The Western Hadramawt: Ethnographic Field Research, 1983–91

The Western Hadramawt: Ethnographic Field Research, 1983–91 

by Mikhail Rodionov

This English version of the original Russian text (Moscow, 1994) is published by the Orientwissenschaftliches Zentrum, Martin Luther Universitat, Halle-Wittenberg, 2007. Pp. 307. Append. 97 b/w illus. Index. Bibliog. Glossary. Eur. 17.50. ISSN 1617-2469. 

Professor Mikhail Rodionov is Head of the Department of South and Southwest Asia at the Peter the Great Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology, at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. The original Russian edition of this book was based on the doctoral dissertation presenting his field research in Hadhramaut between 1983 and 1991. The English text is an edited and enlarged version of the 1994 Russian edition. The author notes that he has only made minor alterations to the Russian original in order to keep his study ‘as a document of its time’. This seems prudent, bearing in mind that the multi-disciplinary Russian team of which Rodionov was a member, were dealing, as he puts it, ‘with a traditional society subjected to the radical ‘surgery’ of the socialist experiment’. And this was at a time when the region forming the topic of this study was effectively closed to other foreign researchers. 

The publication of an English text is intended to bring Rodionov’s study to the attention of a wider readership. This initiative is to be warmly welcomed, for the book has preserved for us much that is ethnographic and other data which otherwise might have passed into oblivion. Although Rodionov himself notes that being a member of a team engaged in producing a number of specific studies allowed him ‘to take a broad overview of the subject rather than expatiate on details’, his study is a worthy heir to the genre of scholarly enquiry pioneered byVan Den Berg in 1886, honed by Doreen Ingrams in her social and economic survey of the Aden Protectorate (1949), and continued by the late Professor R. B. Serjeant with his manifold contributions to the ethnography and historiography of the region. One is reminded, too, of the work of Salah al-Bakri, the first indigenous scholar to attempt a similar approach. 

The author’s Introduction defines Hadhramaut as a cultural region, noting that for the purposes of his study the term ‘Western Hadramawt’ relates only to the western end of Wadi Hadhramaut and its southern tributary wadis of al-Kasr, ‘Amd, Daw’an and al-’Ayn. The Introduction includes a most useful summary of information on the region, collected by successive Western explorers and scholars beginning with Adolphe von Wrede in 1843 and ending with Walter Dostal in 1966. Next follow details of the research and studies undertaken by Yemeni and Russian scholars up to 1991 (when the author wrote his dissertation). 

The book is divided into three parts with each part subdivided into two chapters. The first part, Society and History, discusses the tribal composition and social stratification of Western Hadhramaut, and local perceptions of its cultural past within a chronological framework of factual history. The second part, Traditional Economy and Subsistence Activities, presents an account of local agriculture, crafts, ancillary occupations (irrigation, date farming, carpentry, metal working, pottery, basketry); weaving, bee-keeping and ibex-hunting. It also covers the built environment, costume, diet and folk medicine. The third part, Norms and Customs, focuses on kinship and marriage, family structure, property regulations and codes of moral behaviour. In the final chapter the author analyses the important social role of the poet in oral and written tradition, quoting examples of local poetry (in Arabic as well as in English transliteration and translation) which he collected during his extended ethnological fieldwork. Appendices include the Stellar Calendar, details of traditional weights and measures, and 97 photographs and sketches illustrating different aspects of the region’s material culture. The photographs include pictures of several of the author’s local interlocutors. There are three small drawings of the Wadis covered in the author’s research area, but, regrettably, no proper map of Hadhramaut as an entity. This may help to explain why Rodionov locates Haynin and al-Qatn in Wadi al-Kasr instead of in Wadi Hadhramaut; Haynin (at the mouth of Wadi Haynin) is at the foot of the northern escarpment of the main Wadi, while al-Qatn lies below its southern escarpment. The bibliography, expanded to include material published after 1994, is as comprehensive a catalogue of studies on Hadhramaut as any researcher could wish for. It includes the prodigious amount of material which the author has written since 1991, and shows how diligently he has attempted to build upon the inspirational legacy of his predecessors in this field, most especially Professor Serjeant. 

The author bravely apologises for any perceived errors in his transliteration and translation of Arabic words, an apology which may blunt but not disarm criticism of his inconsistency in matters of transliteration. But in a book of this ambitious nature, mistakes are bound to be numerous. One example is on page 3 where Rodionov translates ‘al-Ahqaf ’ as ‘the land of Split Earth’. ‘Al-Ahqaf ’, Hadhramaut’s best known appellation in antiquity and mentioned inVerse 21 of Chapter 42 of the Qur’an, is normally translated as ‘land of the Winnowing Sands’ or simply as ‘land of the Sand Dunes’. Another example occurs on page 199 where the proverb jemal ta’sar wa jemal tokul et-tukh does not mean ‘The camel presses [the sesame oil] so the camel eats oilcakes’, but ‘Some camels press, while others eat the oilcakes’. 

