THE DAWSHAN:  Dying Yemeni Tradition [Archives:1999/08/Culture]

February 22 1999

For some time, I have wandered about the Yemen in search of a dawshan, a man as rare and swift as a white oryx and ever moving like a stream. Ranging the tip of Arabia, I tracked him across his ancient habitat, along the coast of the Red Sea, across a desert, through a land that was scored like the soles of a plowman, along paths that gradually rose above steaming valleys to peaks that pierced the clouds, past terraced fields, across gravel plains days distant from the closest settlement. Once, owing to the lack of a clear route, I had to return to the sea to reach the mountaintop where one had been spotted, but he was gone by the time I got there, for the dawshan took trails that I, a stranger, did not see and obeyed instincts that I could only guess at.
For a while I considered abandoning my search, until I recalled the years I had waited to enter the Yemen, whose doors had opened briefly to admit me but might shut again soon. Then on 2 Rajab, after another month of wandering through the maze of riverbeds by which I penetrated deeper into the mountains that hung like layers of curtains between the Empty Quarter and the sea, I reached a castaway hamlet, where I determined to rest for a day. There, at that hour of a winter morning when the sun stirs the mist in a highland village, I saw him perched upon a low wall, which raised him to a height not much above the tallest man in that gathering.
Someone nearby beat a drum. The market, at dawn, that had commenced to mill and mend and chant an spend and bake and barter suddenly paused. Even the mist and the sun ceased their morning frolic as the dawshan cried out in a shrill voice that pierced all the descriptions I had gathered over the years and linked that moment with the cries of his ancestors:
“As the cauldron boils over the potatoes acclaim
the wielder of the paddle and the quencher of the flame.”
Announcing a truce between two tribes that morning, he came to that market as a herald. On other days, in other villages in which I would later visit him, the dawshan delivered an oral obituary, belittled a tribal foe, introduced the guests at a wedding party, uttered war boasts, and once, spotting nobleman with a pedigree longer than his unwrapped turban, recited his genealogy until the lord’s eyes relaxed like a petted cat’s.
Protected by the tribes, he moves unchallenged between enemies. Dependent upon the largess of others, he crosses the land in search of a linguistic opportunity: a battle, an armistice, a birth, a death, a bountiful harvest. He relies upon his prodigious memory, his tongue, and his strong legs. His bed is temporary. Occasionally he sleeps on the roof of a patron’s house or burrows among some discarded sacks in a caravansary, but more often he pauses between destinations, finding shelter in a brush arbor, beneath a shelf rock, or in the embrace of a dune where he hears and smells with the fennec the approaching sandstorm.
He is everywhere, it seems, and nowhere, a man included by tradition yet socially disparaged, performing a function growing obsolete by the rise of government over tribe and by the illusions cast by more modern means of communication. He is the descendant of dawashin. If he sires a male child, that child too will be called a dawshan. some say his title is a corruption of (Dawshan) – keeper of the matter; others find noise (Dawsha) in his name.
As I stood there listening, some of his audience began to turn aside, annoyed by his sharp voice, amused at first, then bored by his tedious delivery, confused by his oral gymnastics in which syllables leapfrogged over one another while meaning vanished and reappeared, either not understanding or not caring that the handles of a pot are adan (ears), that words are daughters of our lips. Some, though, continued to listen, perhaps feeling, as I, like a witness of the past, as when one ponders just how many years water has been tumbling off yonder mountain. He spoke as the medieval grammarians intended us to, in an Arabic of standard equations and infinite variables, leading those of us who struggled to keep up past bursting mountains, through a devastated village, into a battle we were unprepared for, and at last to a tranquil valley and the feast of the truce.
For some time after he finished, he squatted upon that wall, feeling the warmth of many gazes, wanting to prolong his hour of attention. But when he reopened his eyes, he saw that only the drummer and I remained.
After noon prayers I accompanied the dawshan out of the village. He gathered sticks for the supper fire as we moved down the thousands of steps toward a wadi that, after the great heights of the day, seemed like the bottom of the earth. His speech varied with the terrain: gusts of words that had gathered during his solitary climb were now released by our descent, followed by long pauses as we labored toward the next rise. We never conversed, for he would not answer a question directly and rarely asked one himself, though he would respond by stories that in his rambling manner touched upon the subject that I had broached. Whereas before I had passed through an anonymous land, I learned by his tales that most every knob, stream, spring, and hollow had a name, that here a temple once stood through whose columns the wind sounded a somber tone, that there, by that path, in the days of the Himyar, camels laden with incense marched from Zafar. Occasionally he used words in different senses, broadening my definitions of certain familiar terms so that, by his speech, I came to know that a sword has a shoe, and a buckle has a tongue.
