Thursday, 23 May 2013

The People and Culture of Socotra

The Socotra Archipelago is divided into two administrative districts, Hadibo and Qalansiya, which also includes the islands of Abdul Kuri, Darsa and Samhah. Both districts come under the administration of the Governor of Hadramaut in al-Mukalla, The population of the entire Archipelago is estimated at 70,000 , with most people living on Socotra Island and concentrated in the capital town of Hadibo and the western town of Qalansiya. Owing to the isolation of the islands, the ancient language of Socotra was able to survive. Today both Socotri and Arabic are spoken on the island.
Socotra is distinguished by a distinct and unique cultural history.  Although it is unlikely that the legend that Aristotle advised Alexander the Great to send colonists to Socotra to harvest aloe is true, the existence of such a legend points to Socotra being “on the map” already in ancient times.  Archaeological work over the last century has shown that the island was inhabited from at least the first centuries A.D., and that Socotra was visited and settled by Africans, Arabs and Indians.  Socotra’s language – belonging to a group of Semitic South-Arabian languages – was most probably spoken in some form on the island even at this time.  Christianity was the island’s most prominent religion until the 15-16th centuries, when Socotra came increasingly under the influence of the Mahran Sultanate of eastern Yemen.  It is difficult to say how quickly Socotra’s Islamization proceeded, but by the end of the 18th century at the latest the last vestiges of Christianity had disappeared.  During the 19th century Socotra came to attract the attention of great powers again with the interest of Great Britain the region culminating in the island becoming a British protectorate in the 1870s.  British influence on Socotra ceased in 1967, when the Socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen came to power in Southern Yemen.  In 1990 North and South Yemen were unified and Socotra has been part of a unified Yemen ever since.
Socotra’s population is divided between the inhabitants of the mountainous interior and the islands’ coastal regions.  The former have traditionally made their living herding goats, sheep and cows and harvesting their date palms, while the latter’s livelihood has been based on fishing.  Some of the fishermen on the island’s northern coast are of African origin, having been brought over at the end of the 19th century to work for the Sultan.  Since 1999, when the island’s airstrip was lengthened, enabling flights year-round, including during the four month summer monsoon, development on the island has expanded rapidly.  Simultaneously, Yemenis from the mainland have immigrated to Socotra in greater numbers, opening numerous shops in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Socotra heavily depends on outside support, which comes mainly from the Yemeni Government and some development programs of NGO’s and International Organizations. An estimated number of 8,000 Socotris live and work in the Emirates,   probably contributing considerably to the income of related families on the island. Due to the insufficient provision of basic human needs, such as access to sustainable livelihoods, safe water, health services, education etc.., a majority of the population of Socotra Archipelago are considered to live below the absolute poverty line.
Today, as the memory of the days when Socotra was ruled by local sultans fades with the passing of the island’s older generations, Socotra finds itself at a crossroads.  Will the Socotris be able to preserve their environment, their culture and language while benefiting from development and tourism, or will Socotra suffer the fate of so many other once isolated regions of the world and lose its unique human and natural heritage as it is increasingly integrated into world economic flows?


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