A Socotri bedouin woman looks on from on top of the Firhmin Forest in central Socotra.

Socotri Culture: The Island of Endangered Poets


Socotri culture is just as endemic and endangered as Socotra’s famed species of fauna and flora. Located off the coast of Yemen in the Indian Ocean, this mysterious island lies between the Guardafui Channel and the Arabian Sea. Its name means the island of Bliss in the ancient Sanskrit language.

The legendary dragon's blood tree with it's unique umbrella shape
The legendary dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena Cinnabari) can live for hundreds of years

Socotra’s otherworldly beauty is portrayed by the media as based solely on its unique natural features. Its dragon’s blood trees, incense and a variety of other species of fauna and flora can be found nowhere else on the planet. In recognition of its over 700 distinct forms of plant and animal life, it was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. 

The island is, however, also home to some 50,000 people whose unique cultural heritage is often overlooked. The original Socotri culture includes traditional conservation techniques, natural medicine, fishing methods and, most importantly, the Socotri language, which is now on the brink of extinction.

History in Antiquity

Socotra is known for its wealth of unique flora. Stories from the 1st century BC state that Socotra supplied the whole world with myrrh, laudanum, and other aromatic plants. One legend has it that the Egyptians used to visit Socotra for its frankincense because the resin was said to help spirits to reach the afterlife. The resin of the Boswellia trees from Socotra is still known as the best incense in the world.

In yet another legend, Greece sent a colony to Socotra in the 4th century BC. The goal of the voyage was to take control of the bounty of aloe and other plants that grow freely on the island. Even back then, the dragon’s blood sap was known for its healing abilities and was sought after by the Roman Empire. Its sap was used by gladiators who applied it before fights to speed up the healing of their wounds.

The natives of Socotra, however, have never devised a way to write their language. Therefore, what is known of the islands is found in foreign records by those who have been there. According to these records, Socotra was ruled by various nationalities over different periods of time. These include the Indians, Greeks, Portuguese, the Omani Sultanate and the British. Many of them lived side by side on the island. Their genetic influence is visible in the inhabitants of the island. 

Two Socotris greeting each other by touching their forehads and hoding hands  against a back drop of indigenous trees
A Socotri greeting

Strategic Location

Socotra’s position played a big role in the ancient world. It was a popular stopover for sailors who crossed the Indian Ocean. Sailors and merchants took resins and medicinal herbs and sold them to far-off empires. Inscriptions can be found in the Hoq caves and other sites as evidence of these visits. Some of these inscriptions are quite frightful as the Socotran monsoon used to cut the island off from the rest of the world for months at a time. These sailors ascribed it to evil spirits and jinns. A Sicilian writer described Socotra as “the beginning of the South Arabian Incense Road going through Qena and Aden”, which shows its importance in ancient trade routes.

Socotra’s Oral Culture

The Socotri Language

Much of the island’s mystery lies hidden in its native Socotri culture, also unlike any other in the world.  There are many reasons Socotra’s history makes for a rich cultural heritage. Firstly, minimal contact with the outside world has created a linguistic time machine with traces of languages that pre-date Arabic. The island’s isolation served to protect the language from outside influences.

This resulted in the unique language used by the islanders, Socotri. Socotri has roots that are close to the oldest written Semitic tongues that died out thousands of years ago. The Socotri language developed certain phonetic (sound) features. These features are absent in even the closely related languages of the mainland, with its variety of local dialects.

Socotri is now considered by some scientists as the oldest language among the Modern Semitic living languages. As a result, this link provides possible ways to find the cultural relics of late antiquity as Socotra was cut off from the influences of the Arabian mainland for a very long time. Even though Socotri has no written form, it managed to stay alive for ages. This was achieved as the mother tongue of Socotri herdsmen, fishermen and townsmen.

The silhouette of a Socotri  against the outline of the blue sky in the Hoq Caves
Hoq Cave faces toward the northeast out to the Arabian Sea, a short distance from Terbak Village

Poetry for Communication

Secondly, traditional Socotri culture uses poetry and song as a part of daily life. It is a way of communicating with others, no matter if they are humans, animals, spirits of the dead, jinn sorcerers or the divine. It is an important part of their social and spiritual lives. Oral traditions, such as poetry, are passed down from generation to generation.

The first known Socotri poet is thought to be from the 9th century. Fatima al-Suqutriyya is a popular figure in the Socotri culture. Little is currently known about al-Suqutriyya. Although she is thought to have been born on the island of Socotra during the third century AH (Islamic calendar). She was related to the ruler of Socotra. Today, this way of life is still celebrated through an annual poetry competition that attracts visitors from a wide variety of cultures.

Poetry for Folklore

Thirdly, poetry represents simple folktales as well as the oldest legends of Socotra, which are mostly unknown. Telemethel is the most popular form of Socotri poetry. This form of poetry consists of witty short poetic pieces of folklore comprised mainly of four-line stanzas. They are the finest examples of the oral folklore poetry of Socotra. This is why the research on Socotri poetry depends on the support of reliable native speakers.

What makes this oral form of poetry even more unique is that when a poet is not familiar with some of the old words due to his young age or does not live with the tribes, or when he would not like to stop his speech to remember the right word, he can simply change the word or the sound with a “suitable” equivalent. Temethel, therefore, consists of a range of dialectal and personal performance differences.

