Moorish Feminine Poetry

By Soultana

Imagine boundless dunes

Piles of ebony sand 

Under a glowing moon

Illuminating the land

From which tents arise

Colorful, diverse in size

People diverse in color

All bound by family ties

Watch the sand changing sheets

To get covered in a golden veil

As the sun rises to greet

The squinting faces 
dark and pale

Follow the seashells under your feet

The sand is now Ivory white

Where the dunes and salty waters meet

And camels admire the seagulls’ flight.

Here is the home of a people

Reflected in the colors of sand

Of a hospitality with no equal

Here is the nomads’ beloved land.

I wrote this poem in an attempt  to try and paint a picture in my reader’s mind about the land I come from. Though simplistic and vague, it still captures all the elements that Mauritania is broadly known for in an aesthetic context: dunes of sand, the beach, and…camels! Mauritania is also referred to in the Arab world as the land of a million poets, so I thought it only appropriate to start off this piece as one. Poetry in Moorish Mauritanian culture exists in several forms, most of which are public and exist either in written form, in classic Arabic, or in recited song form, typically accompanied with African-Berber acoustics. There is one form that is private and is practiced amongst women in closed female gatherings, we call it feminine poetry and it goes by the name of Tebraā.

Before I go any further, here’s a brief historical introduction I compiled with the help of BBC and as I found some of the information available to coincide with my own knowledge about the country and the language used: Mauritania is a northwest African country bridging the Arab Maghreb and western sub-Saharan Africa. The largely desert country presents a cultural contrast, with an Arab-Berber population to the north and Black Africans to the south. Many of its people are nomads. Mauritania’s official languages are Arabic and French (as a residue from the colonial era) with a dominant local dialect called Hassaniyya. Hassaniyya is an Arabic dialect derived from the name Bani Hassan: a nomadic group of Arabian origins that emigrated from Yemen around the 11th century to southwest Africa. They conquered the Berber tribes of the region in the 17th century. As a result, Arabian culture and language came to dominate in the region and the Berber tribes gradually Arabized.

Thirty percent of Mauritania’s population is a mixed collective of Black African tribes with different cultures and languages. Moors make up the other 70% and are divided into two subgroups: Black Moors and White Moors, who are ethnically different but culturally similar and share the same mother tongue, Hassaniyya.

Mauritanian Moors’ immense interest in poetry dates back to ancient Arab cultures, specifically that of the Quraysh who inhabited Mecca in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) . It is in fact believed that the Holy Quran was the Prophet’s anointed miracle because he was born into a people who greatly valued the art of verse. Poetry was considered a performance and people would battle each other with poetic verses in the marketplace as a way to pass the time. This tradition is still strongly present in Moorish society in different forms that suit specific social situations.

When inquiring about poetry in Hassaniyya, one practice stands out in particular as it is reserved to women, Tebraā. It is a very short type of amorous poetry consisting of one verse only, through which a woman would convey her feelings towards the one she admires in a subtle yet expressive way. The name “Tebraa” is derived from the Arabic word for “donation,” in this specific context it means that the woman volunteeringly and anonymously “donates” her poetry and affection to the man in question.

Here are a few examples:

From songs the most sublime

I’ll steal to sing for you

And conceal my love in rhyme

As it only rhymes with you

This verse contains a clever play on words, the word “rhyme” in Hassaniyya can mean two things: 1) The obvious meaning in poetry, and 2) “To suit, to fit,” meaning that something is tailored to fit a specific person. Here the orator means to say that all the beautiful words in songs were tailored to only fit her beloved, that is why they should be stolen and concealed (along with her emotions) because they would only make sense if they were used to describe him.

My flame for him will never burn out

Who could turn away from green

In years of drought?

The play on words in this verse is done by the word “green,” which in Hasaniyya also means “tanned” when describing a person (and is a positive attribute for men). Its usage here implies manliness as it suggest he’s hard working and always moving under the sun.

I’ve heard his voice like a call to prayer

So to those who haven’t, beware!

In this one the orator insinuates – quite boldly – that her admired’s voice is of such grandeur, she almost confused it with the sacred call to prayer. She also claims that his love could lead to blasphemy hence the warning at the end.

Tebraā as a practice is usually transmitted from an elder circle of peers to their younger sisters or nieces and so on. The construction of the verses doesn’t change as it is the shortest simplest form of poetry in the Hassaniya language, however the content is ever changing as each verse is spontaneous, momentary and specific to its orator and her object of interest.

In such a conservative culture as the Moorish Mauritanian one, display of affection is highly frowned upon, especially for women, as they are expected not to draw attention to themselves for the sake of humble shyness. So they opt for more subtle ways to express their otherwise repressed romantic desires, using oral poetry as an outlet to vent all while privately indulging in each other’s linguistic wittiness and poetic rhyme.

In my mother tongue, some Tebraā verses were able to give me chills because of how beautiful I found them to be. However,  as I was translating them, I struggled to avoid making them sound like cheesy pick up lines in English, which brings me to this conclusion: if you still can’t fully grasp the concept of Tebraā, imagine it as an artistic feminine spin on the patriarchal practice of catcalling.