Gyrif: A tradition of communal self-help in Soqotra (Part 2 of 2) [Archives:2002/51/Reportage]

December 16 2002

Serge D. Elie*
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Once that was done, the next step was to get the master builders (Ma’alama) to agree on a date they would be available to lead the construction process. Subsequently, all able-bodied relatives were invited to show up on the agreed upon date. On the day prior to holding the Gyrif, the women would move to the site with all cooking utensils and all of the food: Two goats, twenty kilos of wheat flour, twenty kilos of rice, five kilos of sugar, seven liters of goat ghee, among other things. The women would spend the night there, as it was imperative that tea be ready to be served at once upon the arrival of the participants who would be leaving their home early without breakfast.
It was about 10:00 am when I arrived at the site, the people were getting ready to have their breakfast (Qashim). Since six o’clock in the morning the master builders and their helpers were at work. Already the architectural skeleton was in place. The back walls, or more appropriately, the panels, of dry palm tree branches and leaflets weaved together and tied around the tree trunks used as pillars, were in place. The job was supposed to be completed in one day. There were about three dozen people: women, men and children of all age groups. A division of labor could be perceived: young girls and boys to fetch the water and fuel wood among other errands; women and adolescent girls doing the cooking and cleaning; men and adolescent boys doing the construction work. A small group of elderly women and men were there apparently to provide moral support, as they seemed not be particularly involved with any task. The sitting arrangement around the mats laid out for breakfast reflected as well a division according to gender and age category: The elderly group of women and men ate by themselves, the boys and girls ate separately in a far away corner, perhaps as not to make a nuisance of themselves, the rest of the adult males gathered around the remaining three mats shared between young and middle age men. The women served the food on large aluminum plates, which were taken by young men to the mats. The women ate after everyone else was served.
The breakfast was a carbohydrate rich, thus a high-energy porridge named “’acid”, which is also eaten on the mainland but at lunchtime. It is made up of wheat flour and looks like oatmeal when prepared. It is served in large aluminum plates and presented like a crater with elevated sides and a depression in the middle where clarified butter from goat fat (Hyma) is put. A bowl of white sugar was brought along. The sugar is sprinkled on the porridge before it is scooped up with the fingers and dipped into the butter and swallowed down. Lunch was goat meat and rice. The latter is a relatively recent import to Soqotra. It has replaced the traditional dish of Maqdere, made up of maize imported from east Africa, called “Suwahal” by Soqotrans, which is a reference to the land of those who speak Swahili. Its importation was discontinued during the 1970’s, due to changes in economic relations and market destinations when Soqotra became part of South Yemen.
The “matriarch” who had organized this Gyrif was an ample-bodied woman of African origin clad in a tightly fitted yellow caftan tied at the waist and a headscarf of the same color worn a la Africaine. Whatever was her intention in wearing this dashing outfit, it demarcated her from all of her entourage, and confirmed her status as the one in charge. Her age was not evident from looking at her, as if dissimulated under her smooth dark skin. But she is probably well beyond fifty. My initial characterization of her as a “matriarch” turned out to be correct.
She is the last among five siblings, and it is said that she was always the leader among them. That natural predisposition to lead has spilled over in the public realm. She is known to the public as “Haytham,” which is the name of a prominent political figure Aden before Unity; a clear testament of how all perceived her. She is the matron at the weddings in Hadiboh, orchestrating the work to be done, so that everything goes correctly.
Indeed, that was the role she was playing when I saw her, as evidence in the completion of the work on the Mahjir long before lunchtime. Perhaps her natural ability to assume the role of leader was taken from her father who was the chief (Muqaddam) of all people of African descent on the island during the Sultan’s era. In fact, the Sultan only referred to him when it concerned matters relating to such people. And all people of African descent came through him if they wanted the Sultan’s attention.
Conversation during breakfast confirmed the Soqotran custom, at least within certain communities, of giving someone a name based on some communally recognized attribute. The people sharing the mat with me were introduced by their communally given names. In one case, a man named Atta was associated with the protagonist of a mythical story about a dark skinned man wanting to marry a light skinned woman named Adla, but her uncle refused until the man could procure a large dowry under impossible conditions, which he did with the assistance of his friend Shoeb. Perhaps this man had experienced a similar ordeal in real life.
The Gyrif is one of those meaningful events that displays as well as reinforces the Soqotran communal ethos. Its practice, which used to be widespread on the island, is now being gradually restricted to close-knit communities or among members of extended families, as people now prefer to be paid in cash given the increasing monetization of the economy. Perhaps the sad eventuality is that the Gyrif, at some point in the future, might become more of a manifestation of the poverty of its organizers as well as participants because of their inability to pay for services, than an expression of communal solidarity.
* He is a Doctoral Researcher in Social Anthropology at Sussex University in the U.K.