Sulh: settling dispute over natural resources in Soqotra (PART 1/2) [Archives:2002/40/Reportage]

September 30 2002

Shortly before the Maghreb prayer, we arrived at the village of Zamhum, which is part of the Abere region located in the central part of the island called Manteqa Wusta. This is an area situated above the Noged plains in the South and behind the Haggeher mountains in the north. This position makes it an ideal agropastoralist area, as its wadi, Schaheb di Alf, is kept active by the waters flowing down the surrounding mountains whose peaks serve as rain collectors. Nearly every compound has an enclosed garden with papaya, banana among other fruit trees and of course date palm trees, which is not only a pervasive fixture on the landscape but also emblematic of the way of life here. The cultivation of palm trees is the pillar of the subsistence economy, and its fruit, the date, seems central to the sustenance of life here. The village of Zamhum has an ideal location, as it is not far from the water source of the wadi, and thus water is available during the dry as well as the wet season but in varying quantity.
I had left Hadiboh three hours earlier as part of a delegation that was on its way to this village on a peace-making mission. It had been invited by the community to assist in resolving a water-related problem, and I was going along as an invited observer. This delegation was in fact a committee made up of five members representing governmental and traditional institutions in the persons of the chiefs of police and traffic police, the director of criminal investigation, the local council representative for the southern region of the island, and a sheikh from elsewhere. The challenge of the committee was to solve the problem through the traditional Soqotri way, namely Sulh, which means to settle a conflict, to reach an agreement through compromise, or finding a solution through means of persuasion, as such it is a form of problem resolution at the community level, without the involvement of ”modern” institutions such as the court, and it is based entirely on a public debate mediated by a committee of impartial persons in which persuasion and reason are the sole means deployed in a process of discussion aimed at the gradual rapprochement and ultimate agreement between the parties. It is a tradition dating back from the time of the Sultanate of Mahra, of which Soqotra was a dependency. While Sulh may have been practiced on the mainland, and perhaps still is in some places, in the Soqotra context it has its own particularities. Today of course the practice of Sulh is partly modified by the inclusion of governmental institutions that are of more recent origin, such as the local council system, without necessarily undermining its effectiveness. The main concern of all the parties involved in this process is to avoid having to resort to the court, which would be seen as a failure of community solidarity. Moreover, it was felt that the delay and cost incurred by resorting to the modern legal system would be inimical to the community’s social cohesion.
The conflict originated from an attempt by members of all the villages adjoining the wadi to put pipes into the wadi to draw water for their palm trees as well as fruit and vegetable gardens. A written complaint was made to the Chief of Police about these pipes and the need to remove them because of the negative impact on the water level. A police officer was sent to remove the pipes. All of the Muqaddam representing the villages concerned accepted the decision with the exception of the one from the village of Kedina located a mile down from the wadi’s main water source. He argued that he had just planted about ninety new palm trees and the removal of his pipes would entail the death of his trees. He consequently requested the formal visit of the committee from Hadiboh. In the meanwhile the representatives of the other villages removed his pipes anyway, arguing that the available water was already insufficient for the local residents and that his pipe would further decrease the water level and accelerate the depletion of the water available on the wadi’s surface. Was the claim about the water being insufficient true or an exaggeration? Were the palm trees of the villager from Kedina dying or was there some other need for the water? Could a middle course between these two claims be found that would lead to a mutually satisfactory solution? The latter was the aim of the Sulh committee. However, problem-solving the traditional way has its own ritual and timetable that must be strictly observed in order not to compromise the eventuality of a successful outcome. These have to do with the etiquette of hospitality by ensuring the comfort of special guests as well as the members of the village responsible for the conflict; the propriety of debate where no personal insult is allowed; and sufficiency of time for intensive discussions and negotiations both in plenary sessions and in small groups to allow passion to cool down and reason to prevail.
