Al-Madraha.. Yemeni heritage threatened with extinction

A popular game ritual with social dimensions
Ismail Al-Aghbari
August 3, 2022

Al-Madraha.. Yemeni heritage threatened with extinction

A popular game ritual with social dimensions
Ismail Al-Aghbari
August 3, 2022
© Khuyut

“Al Madraha” is a popular Yemeni game spread in Old Sana’a and some other areas in Yemen. It begins at the beginning of the month of Dhul-Hijjah, where the Madraha, or the swing made of pomegranate trees, is installed in the courtyards of houses, or in the alleys of the zones, as is the case in old Sana’a.

This annual tradition has meanings, connotations, and rituals that show how Yemeni pilgrims prepare to travel to perform Hajj until their return to the homeland, and the customs and traditions inherited for hundreds of years that include farewell and reception of pilgrims.

Al Madraha appears to be a popular game, but it has a religious and a social dimension that is embodied in the words of the songs accompanying its practice and the nature of participation in it: With regard to the religious dimension, it is manifested in the glorification of the Hajj obligation and the blessing of those who seek to perform it. While the social dimension is embodied in family and societal interdependence, which is reflected in the nature of participation in this popular celebration, which allows all segments of society, children and women, to participate in it, according to a specific schedule, so that women and children participate in the day, while men participate in the evening. 

Historical background of Al Madraha

The history of the Madraha goes back to 1200 years ago, and the Book of Behavior by Bahaa Al-Jundi stated that the Madraha is something that the people of Yemen have been practicing since the one who went to perform the first Hajj - perhaps he meant the Abrahamic Hajj. This custom is also popular in Sana’a and outside it, and in many Yemeni cities, as evidenced by the fact that the governor of Aden, nicknamed Al-Jazari, installed the Madrarah to the Rasuli Sultan, Al-Muzaffar Ali bin Omar, when he went to Hajj in the year 659 hijri, and most of the notables of Aden at that time imitated him in this practice.

In this context, Khaled Ghanem, a professor at the Faculty of Arts - University of Sana’a, told “Khuyut” that: “The Madraha is an ancient folk heritage dating back to nearly 1200 years, and it is practiced in Sana’a and Aden, but it is more widespread in Sana’a and is linked to the Hajj season. Where it is considered a religious, heritage and cultural practice.

Chants and songs are among the most important rituals that accompany the Madraha, and its poetic text is dominated by grief and sadness, and it is sung with spontaneous verses and an influential melody.

Ghanem points out that Yemenis used to set it up on trees and wood, accompanied by poems, melodies and Mawals in bidding farewell to the pilgrim and praying for him before he starts the difficult Hajj journey that he would suffer on the pilgrimage as he was traveling on foot. 

Manufacture and installation

The Madraha is made of acacia trees, which are distinguished by their strength and durability. The poles of the Madraha are tied with strong and durable ropes called slab ropes, which are thick, sharp-headed sword cacti bushes. When installing the Madraha, the parents made sure that its poles are fixed for fear of falling down; Because they believe that the fallen of Al Madraha carries the ominous belief that the pilgrim is in danger. 

Professor of Archeology and Tourism at Sana'a University, Mohammad Al-Hajouri, in an interview with "Khuyut", considers Al Madraha as the most important ritual practice associated with pilgrims. When the pilgrim intends to travel to perform the rites of Hajj, the family, neighbors and relatives set up the Madraha in a large courtyard in the pilgrim’s house or in a neighbor or in one of the village squares or a place where people gather such as the yard, and despite the disappearance of the traditions and rituals of the Madraha, its installation during the Hajj season is still common in Sana'a until the present time.

The songs and chants are among the most important rituals that accompany the Madraha, and the poetic text chanted is dominated by grief and sadness, and it is sung with spontaneous verses and an influential melody.

The Madraha is named after the male or female pilgrim, and his/her family and residents of the neighborhood, men and women, sway over it, chanting folk songs. The day time is devoted to women and children while the hours of the night to the men of the neighborhood. Coinciding with the effectiveness of its installation and “swinging” on it, songs and poetic verses that accompanied by very impressive and exciting melodies that reflect the longing for Hajj and the glorification of its rituals, as well as the extent of interdependence and sophistication in the relationships and social ties among members of society. 

The vocalist, Ammar Al-habri, confirms to "Khuyut" that the chants accompanying the Madraha, from the end of Dhu Al-Qa'dah to the end of Dhu Al-Hijjah in the months of the Hijri calendar, aim to motivate and encourage the pilgrimage, and demonstrating that they have a distinctive longing which are specific to Yemen, and the pilgrim begins at his home with glorification.

An attempt to revive the heritage

Activists and cultural bodies are keen to revive this annual custom, as the Ministry of Culture wrote down the text of the Madraha within the book of (The Art of the Sana’a Anthem), written by Ali Mohsen Al-Akwa, head of the Yemeni vocalist association, and was followed by audio-visual blogging lately to embody the Madraha and document its practice.

And this year, the Balqis Throne Foundation for Development, Tourism and Heritage implemented the sixth festival with the aim of reminding and reviving this popular cultural heritage with the aim of preserving the Yemeni identity and promoting the roots of belonging and pride of the popular heritage among the new generations. 

Doaa Al-Wasei, director of the Bilqis Throne Foundation, told "Khuyut", that this legacy began to disappear and fade during the last period; Therefore, those interested in cultural aspects should work on reviving it. Because it is a healthy social phenomenon that spreads love and enhance friendship and strengthens social relations. Moreover, it contains musical art, chants, songs, and mourning, in addition to being a strong social phenomenon that works to bring community members together so it deserves attention and the attempt to revive it on such religious and Eid occasions. 

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