Abdullah Al Jabali lives in Saqr, a village perched on a mountain in Oman’s southern region of Dhofar, and he’s one of the few tribesmen left there who speaks the nomadic language of Jabali, which is close to extinction.
His five children have moved to the city and fully integrated with modern life, but Al Jabali, 78, remains in a house built by his grandfather, desperately clinging to a disappearing culture.
“Jabali is derived from the Arabic word jabal, which means the mountain,” he tells The National. “Now our children and grandchildren live in the cities because there is nothing for them in the mountains.”
There are fewer than 50 houses in the area he lives, filled mostly with elderly people who, like Al Jabali, refuse to come down from the mountains.
“We rear cattle and camels and that’s how we earn our livelihood,” he explains. “Also, we have farms and grow vegetables and fruits and sell the produce to the cities. But the challenge is keeping the language alive because the youngsters don’t care much about it.”
Jabali, which is also sometimes referred to in Oman as Shehri, is a spoken Afro-Asiatic language that originated in Mesopotamia, Ethiopia and Somalia, but a few Arabic words have been introduced to it over the years.
The Omani government’s archive in the Ministry of Information shows Jabali has survived for about 5,000 years, and is also spoken across neighbouring Yemen, where the two borders are closely linked.
The language is known as being poetic among Omani nationals and travellers. “It is melodious and musical,” says Paul Allender, a British national and regular visitor to Oman. “It is like someone is reciting a poem when you listen to them talking.”
Records shared with The National by the Dhofar Governorate office from a 2016 door-to-door survey show fewer than 5,000 people among Oman’s total population of 4.5 million still speak fluent Jabali.
The records, based on estimates, also show most of those fluent speakers live close to the mountain areas of Dhofar.
That is not the case for Ali Al-Kathiri, who has a transportation business based in Muscat. Today, he feels caught between the crossroads of his ancestry and the demands of modern life.
“I love my ancestry with a Jabali background but it is not practical for me to live the old way of life,” he says. “I do go back during the Eid festivals to join my old parents back in my village up in the Dhofari mountains. But I simply cannot live there because there is nothing left for me except my parents.”
While Al-Kathiri speaks Jabali, he admits he does not use the language with his three children. “First, I am married to a woman who was born in Muscat with no Jabali background. Second, where would my children practise the language? They all speak Arabic in Muscat.
“I feel guilty sometimes, but I feel I have moved on and I am not the only person with Jabali origin to abandon it.”
But experts agree the language is now facing extinction. The main challenge, they say, is that Oman’s national language, Arabic, is more prevalent, even among Jabali speakers.
“I think these days Jabalis tend to use Arabic when they communicate with each other,” explains Noor Kashoob, who graduated from the Sultan Qaboos University with a translation degree. “We speak Arabic in schools, universities and workplaces.”
Kashoob professionally translates Arabic to English and vice versa, but sometimes finds herself interpreting Jabali. She is also very active in trying to raise awareness of it.
“There have been many attempts by Jabalis to improve the language,” she says. “For example, collecting poems, stories and songs, and broadcasting them on social media. In Sultan Qaboos University, there was a workshop in 2013 by Jabali students to create awareness, but it did not do much.”
She still continues to raise awareness in a private capacity. “I always try to use a full Jabali sentence without using any Arabic words and I keep correcting my sisters and friends when they make grammatical mistakes. These are simple steps that might preserve the language for the future generation.”
Arabic teacher Khalid Al Barami, 48, believes not enough is being done, however.
“I have four friends whose parents speak Jabali language, but they are not interested at all. First, they only understand the language but cannot speak it because they don’t practise it. The reason is that they probably feel ashamed to speak in front of the majority Omanis who speak Arabic. Second, they don’t think there is any benefit from speaking the language.”
Barami, who teaches Arabic in a government school in Salalah, thinks there are some creative ways Jabali speakers could keep the language alive. “If a group of them starts a radio channel, television or even a podcast, then that might regenerate interest in this language. Otherwise, it will continue to disappear fast.”