14 June, 2007

Mahra: our Eastern neighbor

The Arabian Peninsula is considered by most scholars to be the original home of Arabs. This includes Hadhramout; and Mahra, our Eastern neighbor. Its people, the Mehris, form one of the smallest tribal groups in Yemen and in the Peninsula. Though Mahra itself is large and extends in to Oman, it's very sparsely populated. Most of its population is located along the coast; particularly - in and around Al Ghaidha ,its main urban center. Al Ghaidha is about 500 kilo meters east of Mukalla.

Closer to the coast, Mahra has mountains (400m - 1000m above sea level) and valleys and some of the most beautiful, pristine beaches - mostly undeveloped - that one can imagine; hidden beaches that are to the eyes, just 'pure magic'. In some of the valleys, are perennial springs; and in some valleys and covering sides and atop some mountains can be found lush greenery. Mahra too, has large areas of fertile arable land; which are still largely unused. And its waters of the Arabian Sea are rich in fish of many kinds and is famous for its rock lobster and shrimps. Near the Saudi Arabian border, stretches the desert: the Rub El' Khali (the Empty Quarter).

There are striking similarities between the physical appearance and local traditions of Mahris and Hadhramis. Like Hadhramis, Mahris are very traditional and conservative; and their social structure is based on a tribal system where each tribe is classified in to levels and ruled by a sheikh. At the same time, there are striking differences too. The main one being that, Mahris are bilingual and apart from Arabic - they speak too, a rare, ancient Semitic language: Mehri, which is not an Arabic dialect as some think but is a distinct language. Mehri sounds much like the Somali language and Soqutri and is akin to the Ethiopian Amharic; fewer and fewer people now, do speak Mahri and it might eventually become extinct.

Most Mahris are still Bedouins, are semi nomadic and are a proud and very generous people. When I first arrived in Yemen over twenty years ago, I made it a point of visiting most of Southern Yemen. In remote parts of Mahra, I was surprised to find Bedouin homesteads where the men had gone hunting or travelled far on business - and only children and colorfully dressed women were present; where brave, confident women would welcome any visitor, including men, with water or milk or tea or coffee and bread. And they would sit down and chat, even with men; and yet, though welcoming, they would always remain very detached and are always confident. I even saw, then, several Mahri Bedouin women driving through the desert in 4x4s - without men. And the men are even more welcoming, more friendlier and more generous. For us here in Hadhramout, it is very comforting to have such special neighbors.

Today, Mahra is modernising fast and after Hadhramout, it is the second fastest growing region in Yemen; this modernisation is most apparent in its main city: Al Ghaidha. Still, even with such a rapid modernisation, Mahra remains as exotic and captivating as when I first set my eyes on it and a place very much worth visiting again and again.