Posted on May 11, 2010 - by mira
(Photos by Mira Baz)
First appeared in Yemen Today
“Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, over half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.” – Enduring Voices Project, National Geographic
It’s chilly in the mountains of Socotra, and men and women are gathered around the fire pit for a long evening of samar (late-night chat). They chat about events big and small, and fall silent as the poet hums a brief tune then sings verses that test his adversary with a poetic challenge. Eyes go from one to the other in anticipation of the opponent’s response, and when it comes it satisfies, for they both prove to be worthy rivals. The contest goes back and forth in verse late into the night as each tries to outdo the other, displaying their skill in wit and in improvising poetry.
A custom that’s near extinction, these poetic contests were once more of a way of life on Socotra than words on paper, like poetry is in most parts of the world.
In the fishing town of Qalansiya, three young boys try to synchronize their paddles while rowing their boat to the beat of their chants. Men all over the island’s coastal towns used to sing poetry as they cast their fishing nets and the valleys echoed with women’s soft voices as they sang poetry and prepared butter oil. The descriptions evoke images of an island once merry with song, drumming up its inhabitants’ energy and pace for the work at hand and delighting its guests as they gaze with admiration.
Socotra, which was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, is known in Yemen for its rare flora and fauna, particularly the singular Dragon’s Blood and Desert Rose trees. It has been likened to the Pacific Ocean’s Galapagos Islands with 42 percent of its flora being endemic (Socotra’s is almost 35 percent). The majority of its land snail and reptile species, as well as a number of its bird species, are also unique to the island. It has hundreds of species of corals, fish, lobster and shrimp, and some of its migrant birds are threatened.
But it’s not only the island’s biodiversity that’s worth preserving. Socotri poetry and language – and thus its culture – are endangered as well. They’re succumbing to the rapid developments that this unique island has been witnessing in recent decades, prompting some to say that the island has fallen silent. Not too many generations ago, a Socotri house’s complete silence from poetry was reason for concern and would have made passersby stop to inquire within.
“[The Socotri language] is endangered because it’s not written; therefore, it has to die,” says linguist and ethnographer Miranda Morris.
“The language is extremely endangered unless the government chooses to do as [governments] have done elsewhere, as they did in Swahili. Swahili had no written language and it was going to collapse, but there was a government decision to develop an alphabet for it, and now it’s a flourishing literature… In Haiti, Creole wasn’t written; now parliament does its work in Creole.”
The Socotri language is one of thousands of languages that exist around the world without an alphabet or a written form. They are used purely orally, rendering them vulnerable to extinction when their speakers embrace more culturally dominant languages, cultures and modern developments.
“Almost all languages remain oral today (less than 20 percent of languages are written even today) and ALL spoken languages for their entire history were oral before 4-5000 years ago,” wrote Gregory Anderson in an e-mail. He is the director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which spearheaded the Enduring Voices Project in coordination with National Geographic to preserve and revitalize the world’s threatened languages.
Socotri, or Saqatari as its speakers call it, is of a family of languages that were spoken in Southern Arabia in antiquity and managed to survive and develop, while others, like Sabaean and Qatabanian, did not. The languages that survived are called the Modern South Arabian languages, or MSA, and include: Bat’hari, Jibbali, Harsusi, Hobyot and Mahri (still used in the south of Yemen’s Mahra governorate). As Arabic spread along with Islam, languages disappeared and the MSA became limited to areas in Yemen and Oman that were geographically isolated, as in the case of the Socotra Archipelago. The MSA are part of the larger Semitic family of Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic, which is still spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea and is the second most widely used Semitic language after Arabic.
* * *
Tourists can snorkel to observe all sorts of stunning marine life in the coral reef of Dhi Hamri, a 45-minute drive eastward from the capital, and unusually shaped but enchanting Desert Rose trees dot the mountainside across from the shoreline. An elderly Socotri woman in the area is offered a lift in a four-wheel drive. An octogenarian, she gets in and is quiet for the majority of the ten-minute trip to her destination. When she talks, she speaks words incomprehensible even to a native speaker of Arabic. The reason for her detachment is soon revealed: she cannot understand or speak any Arabic.
Back in the capital Hadibu, a mishmash of words can be heard, at times a form of pidgin of Arabic and Socotri. When two Socotris talk in this urban setting, it’s usually in the Socotris’ second language. If one inquires in Socotri, the other person may most likely respond in Arabic.
“[People] have gotten used to Arabic and it’s become easier for them,” says Fahd Saleem Kfayin, instructor in the Faculty of Education in Hadibu and secretary general of The Heritage and History Association of Socotra. “Sometimes, it’s all in Arabic. They’re incapable of holding an entire conversation for one whole minute in Socotri only. Arabic has even become the language of telephone conversations – it’s difficult to speak Socotri on the phone, as if the telephone only understands Arabic.”
