Songs from My Father: A Journey through Children’s Folk Songs of Makkah

This essay appears in our Winter 2021 FOLK-themed special issue, edited by Ali Al-Jamri. You can also hear author-translator Eman Quotah talk about her essay on YouTube, where she reads from her essay and also sings.

Essay and translation by Eman Quotah

Collected by Mohammed M.N. Quotah

In the white duplex on Colwyn Road, the house with the fireplace whose brick base gave me the scar on my eyebrow, my father sang me to sleep in Arabic.

The first words of his go-to lullaby, Dawhah, Ya Dawhah, are nonsense. But the whole song sounded like nonsense to me because I couldn’t understand my father’s native language. He spoke to me, always, in English, my mother’s tongue. The Arabic I heard, until we moved from Ohio to Saudi Arabia when I was eight, mostly consisted of children’s folk songs and devotional language my father used in prayer. 

He would lay a pillow on his feet, cradle me in the valley between his legs, and rock me while singing. I didn’t know it then, but this cultural practice of rocking and the words he sang transported us from 1970s Shaker Heights, Ohio, across space and time to the site of a very different childhood from mine.

My father was born in Makkah sometime in the mid-1940s (we don’t know for sure when he was born because he didn’t have a birth certificate), and was raised there, the fourth of my grandparents’ twelve children. His was a childhood without battery-powered plastic toys, let alone smartphones and video games. Children played a jacks-like game with pebbles, and my dad never learned to ride a bike. It was also a time when the Makkawi (or Meccan) dialect and identity, within the context of the Hejaz region of western Arabia, remained more distinct from Saudi speech patterns and national identity than they are today.

Famously in family lore, my father twice flunked his English final exams in high school, which delayed his graduation. With persistence, he graduated 38th out of a class of 900 and qualified for a government scholarship to study overseas. Then he married an American woman he met studying in San Francisco and raised children whose first language was English.

By passing Arabic—and more specifically Hejazi and Makkawi—folk knowledge to his non-native-speaking children thousands of miles away from where it originated, my father was not only taking part in changing modes of folk transmission, but also manifesting rapid change happening in his society. 

In the Makkawi household of his childhood, my father tells me, mothers and older siblings—and in some cases fathers—conveyed folk traditions and cared for and played with infants and young children. Multigenerational, extended families lived in the multistory, vertical houses common in Makkah until apartment buildings overtook the city’s residential neighborhoods in the second half of the twentieth century. The vernacular architecture made use of the city’s limited space (the Holy City is built on and cradled by craggy hills) and offered flexibility to rent out lower floors to pilgrims during Hajj.

My grandmother was illiterate, and my older aunts received a limited education; public girls’ schools didn’t exist until the 1960s. The women and girls of the family took care of the home, passed on culinary and folk traditions, and helped raise younger children for longer than the boys did. My father and his brothers—those who were old enough before my grandfather’s death in the early 1970s—were expected to help run his fabric shop in Makkah. My father was one of several of the brothers who left home after high school to study abroad on scholarship. 

During the 1970s oil boom, Saudi Arabia experienced enormous economic and social change. Over the course of the decade, most of my father’s family—his mother, all but one of his siblings, and extended family members from both sides—moved from Makkah to the coastal city of Jidda. This was a common internal migration toward greater economic and educational opportunities and away from the more conservative social climate of Makkah. 

I was born in Jidda, but we spent the greater part of the 1970s in the United States while my father pursued his master’s degree in math and his doctorate in operations research, and my mother studied nursing. The Makkah of my father’s childhood was already in flux then and remained so throughout the 1980s, when we lived in Jidda and visited the Holy City several times a year to visit my aunt Aishah and the Haram. When I performed Hajj in 1991, Makkah was still decades away from the massive push toward development that would bring giant skyscrapers to the Holy City and raze the neighborhood around our family home, which my father, his siblings, and their mother have rented to pilgrims since they vacated it.

My father and his eldest brother, my ’Ammu Bakur, earned doctorates during their foreign studies and worked at Jidda’s King Abdul Aziz University for decades. Their daughters—and many young women of my generation and the one after mine—were expected to get married, raise children, and be educated. 

This is all to say that my parents raised me across geographic boundaries, in a rapidly transforming Saudi Arabia that generally preferred nationalism to regionalism and a United States that, even before 9/11, vilified and flattened the people and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula and the broader Middle East. Hearing the songs of my father’s youth brought me closer to him and kept local traditions alive for him, while also countering the racialized, Orientalist image of the Arab and Muslim father: violent, abusive, disconnected from his children, a thwarter of their desires for independence and freedom, especially if the child is a girl. 

