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  Book review

The Diwan of Hajj Dakon: A Collection of Mahri Poetry: Introduction, Translation and Transliteration

by Samuel Liebhaber, The American Institute for Yemeni Studies, 2011. Mahri and Arabic texts. Pp. ix + 187. Bibliog. ISBN-10: 1-882-557-16-6; ISBN 13: 978-1-8825-57166-5)

The appearance of this book marks an important new development for the pre-literate Modern South Arabian languages (MSA) of southern Arabia. Its importance lies in the fact that it presents poems in the Mahri language in written form. As Liebhaber writes: ‘the Mahri language has never been written down for the benefit and enjoyment of a non-scholarly audience’, [1] and ‘There is no precedent for complete written texts in the Mahri language. There is no locally agreed-upon means to represent the unique sounds of the Mahri language nor is there a single dialect of Mahri that all Mahri speakers agree ought to form the basis for a standard written idiom. In choosing to commit his poetry to writing Hajj has ventured into uncharted territory and has made decisions that may influence the future direction of written Mahri’. [2] 

The book is divided into five parts. In Part I [The Dîwân of Hajj Dâkôn: Literary and Cultural Analysis], some biographical details of the poet and the origin of his Dîwân are given; the author then discusses traditional and modern poetical forms (especially various types of Qasîda), orality and literacy, and the socio-cultural context of the Mahri language. In sections 6–9 various poems in Mahri are analysed in depth. Part II [Key to the Arabic and Mahri Texts] sets out a table for Arabic and Mahri transliteration and discusses some of the difficulties encountered in transcribing poetry in Mahri. In Parts III to V the eighteen poems are presented: transliterated by Liebhaber and translated by him into English, with detailed linguistic footnotes in Part III [The Dîwân of Hajj Dâkôn: Translation and Transliteration]; transcribed and translated into Arabic by Á.. âjj Dâkôn in Part IV [The Dîwân of Hajj Dâkôn: Mahri and Arabic Texts]; in Mahri and Arabic in Hajj Dakon’s own handwriting in Part V [The Dîwân of Hajj Dâkôn: The Autograph]. The transcribed poems and their translation are presented on facing pages. [3] The book ends with a useful bibliography.

Hajj Dâkôn, most of whose poetry is in Arabic, was born in 1968 in Qishn, though he now lives near al-Ghaydha, where he is a well-known semi-professional poet. He is passionate about bringing the Mahri language to a wider audience. Keen to demonstrate that ‘Mahri-language poetry is a Yemeni cultural practice and that al-Mahra is participating in the poetic renewal that has been moving over Yemen since the middle of the 20th century’, [4] and to show that Mahri is a living and dynamic language, he decided that ‘a Mahri script would be necessary for the Mahri language to be recognized in Yemen as a living language’. [5] So in 2003 he began to write Mahri poetry, making use of a slightly modified Arabic script to do so. In this collection, he is experimenting with ‘contemporary styles of Arabic strophic sung poetry, especially that popular in the Hadramawt’, [6] poetry which he too had composed in Arabic, but now instead he decided to try writing such poetry in Mahri. Although he composes in his own dialect, that of Qishn, the simplicity of his transcription system means that his written poetry is readily accessible to a broad Mahri readership. For non-Mahra this is more difficult, since, as Liebhaber points out: ‘Unlike Arabic which can employ a full repertoire of diacritics to enable an accurate phonetic reading, Hajj’s Mahri script requires prior knowledge of the Mahri language in order to be accurately enunciated’. [7] 

The poems, which he calls Ksîdet (Arabic Qasîda), are lyric poems of some 10–12 lines (though there is one of 25 lines), on largely sentimental themes (Arabic ghazal, love poems). They are monorhymed, and are intended to be sung or chanted (‘this is the most prestigious form that a poetic performance in al-Mahra can take’); [8] their metre (‘defined by the number of stressed syllables per line … can be matched to any number of melodies that are associated with specific regions in al-Mahra’, [9] a factor which also helps to appeal to a wider Mahra audience. The vocabulary, especially the nominal vocabulary, is heavily influenced by Arabic, which makes it easier to write using an Arabic script. Liebhaber also feels that Hajj ‘strived towards consistency and was subtly influenced by his education in Arabic which led him to over-correct the Mahri texts by applying rules … in imitation of Arabic grammatical rules’. [10] It is possible, of course, that this is intentional, a reflection of his desire to see his poetry reaching out to a wider, and Arab, readership. ‘First and foremost Hajj Dâkôn has written the Dîwân for the enjoyment of the Mahra by offering a collection of lyric poetry that he hopes will form the kernel of a future Mahri literature. Second, Hajj has broadened the appeal of his Dîwân to Arabic monolingual Yemenis by providing an Arabic translation for each poem that approximates the meter and vocabulary of the Mahri original’. [11]

