A Respite from Routine: Eid al-Adha in Al-Maharah

By Samuel Liebhaber [1] 

I never felt homesick when I thought I would during the three years I spent in Yemen: on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas or even Halloween. I would, however, feel pangs of homesickness on local holidays, particularly during the Islamic holidays of Eid al-‘Adha[2] and Eid al-Fitr[3]. Yemeni families would gather with friends and neighbors for communal meals, promenade through town and wish each other the best for the coming year. On such days when local and familial ties are reaffirmed through communal activities, I would be reminded of my foreign-ness more poignantly than ever. Typically, I would retreat to whatever solitary space I had created for myself – a rented apartment or hotel room – to avoid the reminder of being so distant from my own family and friends thousands of miles away.

An old passport from al-Maharah

In 2004, during Eid al-‘Adha day, I was living in al-Ghaydah[4], the capital of Yemen’s easternmost and least populated governorate[5], al-Maharah.  I was recording poetry in the Mahri[6] language: an indigenous, non-Arabic language spoken by approximately 110,000 inhabitants of al-Maharah governorate. It is called “the language of birds” by Arabic-monolinguals who live around and amongst the governorate. The Mahri language was only discovered by the west in the mid-19th century and remained primarily overlooked in Arabic scholarship until the 1980s. Geography is the main reason for this oversight.  

As recent as 2004, the drive from Hadhramaut[7] to any point in al-Maharah was an arduous process.  For instance, to reach Qishn – al-Maharah’s historical capital and second-biggest city – from al-Ghaydah required either an eight-hour off-road drive over Fartak mountain or - season permitting - a boat trip to the fishing village of Huswain, followed by a ride over the coastal dunes. An additional all-day off-road trip was required to reach the paved road starting in Sayhūt, from whence one could travel westward with relative ease to al-Shihr, al-Mukalla, and even Aden at the western edge of the South Arabian coast.  

Distant from the more populated areas of Yemen, its proximity to the Omani border and recent construction, meant that al-Ghaydah had the feel of a frontier town. It attracted non-Mahri Yemenis who were either leaving behind a painful past or looking to make some quick money.  The military personnel and civil servants stationed there felt that it was a hardship posting.  The non-locals used the Arabic expression “madyūn majnūn aw milyūn” (“in debt, insane or a millionaire”) to describe one another. Also, al-Ghaydah was the best place for me to record poetry in the Mahri language and to find locals willing to help me translate it into Arabic. Centrally located and visited by Maharis from the hinterlands, al-Ghaydah is a bustling nexus of activity for Mahri and Arabic-monolingual Yemenis alike. 

Although it took me awhile to realize it, al-Ghaydah had its charms – including the best restaurant I have ever eaten at: Friends’ Restaurant (Matʿam al-Aṣdiqāʾ) which specializes in perfectly grilled sardines served over biryani rice topped with fresh radish greens and saḥāwiq[8] (Yemeni salsa).       

My first social visit whenever I would return to al-Ghaydah was with the commander of a military base located on the outskirts of town. The commander was an imposing figure: solidly built, with massive hands and sporting the requisite jumhūrī (“republican”) mustache. After I furnished reading him a letter of introduction from the Yemen Center for Studies and Research (the Yemeni agency that oversees foreign research), the commander assigned me a guard or minder who would remain by my side throughout my residence in al-Ghaydah.  While I initially chafed at the loss of independence, I grew to realize the extraordinary burden that my presence created for the local security apparatus, which had more important concerns than the well-being of a single foreigner who showed up at their doorstep completely unsolicited. Not only was the commander genuinely concerned for my comfort and the success of my project, but he spent time and energy to find a minder who was interested in Yemen’s oral folkloric traditions, who might enjoy aspects of the duty assigned to him.  

The commander settled on “Abdallah Abu Yemen,i”[9] a soldier who appeared at the door of my hotel room the morning after my arrival in al-Ghaydah. Abdallah was in his late twenties, hailed from a farming village in the mountains of central Yemen and studied at the Faculty of Arts at Ta’izz University[10] for two years. Abdallah was lean, with a hawkish demeanor, and had a ferocious glare that would put anyone three steps back, and an equally impressive smile.  

Image by Hajer Mohammed

Image by Hajer Mohammed

Abdallah was also sympathetic to the sensitive nature of collecting poetry from consultants who were often unfamiliar with foreigners or representatives of the Yemeni military.  Thanks to his academic background and intellectual interests, Abdallah would put older Mahri poets at ease by asking questions about Mahri poetry and comparing it with the native poetic traditions of his home region near Ta’izz.  On some occasions, Abdallah was able to resolve a linguistic impasse by patiently explaining to me the nuanced meanings of Arabic colloquialisms used by the consultants that I didn’t understand.  Abdallah would often join the Mahra in laughing at a particularly humorous poem while I was still scratching my head.

Abdallah and I become friends many shared commonalities: we were the same age and unmarried, we were both fascinated by the oral poetic heritage of Yemen and perhaps most relevant, we were both strangers living in al-Ghaydah, and as such, we experienced similar pangs of homesickness during the holidays. Therefore, when Eid al-‘Adha[11] came around, Abdallah and I hatched a plan to get out of town and do some sightseeing together. As long as I recorded some poetry along the way, he could justify a rambling excursion to his superiors.

