Sana’a- Last August, a team of Yemeni researchers started a project to protect folk literature on the Yemeni island of Socotra, which includes oral tales and stories, as well as poems, chants and folk songs – with the support of the German Goethe Institute – within the “Yemeni Cultural Networks” project.
This project took upon itself the codification and documentation of the tales, poems, chants and governance circulated orally on the island, as part of a plan that seeks in its entirety to protect the region’s popular literature and enhance sources of creativity by creating interaction with creators at the regional and international levels.
The task begins with listening sessions with centenarians and the preservation of folk tales conducted by field researchers in the Socotri language, then translation from Socotra into Arabic and then into English, to be published within a website established for this purpose with Arabic and English interfaces.
“So far, we have collected 20 tales and 10 folk songs from Socotra, and they have been published in Arabic and English on a website designated for this purpose,” says project manager Mohamed Al-Mahfali, who works as a researcher at the Center for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden.
What reinforces the hypotheses of the success of the protection project is that its director, Muhammad Al-Mahfali, is specialized in “analyzing literary, cultural, political and media discourse in the Arab world,” through conducting in-depth studies and in cooperation with researchers and experts from inside and outside the region.
Al-Mahfali told Al Jazeera Net that the project, in parallel with the training of field researchers, worked to organize meetings and workshops to bring this prolific Socotra folk literature closer to creators, in order to inspire those stories and reflect them in creative writing.
In general, Al-Mahfali hopes that the project will establish an integrated information system about the elements of literature and popular “heritage” in Socotra, leading to the documentation of the Socotra language, in the context of a cultural initiative to protect it from extinction.
Al-Mahfali notes that the launch began with the training of researchers Ahmed Issa Al-Daari, Maysoon and Maha Al-Daari, noting Ahmed’s experience as a key factor who gained experience through his work with Russian Professor Vitaly Naumkin, who has been working on Socotri language and Socotri literature since the seventies of the last century.
They record tales from the mouths of centenarians and memorizers of folk tales on the island, then work on revising and translating them into Arabic.
In parallel, a website for the project was developed in both Arabic and English, where texts are received from the research team in the field, then edited and published on the website.
According to Al-Mahfali, the project to protect popular literature in Socotra seeks to print the recorded, revised and translated tales, stories and poems, and distribute them to research, academic and cultural centers on the Arab and international levels.
He added, “We will also work on translating the content of the Socotra folk literature book into English, and we also hope to rewrite the tales in the Socotra language, and publish them both in voice and in writing.”
Heritage in danger of extinction
On the reason for choosing the topic of popular literature in Socotra to be targeted by a project for documentation and protection, Al-Mahfali points out that Socotra has represented part of his knowledge and cultural formation since he was appointed as a teaching assistant at the Faculty of Education in Socotra in 2004.
“Since then, I have been associated with Socotra, its heritage, nature and people. There is a self-motivation that makes me search for how I can serve the island and its community,” he says.
Another reason is the abundance of Socotra’s cultural heritage, starting with the Socotra language, which deserves protection as a world heritage in danger.
In this context, Al-Mahfali draws attention to the importance of the Socotra language, as it is one of the oldest ancient Arabic languages that still live in our time, along with the Mehri and Dhofar languages in the Sultanate of Oman.
Al-Mahfali points out that the Socotra language is threatened with loss due to the absence of bodies or institutions that protect it or try to preserve it, and it is transmitted orally only through generations. Education in schools is concerned only with Standard Arabic, and the local language is not taught.
In addition to language, there are folk tales, poems, wisdom, chants, dances, and other oral cultural practices that need to be documented before they perish.
Al-Mahfali says, “The project stems from this idea, bearing a comprehensive vision that seeks to document everything related to the tangible and intangible heritage on the island of Socotra, in order to protect the language itself.”
As for the time frame of the protection project, Al-Mahfali regrets that it has been “completed in its current stage”, but we aspire to collect and write new materials in the local language with audio and video in preparation for their translation into other languages, especially English, so that the Socotra heritage is available to all interested around the world.
Al-Mahfali talks about “many difficulties” facing the project’s work, including: the difficulty of moving to remote places inside Socotra, limited time, and poor funding, as well as sometimes discovering gaps within stories or narrations.
In order to verify the authenticity of this or that tale, he says that it is necessary – in the face of some tales – to carry out an investigation process “to pursue the tale and search for another narrator in order to be sure of its original text or the rest of its parts.”
Al-Mahfali aspires for the project to protect Socotra folk literature to create a positive interaction between the intellectual in Yemen and the Arab world, and between Yemeni cultural actors and popular or spoken literature in general in Socotra.
Socotra Island is the largest of the Yemeni and Arab islands, its capital is Hadibo. The island is 125 km long and 42 km wide, and it has a 300 km coastal strip.
Its fame as a historical island goes back to the beginning of the Stone Age and the flourishing of the trade of sacred goods, and the activity of the ancient trade route (the frankincense road), where Socotra was famous for the production of “land” and “Socotra patience”.
Because of its production of what was known in the past as sacred commodities – such as incense, myrrh, aloes, frankincense and all kinds of perfume – the ancient Greeks and Romans called it “the island of happiness”.
Perhaps the importance of preserving and documenting Socotra’s folklore also stems from a patriotic feeling to confirm its identity as a Yemeni island, and to sever the illusion of illegal settlement, as happened recently on the island’s theater.
Two years ago, UNESCO launched an international campaign to raise awareness of the natural and cultural heritage of the Socotra Archipelago in various major museums, botanical gardens and academic institutes all over the world.
Socotra was classified in 2003 as one of the vital nature reserves, and in 2008 it was listed as a World Heritage Site due to its unique biodiversity and exceptional, containing 253 species of reef-building coral, 730 species of fish and 300 species of crabs, lobsters and shrimps.