These mutual aid institutions constitute the pastoral economy’s moral underpinnings as they embody an ethical framework animated by the principle of mutual reciprocity that structured the quotidian existence of Soqotrans. This ensemble of cooperative practices is differentiated in terms of context, scale, and purpose, as they are undertaken at the intra- and inter-household levels, the village and inter-village levels, and linking different regions of the island as well as its diaspora.
Maḥrif : Affective Exchange Relations
Maḥrif refers to “patron” or more broadly acquaintance in Soqotri. The institution of maḥrif entails reciprocal exchange of necessities between residents from the hinterland and those from coastal villages. As such, it not only established social bonds across topographical barriers, but also forged relations of social kinship. Hinterland residents shared butter-oil, hard dry cheese, goat or sheep to slaughter for marriage or circumcision (etc.); and coastal villagers would share dried fish (maqdad), dates (timhir), and maize (maqdere). Also, there was exchange of hospitality, as pastoralists could find respite on the coast during the long dry season (horf), while the coastal villager would be invited to the hinterland during the rainy season (ṣēreb) when milk was plentiful (Morris 2002: 150).
Its current practice serves primarily to reinforce the bonds of friendship with the occasional gift of a goat or sheep from the visiting pastoralists to their counterparts on the coast. The affective bond that informs the maḥrif has mutated into social networks of sharing that are linking members of a trans-local community through relation of migration between Soqotra and its diaspora.
Gírif: Communal Self-Help Ethos
Gírif refers to the solicitation of neighbors’ contribution toward a major expense (M. Morris pers. comm.). Accordingly, it entails a form of self-help undertaken by both rural and coastal communities to assist one member when a task necessitates the collective input of all members. A gírif can be called for any activity whose scale requires communal input, and sometimes for the organization of some of the major life events such as building a house, organizing a wedding. When the benefit is not collective, the organizer assumes the responsibilities and costs associated with it, and the participants contribute their labor or expertise. When it is for the provision of a public good (e.g., building a mosque, establishing a water pipe for the village, or constructing a road), the participants share the costs in addition to contributing their labor.
The gírif approximates the practice of ta‘āwun (Arabic for cooperation) on mainland Yemen. A gírif tends to address the challenges to livelihood within a particular ecological milieu. For example, in places where access to water is a problem, a gírif might be organized for the construction of a water reservoir (karīf). Its practice is now being gradually restricted to close-knit communities, as people now prefer to be paid in cash.
‘Itim : Inter-Household Assistance
‘Itim is the nominal form of the Soqotri term meaning “sharing out,” usually of food (Miranda Morris pers. comm.). It involves mutual borrowing of food items for later reimbursement, and the sharing of meals between inter-household members. However, the term is used here as an umbrella concept to encompass various forms of sharing that relate to the temporary alleviation of insufficiencies. Biological kinship plays a relevant role, but not an exclusive one, since sharing is among members across households of close acquaintances, or members of a village structured as a family of extended families.
During periods of hunger in the hinterland, ‘itim mutated into a form of alms seeking, as the most affected villagers went around other villages soliciting food. Also, there is a variant of this practice that specifically related to emergencies within the pastoral economy when, for example, livestock perished due to disease or drought and neighbors contribute toward replenishing the herd. Today, the availability of imported food has lessen dependence on the whims of nature; hence, the soliciting of food items is now replaced by the pooling of resources to solve a variety of modern-day problems.
Qenhe : Solidarity across Space and Status Distinction
Qenhe refers to a number of child-rearing practices: (a) foster parenting, (b) a mother who rears children from another family, and (c) “milk mother” through breast-feeding of a recently born baby by a surrogate mother (see Altorki 1980; Parkes 2005). It designates the practice of giving a child to another family for nurturing for a certain period and under certain conditions. It was practiced between the relatively comfortable families in Hadiboh and the relatively poor ones in the hinterland who received food payment. The Sultans extensively practiced it by giving their own infants into the care of slaves on the northern coast and pastoralist families in the hinterland.
This practice led to the establishment of a social bridge based on a permanent bond of elective kinship between Soqotrans of different social backgrounds, dispersed geographical locations, and divergent eco-occupational niches. The practice of qenhe was reportedly widespread on the island that linked families and villages across different regions of the island. Families became relatives through this institution, and have maintained their reciprocal obligations. Its practice has become less frequent but not entirely extinct, partly undermined by the availability of milk powder, and the economic burden that raising a kid represent under the current monetization of the economy.