The Hadramawt Documents 1904–51: Family Life and Social Customs under the Last Sultans

The Hadramawt Documents 1904–51: Family Life and Social Customs under the Last Sultans 

by Mikhail Rodionov and Hanne Schönig, Orient-Institut, Beirut, 2011. Pp. x  + 349. Map. Appendices. Indices. Bibliog. Illus. Hb. ISBN 978-3-89913-881-8.

Mikhail Rodionov of St Petersburg needs little introduction, particularly within the context of the long years which he has devoted to the study of various aspects of Hadramawt’s history, traditions, customs and culture and their distinct characteristics. In assembling this particular book, he has been joined by Hanne Schönig of Martin Luther University of Halle- Wittenburg, another well-known expert in Arabic and Islamic studies.

Their field research was conducted independently (by Rodionov between 1983 and 2008 and by Schönig 1996–2000) before they joined forces to produce this tome. They have been generously assisted in many ways by indigenous Arab and other European scholars in making possible the publication of this important contribution to knowledge of the region.

They define the cultural domain of family life in Hadramawt as being at the intersection of the world of women with the world of men in a gender separated society. Social customs are defined as patterns of accepted behaviour by individuals and social groups, encompassing birth, marriage, burial, religious feasts and pilgrimages, the ritual ibex hunt and traditional ways of conflict resolution: topics on which the late Professor Serjeant painstakingly collected and published a wealth of material.

This study is based on documents drawn largely from the Kathiri Archives in Say’un, supplemented by a few from private collections within the relatively small and land-locked Kathiri domain in Wadi Hadramawt. Only two documents (including the oldest dating from 1904), relevant to Ghayl Ba Wazir and its environs, emanate from what was previously Qu’ayti controlled territory. Thus the material only relates to Hadramawt in very general terms. But it involves a diversity of local actors, and broadly reflects a desire to maintain the existing social order against the external and internal challenges of modernity.

The first part of the book depicts the structure of traditional society in the area to which the documents relate, and its practices (including local rites of passage from the cradle to the grave), and analyses each document’s style and substance. The second part presents the documents themselves in facsimile, Arabic transcript and English translation.

The Ghayl Ba Wazir material is of particular interest in that it records attempts to address concerns shared by all classes of the local community; for example, the high cost of dowries, and a trend towards unsustainable expenditure in the name of social tradition.

The authors pay warm tribute to the late Abd al-Qadir Muhammad al- Sabban, Hadrami scholar and poet, for saving the Kathiri Archives from neglect and dereliction in the 1980s, for cataloguing the many thousands of documents which they comprised, and for inspiring the authors to produce this book.

Rodionov and Schönig deserve our thanks for bringing to general attention the distinctive nature of the Hadrami vernacular, which accounts for its closer affinity with dialects spoken to the east of the region than to its west. A case in point is the rendering of the Arabic ‘j’ (jeem) as ‘y’ (ya). This is exemplified in a Kathiri document of 1360H (1941) about the wearing of anklets (Arabic: ‘hujûl’ ) which spells this as orally pronounced i.e. ‘huyûl’ . They deserve further plaudits for adding to our knowledge the indigenous names of numerous items of Hadrami jewellery (some of which are illustrated in the book’s photographic appendix), as well as of a wide range of other artifacts. But I find it puzzling that despite their expertise and access to local scholars they should refer to the village of Tariba as ‘al- Tariba’ (pp.43,47) and to Qa’uèa as al-Qa’uèa (p.47). In both toponyms use of the definite article ‘al’ is redundant. And in footnote 26 at the bottom of p.211 there is another anomaly where the title of ‘manùab’ is erroneously rendered in Arabic with a ‘sîn’ instead of a ‘ùâd’ .

I also beg to question the authors’ definition on p.38 of hawta as ‘a place circumambulated (by a holy man)’. In brief it means a place which has been enclosed and the enclosure declared sacred for men to come and barter or buy and sell and have social exchanges in peace and security. The term hawta in this context has nothing to do with circumambulation around some sacred object. In Islam one circumambulates only ‘the House of God’ – The Ka’aba in Makka. On p.39 the authors attribute to the influence of Saudi Wahhabism the condemnation of tomb visitations by anti-sada Hadramis. A more likely attribution would be the influence of the Egyptian scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Abduh and his reformist movement which had a significant following in diaspora circles. This section of the book raises other points which invite comment. zaghlata on p.38 should surely read zaghrada/zaghrata. The word appears on p.2 of Document IV 39 but the erroneous substitution of ‘l’ for ‘r’ in the original Arabic is passed over without comment.

One wonders what the basis is for the assertion on p.41 that the Mashhad sada were waiting to hear news of the Imam of Yemen from the Kathiri Sultan because the latter was deemed a more reliable source than Sultan Umar bin Awadh al-Qu’ayti. There is no mention of this in Document III 276. Following the Imam’s defeat by the Saudis in February 1934, his enforced cession to them of Asir and Najran and his treaty with the British on the back of his defeat, news of the situation in Yemen must have been widespread. Sultan Umar would have had no conceivable interest in misrepresenting it.

There are two schools of thought about Sultan Umar’s performance as ruler. The received, if superficial, wisdom of western historiography in this regard is that by spending most of his reign in Hyderabad, he neglected the interests of the Qu’ayti homeland. Rodionov and Schönig unfortunately write off as ‘a failure’ Sultan Umar’s historic journey into the hinterland in 1934, which he undertook while suffering from lung cancer. However, the traditional, indigenous school represented by Abdul Khaliq bin Abdullah al-Batati, paints a very different picture in his book ithbat ma laysa mathbut … (1989). Batati accompanied Sultan Umar on his 1934 tour which, as an eye-witness, he considered a great success. Batati cites the rains which accompanied it as an auspicious omen and mentions the inter- tribal truces which were arranged in the Sultan’s honour; it was upon the lapse of the duration of these truces that they were to be revived in honour of Ingrams’ visit later on.

During his absences in India, Sultan Umar left care of the Qu’ayti state in the competent hands of his heir, Sultan Salih bin Ghalib (died 1956 not 1955 as on p.298) while he managed the ruling family’s assets in Hyderabad. As revenues from these assets contributed up to 40% of the Qu’ayti state’s annual budget, Sultan Umar can hardly be accused of neglecting the welfare of his homeland. Moreover, this alternation of presence between the family’s head and his heir was in keeping with dynastic tradition.

On p.42 the Qu’ayti State Secretary is wrongly identified as Sa’id Muhammad al-Qaddal. At the time (1941) the post was held by the Omani/Zanzibari Shaykh Saif al-Bu Ali, and Qaddal was an inspector of girls’ schools. Qaddal was only elevated to the post of State Secretary in 1950, upon British insistence.

Ghalib bin Awadh al-Qu'aiti

Mikhail Rodionov and Hanne Schönig