My father watched me travel to the United States to study knowing and having lived the isolation, racism, and Islamophobia I would experience here. He encouraged me to advance my education and sanctioned my decision to stay in the U.S., though not without some hand-wringing about “brain drain.” He saw me as an asset to his society.

Now an American parent with children of my own—though they are too old these days to be much interested in nursery rhymes and lullabies—I asked my father to help me set down the songs he sang to me, as well as others he remembers from his Makkawi childhood. 

“دوهه يا دوهه”

دوهه يا دوهه

والكعبة بنوها

وزمزم شربوها

سيدي محمد سافر مكة

جبلي زنبيل كعكة

والكعكة في المخزن

والمخزن ما لو مفتاح 

والمفتاح عند الحداد

والحداد يبغي النجار

والنجار يبغى الحليب

والحليب عند البقرة 

والبقرة تبغى الحشيش

والحشيش يبغى المطرة 

والمطرة عند ربى

يا مطرة حطي حطي

وتتكرر حتى ينام الطفل

Dawhah, Ya Dawhah

Dawhah, ya dawhah

Oh, they built the Kaaba

And they drank Zamzam 

Grandfather Mohammad went to Makkah

He brought me a basket of cake

Oh, the cake is in the pantry

And the pantry has no key

The key is with the locksmith

And the locksmith wants a carpenter

The carpenter wants milk

And the milk is with the cow

The cow wants grass

And the grass needs rain

The rain is with my Lord

Oh, rain! Fall, fall!

The lyrics repeat until the child falls asleep.

This is my favorite of my father’s songs. Sitting on the floor while rocking the child recreates a long-ago Makkawi household where furniture is low or nonexistent—you ate on the floor, slept on the floor, sat on the floor—and where childcare is communal. My father tells me, “We would rock for ten to fifteen minutes. If the baby wasn’t asleep by then, something was wrong and we had to figure out how to make the child comfortable.”

The structure of the song, the way the verses build on each other, resembles that of Hush, Little Baby, the popular American folk lullaby, which my mom sang to me. Long before I had children to serenade to sleep, I sang both songs to my ten-years-younger brother, continuing the tradition my father was raised in of older siblings helping to raise younger siblings. (My mother, the youngest of four in an Anglo-American family in California, was partially raised by her older sister, alongside her nieces and nephews.) 

I love that the song retells a journey to Makkah, even though the singer, in my father’s childhood, would have been located in the Holy City. Both sides of my father’s family originated outside the Hejaz, my grandfather’s family in South Asia (probably northern India or Kashmir) and my grandmother’s in Hadhramaut. I like to imagine that other migrants from parts of the Arab and Muslim world to Makkah brought the song with them or composed it when they arrived.  

“صغير وعاقل”

صغير وعاقل

لباس الخواتم

كبير ومجنون

لحاس القدور

قصاع القمل

بيت الضره فين، بيت الضره فين، بيت الضره فين،

هنا هنا هنا

Little and Wise

Little and wise

Wearer of rings

Big and crazy 

Licker of pots

Squasher of lice

Where’s the ant’s house? 

Where’s the ant’s house? 

Where’s the ant’s house?

Here! Here! Here!

This fingerplay singing game reminds me of the Mother Goose nursery rhyme This Little Piggy. My father says mothers primarily sang it to very little children, though sometimes older siblings would play the game with babies, too. The singer would fold the child’s hand into a fist, then unfold and wiggle the fingers one-by-one, describing each digit by its physical attribute (e.g., “little and wise”) or function (e.g., “licker of pots”).

When I was tiny, I remember how my father would start by grabbing my pinky finger as he sang, “Little [meaning young] and wise.” Then, my ring finger: “Wearer of rings.” Then, my middle finger: “Big [meaning old] and crazy.” Then, my index finger: “Licker of pots.” And finally, my thumb: “Squasher of lice.”

When he had finished wiggling all five of my fingers, my father ran his fingertips up my arm singing, “Where’s the ant’s house? Where’s the ant’s house? Where’s the ant’s house?” He tickled my armpit and shouted, “Here! Here! Here!”

Never having seen this song written down, and having an imperfect vocabulary in Arabic because I didn’t become fluent until I was around ten or eleven, I misheard some of the words. Decades later, I sang them incorrectly to my own children (who don’t speak or understand Arabic, anyway). 

