Al-Shihr [Archives:1997/50/Culture]

December 15 1997

The town of incense
Situated on the Indian Ocean, in the governate of Hadhramaut and 60 km from Mukalla, lies Al-Shihr. The town was known as As’iyan in biblical times and was the capital of the sultanate including Mukallah until 1910. Up to the forties it was the centre of boat traffic headed for the East Indies, Africa and the gulf. Now the large commercial trade has been taken over by the port at Mukallah while Al – Shihr is left with the local fishing trade. Locals recall the days where the town was a major crossroads and center for the incense trade. Traditionally the collection of incense was left to Somalis who were familiar with the plants that grew in their country of origin. Today bedouins have almost completely replaced them and the incense crop is much less. These are the only people left to collect the fragrance for ports on the Indian Sea and the villages of Hadhramaut. There are traders like Jami’ the Somali who sells his odorous resins to buyers every day. He passed his childhood at the village market and at the port unloaded boats loaded with fish. Then he began to accompany his father to collect some incense. The harvesters worked in a group of four to six going up the mountains on foot and stayed over at some of the grottoes scattered about. Systematically the mountains were scaled to discover the incense plants of interest and then the group returned to the village after a week. Twenty days later they would return to the same site to find the incense in the form of resins. This meant cutting down the main branches, drying the plant material and breaking them to be transported in 45 kg bags. They collected every evening what they selected during the day and then returned to sleep at their grottoes. Not having camels, the Somalis get the bedouins to carry the marchandise to the markets at Say’un, Tarim, Shibam and Al- Shihr. Once at the coast the incense is loaded on boats for the Red Sea and beyond. The main uses of the incense are for “bakhur”, where the product is burned for its pleasant odor. The second, ” luban”, refers to the perfumed resins and gums that are extracted and chewed and are not necessarily burnt for their odour. The third use is called “dukhna”, a mixture of several ingredients burnt to create the smoke that according to Yemeni traditions is supposed to keep maligned spirits out of the home. In the Yemeni home one finds the classic square shaped incense holders, the “miqtara”, with a removable perforated lid: these are used to contain bits of coal laden with incense. Yemeni merchants carry other different shaped incense holders with richly hand carved, perforated oval bodies and round bases in baked clay. For what occasions are incense used in Yemeni society? Newborns are customarily placed in contact with the perfume just after birth to give them strength to fight off evil spirits. The infant is kept in contact with a smoking “miqtara” for forty days. According to tradition a hemorrhaging mother during birth inhales the smoke of the “hasima” plant so that it enters her system and coagulates the blood. Children are given “luban mita” to chew for pleasure. Traditional weddings are another place where the “miqtara” is used: wedding guests are received by the bride holding the square incense box and the smoke is directed to their chests and throats. “Dukhna” has had the reputation of seducing the men and the women cover their clothes and hair to get this effect. Similarly the women smoke their clothes with the same incense during “mawalid” religious occasions. When death strikes, “luban bawadi” is burnt to protect the household against the third eye. Perfumes are also used for medicinal purposes: “zamuta” is used for a stuffy nose and “samugh” is mixed with an egg and administered for chest pains. Through these various examples of incenses use, the observer can see its social importance in the daily lives of the Al-Shihr people. ( This article was adapted from the second issue of the French review, SABA 1997, pgs. 21- 23)
by Martin Dansky, Yemen Times