There are a number of other points which invite comment. On page 6 the British political officer Lee-Warner is said to have visited Shibam and other sites in Wadi Hadhramaut in 1918. In fact, he visited Shibam (but travelled no further east) in 1919. On page 7 Rodionov states that ‘As the British representative in the 1930s, Ingrams signed peace treaties with hundreds of tribal chiefs. . . ’ Ingrams did not, and never claimed to, sign peace treaties. But his presence in the late 1930s as the representative of a Great Power acted as a catalyst for the renewal of agreements between the tribes under the Qu’aiti and Kathiri Sultans, with both of whom Britain was in treaty relationship. 

On page 25 Rodionov states that ‘the first laws banning the slave trade only appeared in the Hadramawt in 1938. . . ’Yet on page 70 he correctly notes that ‘the British banned the slave trade beginning with agreements with the al-Kasadi in 1863 and the Al-Qu’ayti in 1873. Further emphasis was given to them by a similar enactment in 1936 and another agreement in 1938 formally outlawing the ownership of slaves. A point to remember here and about which Rodionov seems uncertain is that, while a man of African (negroid) origin continued to be referred to as an ‘abd’ (literally meaning ‘slave’ but implying African origin regardless of whether he was a slave or not), at least until recently this was purely an allusion to his ethnic origins. Ingrams noted in his Arabia and the Isles (1966) that of the four or five thousand people of slave origin in Hadhramaut, most were in a purely technical state of slavery and some had risen to positions of considerable importance. For example, Almas ‘Umar and Anbar ‘Ubaid played a leading role in the establishment of Qu’aiti dominion in Hadhramaut, and the son of the former, Abdul Khaliq (grandfather of my personal tutor, Salem) had even served asViceroy;while others such as Faraj Sa’id and Sa’id Marzouq had served in the capacity of‘Naib’(provincial governor). After the enactments against slavery, while this ethnic group continued popularly to be referred to as ‘abd’ (or ‘abid’ in the plural), officially they were treated on a par with any other citizen in all respects. 

On the same page, Rodionov appears to be puzzled by the true status of groups such as the Bin ‘Alwan and the Ba ‘Atwah, who did not fit into the perceived strata of Hadhrami society. While the former undoubtedly hail from North Yemen (and dance adeptly on festive occasions with weapons such as the janbiyah), the Ba ‘Atwah are a more complex group claiming descent from the legendary Bani Hilal tribe. In addition to their skills of improvising verse and reciting ballads, they mainly practise the profession of dallal (broker). But as poets, their ability to influence tribal sentiment and politics transcended their relatively modest social status and was held in awe. 

On page 71, in stating that Sultan Ali bin Salah al-Qu’ayti was ‘hounded and exiled to al-Qatn’, Rodionov oversimplifies the reasons for the latter’s fall from grace. The point was that Sultan Ali, by involving himself with the turbulent Bin Abdat, who was seeking recognition from the British at the expense of the Kathiri Sultan, betrayed his cousin Sultan Saleh’s trust and also alienated the British. He was merely dismissed from his post and detained for a brief period at a government residence in al-Shihr where he was allowed free access. He was then exiled to Aden for a short period, whence he was to return to die at home in al-Qatn. 

Although Rodionov refers to such topics as ‘face painting’, he surprisingly ignores the development of male and female education on which the Qu’aiti Sultanate spent nearly a third of its budget, excluding British and other foreign aid received in that field. Indeed two years after his accession in 1936, Sultan Saleh al-Qu’aiti stated in an interview with Al-Arab magazine that his Sultanate’s budget for education was already double that of the British Colony of Aden. 

On page 164 Rodionov states: 

‘The Hadramis remember the Koranic sayings that a real poet transmits from supernatural voices, either from the shaytans/jinn (e.g. Qur’an 26: 221–4) or, for the good Muslims, from the ‘true spirit’ (al-ruh al amin: Qu’ran 26: 193, cf. 227). A poet is still believed to be a clairvoyant knowing both the past and the future’. 

However, the references he has used in support of his contention actually relate to the Prophet Muhammad alone and to his experience in receiving the message of the Qu’ran, with the Almighty assuring him of the nature and source of the message and its medium (Archangel Gabriel). And this becomes manifestly clear upon reading verses 192–196 of the same Chapter (26). 

These and a number of other cavils aside, Professor Rodionov offers interesting insights into the cultural identity of a community whose way of life and traditions are increasingly under threat; and he deserves our gratitude for the invaluable contribution he has made to the documentation of its vanishing past.

Ghalib bin Awadh al-Qu'aiti

Mikhail Rodionov