the AIYS has guided and supported my research in Yemen; they are almost too many to count.  Indeed, my experience in learning about Yemen and developing proficiency in its languages is inseparable from my relationship to the AIYS, which has stood as one of the few constants in a changing – and often tumultuous – landscape.

My first encounter with the AIYS dates back to my earliest steps in learning Arabic at the beginning of my graduate career in 1998. I spent the summer studying Arabic at the Center for the Arabic Language and Eastern Studies (CALES) in the Old City of Sana’a and a colleague brought me to the AIYS, which at the time was located on al-Bawniya street.  During that summer, I spent many pleasant hours studying and reading about Yemen in the AIYS library – a lovely, glass-enclosed space that looked out onto a courtyard garden.

When I returned to Yemen the following year for further language study, I was once again welcomed to the AIYS by the resident director, Marta Colburn, who offered me guidance and advice on future research and studies in Yemen. On a side trip to Asmara in 2000, I befriended Bob Holman, New York-based poet/performer and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, at a conference and cultural celebration marking Eritrean independence.  Bob was gathering information for his TV documentary, On the Road with Bob Holman, and when I told him about Yemen’s vibrant poetic culture, he returned back with me to Sana’a.  Marta Colburn graciously arranged for Bob and myself to attend the weekly gathering of literati in the home of Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih, Yemen’s “poet laureate”, who was impressed by Bob’s extemporaneous composition and performance of a poem about the beauty and elegance of Sana’a.  This led to an offer to Bob and myself to translate Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih’s Book of Sana’a – myself an Arabic neophyte and Bob a Nuyorican slam poet.  Marta Colburn wisely engaged a friend of hers, Muhammad Abd al-Salam Mansur, to help us with the translation.  Muhammad Abd al-Salam remains a close friend and served as a frequent mentor to me during my subsequent visits in Yemen.  After a few years of work, our translation of the Book of Sana’a was published in Yemen thanks to the effort and support of the AIYS, especially that of Christopher Edens who assumed the role of resident director after the departure of Marta Colburn and who oversaw the final editing and annotation of the Book of Sana’a.

Continue reading Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

Mehri Center for Research and Studies

Launch of the Mehri Center for Research and Studies

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The Center was officially launched on 02 October 2017 in al-Ghaydhah, Yemen.

This event was the first occasion for people from outside the Center’s committee to learn about plans for the Center. Over 100 people from Yemen and Oman attended the launch. The event included several examples of the performance of the Mehri language and its culture, such as folklore and different types of poems, and examples of material culture.

Professor Janet Watson in Mehri, provided a talk. Prof. Janet advised al Mehri speakers to talk to their children in Mehri, to write to each other in Mehri, and to preserve their language from extinction. The recorded talk was disseminated after the launch event to several groups via WhatsApp within Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Continue reading Mehri Center for Research and Studies

The South in the Yemeni Conflict Panel

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At the upcoming annual MESA conference in Washington, D.C., AIYS is sponsoring two panels on Yemen. The second panel is entitled “The South in the Yemeni Conflict” (P4744) and was organized by Charles Schmitz. This will take place Sunday, 11/19/17 at 10:30am. [For details on the first panel, click here.]

The panelists include:

Noel Brehony ( Menas Associates  )
“Regionalism and nationalism in South Yemen”
•  Elisabeth Kendall ( Oxford University )
“What Does Eastern Yemen Want and What Is It Doing About It? The Voice of al-Mahra”
•   Thanos Petouris (Independent Scholar)
“Southern Yemen after the Saudi Intervention: Political and Social Change”
•   Charles P. Schmitz (Towson University)
“Salafism in the South”

Here is the Panel Abstract:

This panel will explore the new political and social developments in the south in order to chart the possible contours of the new southern Yemeni landscape.  In 2007 the Hirak, or southern movement, emerged with a clear political agenda for political autonomy but without a coherent leadership. In 2012 following the fall of the Saleh regime, Hadi’s transitional government installed southerners in key leadership positions in Yemen’s government, but most southerners remained very wary of Hadi’s government and largely boycotted the National Dialogue Conference that created the proposed federal Yemeni state.

The Houthi coup in late 2014 and the military onslaught of the Houthi Saleh forces on Aden in the spring of 2015 dramatically transformed the southern political landscape. The emergence of the southern resistance brought new leaders to the fore, the Emirati reconstruction of the southern security apparatus is building the foundations of new leadership in the governorates, and the Hadi government in Aden is vying for legitimacy in the south for the national government. These developments have dramatically transformed the southern political landscape in yet unknown ways. The panel aims to clarify some of these new developments in the south.

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?

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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.

Continue reading Mahri: A language or dialect?