After the Maghreb prayer the people began to arrive in small groups from neighboring villages as guests, parties to the conflict or curious onlookers. Some former residents of the village who had moved to Hadiboh had come back to participate in the deliberations. Such an event was considered important not only by those who were directly implicated in the conflict but by others as well, because the decision reached could later served as a precedent to apply in resolving similar conflict elsewhere. An outdoor place in the center of the village of Zamhum was specially arranged for the evening, as it was covered with carpet and pillows. The sitting arrangement was on a first come first serve basis, as no particular distinction was made between people of different status. However, status distinctions were observed in the performance of the particular repertoire of Soqotri forms of greeting, further enriched by both Islamic and mainland forms. At least four types were observed and they seemed related to a person age, community standing, familiarity and some other categories. And everyone had to greet individually everyone else present in the assembly. In this context all showed maximum respect and courtesy as everyone stood up to acknowledge and greet the incoming party. As people took their seat, tea was served and continuously so until the end of the deliberations late in the night. That moment was reserved for small talk, a kind of ice-breaking time, and to exchange news between people who had come from different places. I happened to sit next to the village traditional ”doctor” named Muallim Nini who is perhaps in his late sixties or early seventies. His specialty is either stopping the pain from a palm tree needle or remove the needle from the body part where it entered by reading some special surahs from the Quran. This particular feat is usually accomplished within a few minutes, I was told. While talking to him one who had benefited from his care had come to express his gratitude for his healed finger. This kind of small talk was to last until dinner was served, the standard sheep or goat meat and rice. The end of dinner was the signal for the start of the official deliberations of the case.
The discussions were opened by an introductory speech by the sheikh of the region who first sought to establish his legitimacy by reminding the assembly that he was unanimously chosen by all of the Muqaddam of the area. Second, he assured people of his impartiality, as he was now a resident of Hadiboh without any property in this village, and thus was not predispose to taking the side of any party in this conflict. Third, he stressed the need for wisdom on the part of the villagers, as they will have to bear the consequences of whatever decision they take, and invited them to heed his counsel if they so choose. Finally, he announced that he brought responsible people form Hadiboh to deal with the water problem, and that they were Soqotri brothers who could be trusted and that any other problem could be brought to their attention. The sheikh opening remarks were followed by a somewhat muscular account of the problem by the village Katib, who was the designated speaker for all of the villages concerned. He clearly intended to convey the villages’ strong opposition to the intruding act of the villager from Kedina. His oratory was eloquent but no less defiant about the communities’ collective resolve to oppose an act that threatened to draw down the water to a dangerously low level only to satisfy the whimsical need of an outsider. The concern was that since it had not rained for over a year in the southern part of the island, and if this situation were to continue the likelihood of a generalized drought would be imminent. Thus conserving water was uppermost in their mind. Indeed members of the adjoining villages to Zamhum had discontinued the drawing of water from the wadi for their fruit gardens in order to save water. Moreover there was the perception that if the requester were granted permission to put his pipe into the wadi other requests from other villages would soon follow and that would spell catastrophe for the people of Zamhum and the adjoining villages. This was the context in which the request of the villager from Kedina was to be considered. He tried to argue his case but his intervention was not allowed, because the Committee’s presence in the village was due to his formal request, and thus had already heard his position. More importantly perhaps, it was felt that this would prolong unnecessarily the deliberations, since the arguments were already known and the time to find a solution had arrived. From the perspective of the Committee, the main issue was to hear from the representatives of the other villages, as they constituted the overwhelming majority, about their proposal for a resolution to the conflict. The way this is done in the context of a Sulh is for them to retire into a caucus away from the assembly and to come up with a collective statement, in a written or oral form, to be presented to all of those present but especially the visiting Committee for its reaction. However, prior to their retiring from the assembly the Chief of Police sent them off with a reference to a Hadith, which said that people were partners in three things: Water (for drinking), fire (for cooking), and pasture (for grazing animals). Each one of these was essential to life and their sharing was critical to collective survival. He further stressed the brotherly bond between Soqotrans and their intrinsically peaceful nature, and the need to demonstrate this through a fraternal agreement between people who were members of the same tribe.

* The writer is a Doctoral Researcher in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, UK.