Dates, Coffee, Wisdom & Rababa: A Piece of Desert in Suburbia [Archives:1998/16/Last Page]

April 20 1998

Ali Saleh Dokhnan is an outstanding poet, Rababa player, and master of Bedouin heritage from Mareb – Rababa being the one-stringed musical instrument used by Bedouins in Yemen and all over the Arab world. Its whining sad sound is often heard at Bedouin encampments in the desert.
There are very few musicians who still play the Rababa in Yemen. Some artists feel is beneath them to play this old musical instrument. They consider it a primitive piece of ancient folklore.
Dokhnan, 40, started playing the Rababa as a hobby more than 20 years ago. Making his own Rababa, he represented Mareb in the 1996 arts festival organized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and he is presented by the Yemeni satellite TV channel. “Solely using my personal efforts, I made a lot of research into the history and origins of this simple, yet enduring musical instrument,” said Ali Dokhnan.
The Rababa first appeared in the Arabian Peninsula hundreds of years ago. “In some neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, traditional arts are better conserved. I really hope that the same happens in Yemen. The state and its cultural bodies should pay more attention to art, whether modern or traditional.”
Tent in the Front Yard
Dokhnan’s love of the desert and its ambiance has made him erect his own little camel-hair tent at his house front yard in Sanaa. Fully decorated with ancient Yemeni swords, old rifles, traditional huge coffee mortars and pots, hand-woven mats and colorful pillows, the tent has become a tourist attraction as well as a live piece of old Yemeni desert traditions.
“If it is possible, I’ll bring camels and hawks to create a full desert atmosphere within my house,” announced Ali Dokhnan. Visiting foreign tourists are served with thick bitter black coffee made of the finest Yemeni coffee beans, which are roasted and ground inside the tent. “Dates, the staple diet of the desert Bedouins, are also served with water or sour milk.”
Sound Reflecting Happiness or Sadness?
“Listening to the Rababa excites all sorts of emotions, but it mainly induces a more contemplative mood,” Dokhnan pointed out, adding, “it can only be enjoyed by people who have a taste for the music produced by the instrument.”
Ali Dokhnan plays the Rababa at weddings mainly in the eastern governorates, where “audiences are more receptive due to their Bedouin origins.” Some people in Taiz also love to listen to the Rababa sound.
Poetry: Chanted & Sung
Ali Dokhnan sets various types of poems by Yemeni and other Arab poets to the music of his Rababa. “I sing lyrics written by such accomplished poets as Ali Al-Qibli form Yemen, Ahmed Al-Sidiri and Khalid Al-Faysal of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoom and Zayid Bin Sultan Al-Otaiba of the UAE, Mohammed Al-Adhba and Al-Kindi from Qatar, and other poets from Jordan, Iraq and Syria.” Most of these poems deal with life’s more serious issues such as chivalry, courage, grief, bereavement, eulogies, the sorrows of jilted lovers and other melancholy emotions depicting human sufferings. “The kind of poetry I like to sing must be original and traditional.” Nevertheless, some of the poems are rather odd. “I once sang a poem in which the poet laments the death of his goat.” Politics, however, does not feature prominently in the songs of Rababa musicians, except perhaps when eulogizing the ruler of the state or the local Bedouin sheikh.
“There are Yemeni poets in the eastern governorates who can still write in Napatian – the ancient Yemeni language. But they don’t get their due support and attention by the official cultural establishments.”
Support and Encouragement
Dokhnan receives some support from the governor of Saada and a a few prominent figures in the UAE. “I performed at the wedding of Prince Sultan. However, I don’t get any support from the Ministry of Culture.”
He is planning to expand his little tent to a full, live ethnic museum “with the help of various cultural establishments in Yemen so that future generations can get acquainted with the heritage of their forebearers.
“By: Mohammed Bin Sallam,
Yemen Times