Our first stop was the fishing village of Dhabūt, 30 kilometers west of al-Ghaydah. The town of Dhabūt is built around a three-story, mud brick tower-fortress called “Yeśghawgh” (from the Mahri language, meaning: “It overlooks [the sea]”). On holidays or other important celebrations, the male population of Dhabūt gathers in the forecourt of “Yeśghawgh” to chant welcoming poetic couplets – called habbōt in Mahri - and dance to the rhythm of African drums and drummers. When Abdallah described my research to the collected townsfolk, a group of celebrants took us to the uppermost chamber of “Yeśghawgh” so that I could record some of their poetry: short Arabic-language couplets of welcome and fragments of older tribal poetry in the Mahri language.

Once the older poets ran out of steam, some of the younger members of the assembly offered to take us on a short trip up the coast to one of their favorite haunts. They drove us westwards to a beach where a deep watercourse that carves through Fartak mountain meets the sea. During the monsoon season, when a foggy drizzle covers the summit of Fartak, excess groundwater emerges at the mountain’s foot to form large, brackish ponds just feet from the Arabian Sea. Slightly up the beach from the ponds, warm salt water trickles down from springs located head-high in the sandy bluffs overlooking the beach – a strange and bewitching sight.  

One of our young Mahri guides had another sight to show us: rocky shoals covered in oysters. He shyly confided in us a secret; he thought that oysters taste better raw than grilled. I could not have agreed with him more, and we spent the next hour pulling oysters from the rocks, cracking them open and gulp them down.  Apparently, inhabitants of the al-Maharah only ate oysters when there was nothing else left to eat; judging from Abdallah’s expression while he watched us eat raw oysters, he seemed to favor the consensus. The Mahri word for oyster is “zikt” (plural: zōket); it remains one of my favorite words in any language.

Following our snack of oysters al fresco, Abdallah had a surprise in store. Along with the Mahri gourmand, the three of us drove to a quiet stretch of coast back towards al-Ghaydah.  Having purchased some ammunition the previous day, Abdallah gave us a demonstration of his dead-eyed target shooting with his service pistol.  He placed a fist-sized rock across a narrow inlet over 50 meters away, assumed a shooter’s crouch and blasted the rock to smithereens. We, the two spectators, were both impressed. Abdallah modestly tried to shrug it off as routine. In addition to the thrill of the shot, Abdallah had some meaningful objectives behind his virtuoso display. First, I think that he wanted to communicate that my security was in competent hands.  Secondly, he wanted to let me know that as long as I was in al-Maharah, he was still “on the clock.” As safe and secure as I believed al-Maharah to be, Abdallah had to remain vigilant for my sake and the sake of Yemen’s reputation abroad. A daylong break in routine for me was still a day of work for Abdallah.

Lunchtime had arrived, and it was my turn to offer a gesture of gratitude to my minder, friend, and fellow expatriate. On our way back home, Abdallah and I visited a qāt market where I splurged on some high quality, fresh qāt[12] from Hamdān in Northern Yemen. Good qāt is rare and expensive in al-Ghaydah since it has to be transported by trucks that set out from Maʾrib over 900 kilometers away.  The trip takes at least 20 hours, and much of the best qāt is sold or spoiled before it ever arrives in al-Ghaydah. But the day and the occasion demanded a red-meat lunch – mutton and rice – and quality qāt afterward. Abdallah and I spent the rest of the afternoon chewing qāt, reminiscing about our homes, family, and friends who were far, far away.  Qāt makes longing feel particularly poignant. Instead of obscuring nostalgia behind a cloud of intoxication, qāt deepens its clarity so that bittersweet feelings of yearning and absence can be spoken of, examined, and with a friend, shared and cherished.

[1] Sam Liebhaber is an Associate Professor of Arabic at Middlebury College. He received his M.A. degree in Comparative Semitics (2000) and his Ph.D. in Arabic Literature from the University of California, Berkeley (2007).  Dr. Liebhaber has published a translation of the first written collection of poetry in the Mahri language, The Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn (American Institute for Yemeni Studies, 2011), as well as articles on Mahri poetry and language in The Journal of Semitic Studies (2010), Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies (2010), The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2011), and The Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures (2013). Dr. Liebhaber is the author of the Mahri Poetry Archive, an online resource for Mahri poetry, society, and history: http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/

[2] Eid al-Adha is one of two Islamic Holidays or Eids. It commemorates the story of Abraham, or Ibrahim, being tested by god. During this holiday, which is at times referred to as the “Feast of Sacrifice”, an animal - usually goat - is sacrificed and its  meat is distributed amongst family members and the needy. 

[3] Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Islamic month of Fasting, Ramadan, and is therefore called the “Feast of Breaking the Fast”. 

[4] In 2004, the population of Al-Ghaydah was estimated to be around 13,475. 

[5] Yemen’s provinces are referred to as governorates. Today, in 2018, Yemen is composed of 21 governorates and one municipality. 

[6] Mahri or Mehri is a language belonging to the semitic languages of Modern South Arabia, and is considered older than the Arabic language in Yemen. It is spoken in two dialects in the Yemeni governorate of Al-Maharah and in some parts of its neighboring country, Oman. Today, Mahri is at risk of extinction. 

[7] Refer to our map, Hadhramaut is al-Maharah’s neighboring governorate.  

[8] Yemeni sauce made throughout Yemen with varying degrees of spiciness and ingredients, but it mostly consists of tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, and cumin. 

[9] This is a pseudonym for the sake of my minder’s privacy.

[10] Refer to map for geographical awareness.  

[11] Date: February 2nd, 2004.

[12]  Qat or Khat is a plant native to the horn of Africa and the Southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The leaves of the Arabian shrub, which are chewed is banned in many countries as a  stimulant but is widely popular in Yemen.