Kfayin, 30, pauses briefly before responding, carefully composing his thoughts. When he speaks – in Arabic – he is fluent and precise, exhibiting great mastery of the language. A casual listener is very unlikely to guess that Socotri, not Arabic, is his native language.
Another islander explains that his 12-year-old daughter doesn’t pronounce the Socotri letters that are not found in Arabic. She spends the greater part of her days learning and speaking her second language in school.
Although the language has survived for thousands of years, the octogenarian and the 12-year-old demonstrate a dramatic change in the use of Socotri in the short span of one person’s lifetime. The reasons for this transformation relate directly, experts say, to the developments on the island, which have been positive for the most part. Communications in jobs, government offices, and public places are usually done in Arabic in Hadibu and Qalansiya. Television programs, advertising and products in the kitchen are all in Arabic.
But while the introduction of schooling for the last few decades is commendable and has helped Socotris improve their lives through opening up better opportunities for employment, its adverse effect is that the language of instruction is not Socotri, but Arabic, and Arabic alone. As many note, Arabic’s importance lies in it being the language of the Quran and, additionally, being necessary for Socotris to find a job. However, they argue that it doesn’t have to be the only language taught in schools and at the risk of losing another as ancient as Socotri. The Socotri language, still underexplored, may carry within it clues to history and to the evolution of Semitic languages, including Arabic. Its culture and its people’s experiences, like all cultures and peoples, have something to teach the rest of humanity.
Education has thus become a double-edged sword. Women traditionally didn’t attend school and so spoke only Socotri, whereas nowadays the laudable education of girls is more widespread. But because instruction is in Arabic, the concern is that mothers may increasingly use this language with their children in future generations and abandon Socotri, leading to its erosion and eventual demise.
“There is fear that with time the language will disappear,” says Ahmed Abdallah, 50, a poet and a member of the Heritage Association. “There are some recordings, but that is for the French and the British. They made a museum; that’s for tourists. What can we do with these? If nothing’s done, it will go.”
“The new generation isn’t fluent in Socotri, nor Arabic, nor English,” Kfayin notes. “It’s a generation without a language.”
* * *
Miranda Morris sits at a simple table in the courtyard of her modest home in the Old City of Hadibu. Behind her is the small room that is the house she’s been renting for years. Morris first came to the island over two decades ago, long before the commercial airport was built, and has been returning ever since. The courtyard is shaded by a non-endemic towering tree, beneath which is Morris’s sleeping tent. Her daily alarm clock is the loud buzzing of bees harvesting the tree’s nectar at dawn, and she starts receiving her visitors from 6 a.m. Others arrive at other times, and late into the day this human hive is hard at work tape recording, commenting, correcting and translating. A nearby rooster can be heard throughout the day.
For the last five years Morris, who speaks Socotri, has been working on Island Voices: The Oral Art of Socotra. Due to be published later this year, the book is a collection of Socotri poetry along with two CDs of poems sung or recited by Socotris.
“I deliberately don’t have modern poetry, except for… two poems composed specially for the book,” she says. “But apart from that, our aim was to save the ones that are most disappearing. So we went around, particularly to the west of the island, the area famous for poetry.”
Socotri poetry is sung. In the past, it accompanied the islanders wherever they went, whatever they did, and each sung poem specifically served the task being undertaken. The gentle song of a mother for her little one to sleep, the herding of livestock, the merriment of wedding ceremonies. Puzzles were encrypted in stanzas, repeated across the island, and poems were returned to uncover their possible solutions.
Increasingly, Socotris are realizing the urgency to preserve their poetry and language. There are uncoordinated efforts among them to record poetry, to preserve its valuable documentation of history, traditions, and heritage. There are also similar individual initiatives to develop an alphabet to ensure the language’s survival.
For the last few years, The Heritage and History Association has organized an annual “Poet of the Year” competition to inspire Socotris to compose in their native language and to keep it and the poetic tradition alive. Kfayin reports that it’s had a positive effect and many poets send in their entrees every year to be judged.
But as valuable as these efforts are, they may not save the language unless they’re coupled with a broader government decision and a program to be implemented – before Socotri is reduced to a display in a museum.
“Yemen has unimaginable problems facing it,” says Morris. “On the other hand, Socotra is something which, as a World Heritage Site, has enormous potential for Yemen to display itself as a country leading the way. And maybe more effort should be put in Socotra just because of that.”
She adds, “I don’t see the future as very bright, really. And I think that having World Heritage status might help, but it can have an opposite effect, too. So we’ll see.”
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