Our linguistic excursions within that journey continued over several seasons: through changes in climate, elevation, hunger, and terrain; from one mountain outpost to the next; through provinces seized by drought; and beside audiya that bore floods.
One morning as we helped beat, with our shirts, the locusts out of a farmer’s crop, I sensed the dawshan’s growing interest in what seemed to me an isolated event. Suddenly the insects rose, swarming with those from other fields and flying on before us, darkening the horizon like a cloud’s shadow. And so he had filled his stories with local incidents that gathered into broader themes: the cook who added too much bisbas to the soup, which aroused an imam’s temper and provoked a war; the storm that began with a few clouds over the Red Sea and resulted in a flood that breached a dam, prompting the collapse of a city-state.
From that day forward I began to record the obscure history of his thoughts, which meandered like an underground stream beneath the official histories that I had read. Guided by his attention I began to examine common affairs of life that I might have overlooked: the seeds that dropped from a bird’s beak into the crevice between two boulders, the water that dripped like sweat down a cliff’s face, the current carrying a piece of driftwood to the Yemeni shore, the desert dwellers who, for no apparent reason, excavated a dune.
Then one day as we traveled east and he was unusually quiet, it occurred to me that he had been leading me all along, in his roundabout way, to a particular spot. That evening we continued walking through a terrific storm. Like two great armies, bolts of lightning clashed repeatedly on a distant ridge. Rivulets appeared around us, converging as they flowed downhill. After a while the rain fell so hard and steadily that it seemed to produce no sound at all. But the dawshan kept moving through that weather, using his cooking pot for a rain shield, glancing behind, from time to time, to see that I still followed.
Finally we halted upon a promontory where, by the lightning, I saw waves of mountains advancing beneath the clouds toward our narrow ledge. By a twisting path he led me to shelter beneath that rock we had stood upon. There he began to build a fire with wood that he or another pilgrim had stored beneath the stone roof.
As the flames illuminated the ground before us, I suddenly noticed a rock structure no higher than my chin, no wider than my outstretched arms, of the kind that Yacoub and Ibrahim raised to the Lord. Following him upon my knees through an opening on one side, he pointed to a stone tablet that had been built into one wall. By the firelight, through the doorway and the gaps between the rocks, I began to quietly study the words before us. But the dawshan, who could not write the first letter of his name, wanted me to read aloud.
“‘In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,'” I began in the Arabic, which I translate here. When my voice faltered, he added sticks to the fire.
“PECKING upon this stone in the year Hegira 1167, I, Qadhi Ayub bin Saif al-Kolani, the most abject of God’s scribes, have by His grace survived plagues and wars and [illegible] and exile among a pagan tribe so that I might record this memorial before I die.
“BEHOLD from this ledge the city of at-Taufiq, a torch raised by Governor Mutahhar bin Tra’ad al-Hawlaani (upon him be peace) by whose light men streamed out of a dark and perilous countryside to find security within the walls he thickened, salvation in the four mosques he endowed, justice before his majlis, occupation in the city lanes and shops, virtue and hope in their lives.
“FOR during his reign he raised a great army and secured the trade routes about at-Taufiq so that all honorable men might pass through the town gate and find within his walls a fair and thriving market, buyers for their products, true scales, standard measures, shelter for their livestock, and wide lanes.
“THOUGH all earthly kingdoms are fleeting, all men, as I, pass, Mutahhar cast his brilliance over this land of many shadows and a few remote lights. For years I have tended his memory, a single flame others have attempted to snuff out, until this hour when, by god’s favor, I relight Mutahhar’s torch. Now I, an old man, weary but content, lay down my hammer and chisel for my final rest.
“MAY God have mercy upon my soul.”Had I faced the dawshan as well as the tablet, I might have read slower, or paused, but it was not until I turned from the memorial that I noticed the peculiar effect these words had upon him. for some time he stared vacantly into the distance, like a mystic absorbed by a single word. Then his mouth began to twitch as if he were speaking rapidly. but I heard no sound.
Returning to the fire, he began to pass a bare sole over the coals. As I took up his hand and drew him away he suddenly began to talk, though for some time his speech was a stew of confused syntax, obscure and archaic terms, and plain nonsense.
As I sat there listening, too exhausted by our journey to stir, I realized that he was yet leading me, causing me to leap with him, back and forth over the boundary between meaning and sound. Then, as the fire burned out and darkness swallowed the altar and the dawshan, the Yemeni began to speak clearly in his ancient idiom and I commenced my service as one of the scribes of this land. Only now-years, several dictionaries, and many marches later-have I, who once so self-assuredly led him away from the fire, felt confident enough to share the curious history I believed I heard that night.
in Derek Franck’s A YEMENI PASSAGE, (Azimuth Press, New York, 1997), pages 1-5.