For this reader, the poems themselves are perhaps the least interesting part of the book: slightly banal generic love poems with little specifically ‘Mahri’ about them (‘as opposed to the highly contextualised subject matter of the tribal odes’, as the author notes). [12] But this is not the point: what is important here is that the Mahri poems are presented in a written form. The important introductory section places the poems in context and shows just why they are so innovative. Here too the vexed question of whether Mahri is to be described as a lahja, ‘dialect’ or a lugha, ‘language’ is discussed, and Liebhaber suggests that the translation of lahja and lugha as ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ is unsatisfactory in that it ‘does not adequately communicate the contrast between the two terms in Arabic. Instead ‘lugha’ and ‘lahja’ signify two opposing semantic nodes: writing / oratory / grammar / educated (lugha) vs. common speech / disorder / illiteracy (lahja)’. [13] Pages 19–25, which discuss orality and literacy and the effect that writing has had on Hajj’s poetry itself, are of great interest, and the points made are well illustrated by comparing a poem composed orally with one written by Hajj. Liebhaber also discusses the supposed relationship between Mahri and ‘Himyar’, ‘by far the most common perception amongst scholarly and non-scholarly Yemenis who often describe the Mahri language as a ‘Himyari’ language. This association affiliates the Mahra to the prestigious pre-Islamic kingdoms of Saba’, Qitban, Ma’in and Himyar, a common reference point for national pride in Yemen.’ However, as he points out: ‘At the same time, this emphasis on ‘Himyari’ civilization consigns the Mahri language to an obsolete past,’ which leads to the ‘the common perception, held by Mahra and non-Mahra alike, that the Mahri language is incapable of expressing the exigencies of modern life and that its oral culture is incapable of change or innovation’. [14] It is to combat this view that Hajj has worked to present his poems in this form, in the hopes that they might be ‘the nucleus of a future literary tradition for the Mahri language’. [15] 

How likely is this hope to be realised? Liebhaber himself has his doubts: the influence of Arabic is powerful: ‘… certainly the success of written and oratorical Arabic (al-‘arabiyya) in establishing itself as the prestige language of the Middle East has been the critical factor behind the overall neglect of the Mahri language’, [16] and he concludes his introduction rather pessimistically: ‘Given the rapid and profound spread of Arabic throughout the Middle East, there is virtually no intellectual framework to recognize indigenous, oral languages as both separate from Arabic and vital. Due to their vulnerability as ‘dialects’ (lahjat) at the margins of literacy, improbable theories and general neglect easily overtake the unwritten, indigenous languages of the Middle East. In contrast, the indigenous languages of the Middle East that have inherited written traditions (such as the Aramaic language, Coptic, or Hebrew) possess a prestige that guarantees local interest and reputable scholarship. As long as it remains unwritten, the Mahri language will languish in the popular and scholarly imaginations as a ‘dialect’ and minimal political and social capital will be expended to ensure its survival’. [17] This is also true to differing degrees for the other MSA languages, and, since among these Mahri holds a relatively prestigious position, a failure of this language to revitalise can but bode ill for the others.

There are a few misprints (some examples are kûss/yEkûsa for kûsa/yEkûsa; [18] ‘subtlely influenced’ for ‘subtly’; [19] ‘justifies for the dissolution …’ for ‘justifies the dissolution…’; [20] but none that cause confusion (except possibly ‘the fricative lateral consonant /sg/’ on p. 4). 

[A sort section of the review has been omitted here since some of the typographical characters cannot be displayed on this web page.]

But these are minor points in a remarkable, ground-breaking and valuable work, the result of a fruitful collaboration between a poet fluent in Mahri and Arabic and a linguist quite at home in Arabic and with Arabic sources. Dr Liebhaber is to be congratulated on undertaking this demanding task, and on managing to present the complex results in such a transparent and easy to read format. We must hope that the hard work and Hajj Dâkôn’s dedication is rewarded by seeing his dreams of a resuscitated Mahri being realised. I would strongly recommend anyone who would like to know more about Mahri poetry to read Liebhaber’s doctoral dissertation: ‘Bedouin Without Arabic: Language, Poetry and the Mahra of Southeast Yemen’ (University of California, Berkeley, 2007).



1 p.5

2 p.10

3 Note: Audio recordings of Áâjj singing and reciting these poems will be available online by August 2012 (Mahri Poetic Archive: Special Collections, the Davis Family Library of Middlebury College, USA)

4 p.14

5 p.11

6 p.13

7 Footnote 12, p. 11

8 p.16

9 p.16

10 p.59

11 p.5

12 p.11

13 Footnote 9, p.5

14 p.51

15 p.9

16 p.49

17 p.61

18 Footnote 48, p.27

19 p.59

20 p. 50