Tales of Socotra
In Yemen there is a war and a humanitarian crisis, still unsolved, as I write these words. I should be busy with other narrations. But I found in the University library a volume so exotic that I cannot resist it. A Corpus of Soqotri Oral Literature, organised by Vitaly Naumkin. It is a long time now that the "democratic" Yemen had relationships with the Eastern Bloc; this is why the connection with Russia is not a surprise; but what I have in hands is a regular Brill product. A solid philology, perhaps hybridised with some sort of Vladimir Propp's inspiration (the structuralist who studied Russian fairy tales). Such are at least my first associations, as I put my hands on the massive Volume 1. But what makes me particularly happy is a photographic annex to this piece of hard-philology work; not an artistic vision, yet it serves to bring things closer to the reader's imagination. Otherwise we would stay with some scientifically sounding, but otherwise mysterious expressions, such as "composite smoking pipe" or "skin vessel" (with its "leg openings"), and - to the contrary - such apparently transparent terms as "bowl", "lintel", "doorstep", "thorn" or "good pasture ground".
At the first glance, the stories are just like any folk stories, speaking about faithful and unfaithful wives, cutting testicles of one's rival, goats with supernatural powers, and nasty people copulating with donkeys. At the same time, they sketch a world in a background, an open horizon suspended between southern Arabia and the Swahili world, marked as well by the presence of the "Franks" (no wonder that the name of the island has always been so familiar to me, it was an important point on the map of the Portuguese Estado da India as early as the 16th century; rather surprisingly, one of the stories involving the "Franks" explains the origin of one of the local tribes, di-Kishen, allegedly founded by a marriage with a European woman abandoned by her companions).
The traditional ways of life on the island are those of goat herdsmen, fishermen and palm cultivators; the tales speak of the transmission of the necessary skills, as well as other realia: famine, scarce water supplies, the importance of being generous, even at the bottom level of poverty. Curiously, even on that remote and rarely visited island, another group of anecdotes speak of the proverbial stupidity of the tourists.
The first European account of the Soqotri language appears in James Raimond Wellstedt's Memoir of 1835, as he was about to become the first European explorer of Oman. Later on, Socotra's folk traditions and oral literature were studied by an Austrian orientalist David Heinrich Müller, one of the pioneers of Southern Arabian and Himyari studies (Himjaritische Inschriften, 1875); but he travelled to the island only once, in 1899, and collected this materials from a single "Sprachmedium" in Vienna, a certain Ali Amir an-Nubhani; published, nonetheless, the three volumes of Die Mehri- und Soqotri-Sprache between 1902 and 1907. The most striking feature of this heritage is that it contains... an archaic Arabian version of Cinderella, which is supposed to be, at the origin, an Oriental tale.
The Russian team that arrived to the field in 2010 could observe something more than just the passive survival of a local speech. It was a spontaneous passage from orality to writing, as a local teacher Isa Gum'an invented an Arabic-based script for his language. The once passive narrator is now becoming the collector, writer and editor of his own oral lore, so skilfully composed and faithfully transmitted through the generations and now being transformed into masterpieces of written literature - a literature created by the native speakers themselves, without any scholarly intervention from outside - emphatically comment the Russian (p. 27).
Vitaly Naumkin (org.), Corpus of Soqotri Oral Literature, Leiden - Boston, Brill, 2015.