A group of Socotris, sitting cross legged with their musical instruments,  performing a mawlad
Socotris performing a traditional mawlad celebration (Natlie Peutz)

Poetry for Identity

Fourthly, poetry enables the Socotri to show their link with society’s traditions and shared knowledge. Therefore, Socotri men pride themselves on knowing several temethel stanzas. Up until today, poetry “competitions” are held at every celebration. These poetry competitions are akin to a rap battle with short stanzas being recited by the contestants, one after another. The most “educated” poet is crowned the winner.

Researchers have also discovered that knowing a few lines could play a role in giving them access to the tribes, especially Socotri Bedouins. It is seen as a way of showing their respect towards Socotri culture and language.

Island life is what makes the Socotri culture unique
The beautiful white sands of Detwah Lagoon


How Endangered is Socotri?

Just like the dragon’s blood trees whose numbers are dwindling, the Socotri language is slowly dying out. With the arrival of Arabic to the island, Socotri poetry has been overlooked and the skill of the island’s poets ignored. Socotris adopt terms from Arabic and Arabic is the official language taught in schools. Most people are bilingual in coastal areas. In rural areas, however, especially among older people, Socotri is still the only language in which to describe the world.

Increasingly, the Socotri language is seen as a barrier to progress. This is because the new generation does not think it has the power to improve the island’s socioeconomic status. Socotri also has other limits, such as not being able to communicate through writing. Furthermore, students are not allowed to use Socotri while at school and job seekers must speak Arabic before getting employed. Young Socotris even prefer Arabic to Socotri. They are now struggling to learn it, often mixing it with Arabic.

Socotris grow up being ashamed of their language because they’d been told it is a mere dialect spoken only by illiterate people. There seems to be cultural sentiment toward the language and yet an indifference. This could be due to neglect and the idea that it limits them. Socotri is now seen as a severely endangered language.

Six girls in gaily coloured tradditional sheaths that will the women wear on the island
Girls in traditional, colourful cotton sheaths

Why should we care?

The main concern about the lack of Socotri language research is not only related to semantics but more importantly, Socotri culture conservation. This isolated island is undergoing a lot of modernisation with a fast-changing cultural environment. As a result, there is a high possibility of losing precious strata of the Socotri folklore heritage secured by the Socotri people through the millennia. This could result in the loss of traditional ways of life and their archaic vocabulary. 

The role of oral traditions

The oral folklore of Socotra contains the traditions common to Socotri culture. Folklore also embodies the transmission of these artefacts from one region to another or from one generation to the next. Because of the age of the language, Socotri folklore helps understand many themes and literary features of written ancient Semitic traditions, which include the Old Testament, Ugaritic epics, and even Assyro-Babylonian, Mesopotamian literature. But more importantly, it still retains some themes that date back to the dawn of human civilisation and religions in the Middle East.

How can it be preserved?

The rich poetic Socotri culture must be documented for future generations. Socotri oral traditions can be preserved by preventing it from ever truly being lost. Owing to the political unrest on mainland Yemen to which Socotra technically belongs, there is no cultural policy on what should be done about the oral non-Arabic languages that are still left in Yemen.

Socotri sounds are better expressed through the Latin alphabet, presenting a problem with documenting the language. However, due to the island’s religion and official language, many scholars argue that it should be written in the Arabic script. In 1889, an Austrian orientalist, David Heinrich Muller, tried to use Arabic script to write down several examples of Socotri oral poetry. However, modern Socotris have trouble making sense of it now.

This argument led to the invention of an easy Socotri alphabet by Russian linguists based on Arabic script. To reflect the phonetics of Socotri, they decided to add four letters to the Arabic alphabet. They used symbols that expressed non-Arabic sounds in the languages of the Indian subcontinent. But, because the islanders prefer Arabic, this could further spur the move toward a more Arabic-centric culture.

A new writing system

Socotri is a recognised standardised literary language because of this development. This complicated and controversial undertaking was called “the new Socotri writing system”. The new script was shown to Socotri speakers, who had no difficulties reading it. It empowers Socotris to contribute to the written creation of their mother tongue and check, approve and correct the work of researchers.

Despite this exciting new way of documenting the language, it might already be too late. The rapid development of the archipelago and its opening up to the wider Arab world means that Socotri is likely to become extinct. As a result, so will the  Socotri culture and its ancient folk story heritage. This has already happened to closely related, pre-literate languages of the south Arabian mainland. It was largely a result of schooling, radio and television, all of which are in the Arabic language.

Another icon of Socotri culture is the desert rose, found nowhere else on earth
The Socotran desert rose (Adenium socotranum)

Significance in Linguistic Anthropology

In conclusion, oral traditions have long been an important tool for preserving cultural and historical memory. Losing the language means losing the Socotri culture and the identities of the Socotri people. Already, difficulties with the understanding of archaic words and idioms are an increasing problem. All this may cause the loss of the Socotri oral heritage archive, a big oral unwritten “library”. This library contains a unique language corpus, the developed folklore poetry and prose tradition. It also contains numerous pieces of evidence of cross-cultural contacts in which Socotra played a bridging role during antiquity. Socotri legends and folklore have a lot of thematic and narrative parallels with the folk tradition of Eurasia. This means that it has a lot to add to the existing body of knowledge. It can help scholars to understand the context and meaning of these narratives.

Note: I cannot write from a place of truth and authority as I am not a Socotri myself. I have based my subjective opinion on my discussions with Socotris both on the island and mainland Yemen, a Socotri language specialist, and various articles I have read.

Featured image credit: https://travel.inertianetwork.com/



One thought on “Socotri Culture: The Island of Endangered Poets

  1. Amazing! I learned about an entire culture I never knew existed. You would think in the globalised world this is impossible. It is not.

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