The Makkawi pronunciation confused me, too. I used to think the pinky was “small brained” and the middle finger “very crazy,” turning the “u” that means “wa” or “and” into a dhammah. 

The vernacular word for ant also confused me. In this song, ant is not “namlah,” but rather “dharrah,” meaning something harmful. But I thought it was “tharrah,” like something very small, minuscule. Now, I wonder about the significance of the “harmful” thing living in a child’s armpit. As with nursery rhymes from any culture, there is ample room for analysis.

“استوت المقادم”

استوت المقادم ….. لسه

زيدوها حطب زيدوها مويه

أستوت المقادم ….. لسه

زيدوها حطب زيدوها مويه

أستوت المقادم ….. لسه

زيدوها حطب زيدوها مويه

نعم أستوت …………………. هيا نأكل

Are the Calves’ Feet Done?

Are the calves’ feet done? 

Not yet!

Add wood to the fire! Add water!

Are the calves’ feet done? 

Not yet!

Add wood to the fire! Add water!

Are the calves’ feet done? 

Not yet!

Add wood to the fire! Add water!

Yes, they’re done! Let’s eat! 

This is a singing game like London Bridge or Ring Around the Rosie. My father says he played it with other children, siblings and cousins, sitting in a circle with their feet in the middle, covered by a sheet. They sang together, and when they reached the end of the verse, one child would remove his or her feet. They’d start again, repeating the verse until only one child’s feet were left.

I only remember playing this game with my dad and my brother, Osama. My father sat with Osama and I, all of us with our feet in the middle of our little circle. Dad would sort of “stir” the pot with his hand, while singing a call and response: “Are the calves’ feet done?” “Not yet!” Then he mimicked adding wood to the fire and water to the pot. “Are the calves’ feet done?” “Not yet!” Until finally, “Yes, they’re done! Let’s eat.” Dad would “eat” our feet, and we’d start again. My dad sang both call and response, either to teach the words to us or because we didn’t understand them. 

I never knew this as a child, but my father says you can substitute “mulukhia” for “calves’ feet” in the song. Who wouldn’t prefer to pantomime the making of mulukhia? 

And yet the humble meal of calves’ feet puts me in mind of a dish my father sometimes cooked when I was little: bread soup. He sauteed onions and tore up stale pita, then simmered everything in water. The soup was bland, and yet clearly carried memories for my father. Teaching us about the scarcity he had weathered as a child was important in a country that, in my childhood, was experiencing unprecedented wealth and a rush of modernity.

“يا مطره حطى حطى” 

يا مطرة حطي حطي

على قريعة بنت أختي

بنت أختي جابت ولد

سمته عبد الصمد

وتكرر إلى أن يتعب الطفل من الغناء او تسكت المطر

Oh, Rain! Fall, Fall!

Oh, rain! Fall, fall!

On my niece’s bald head

My niece had a baby

She named him Abd al-Samad

The verse repeats until the children are tired of singing, or the rain stops.

The English nursery rhyme says, “Rain, rain, go away!” In Makkah, where average rainfall is about five inches a year, people pray for rain. Dad says when he was a child and rain clouds appeared in the sky, hopeful children would go to the streets, their family courtyards, or the flat roofs of their buildings (where people often slept in hotter months) and sing this song calling for the rain to come down. 

“It never rained for long,” he says, “and when the children went back inside, they knew they had been showered by the rain, a blessing and mercy from Allah.”

I’ve found a few different versions of this song on the internet. Some have more verses than my father’s version, or use a different word for “fall.” (“Oh, rain! Pour, pour!” “Oh, rain! Sprinkle, sprinkle!”) But always, the rain is hoped for and welcomed, with a sprinkling of humor. 

I don’t recall my dad singing Oh, Rain! Fall, Fall!, but I wish he had. It reminds me of praying Salat al-Istisqa in the courtyard at Manarat Jeddah School and flipping my scarf over at the end, like turning a new leaf. And it reinforces a basic truth of my cross-cultural childhood: while the content of our folk traditions varies, children everywhere sing and are sung to, play and are played with, love and are loved.

It’s been a while since I sang my father’s songs to my children, and they don’t remember them anymore. I’m glad I asked my father to transcribe the lyrics. I’d expected only words on a page, but I got much more than that: his memories of a Makkah that is gone forever. Now, I can preserve the lived traditions of his childhood for my kids. I don’t know if they will pass them on to the next generation, but at least they will have a record of their Jiddu’s youth and knowledge of this small slice of their rich Hejazi heritage.

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Mohammed M.N. Quotah is a retired Saudi educator and author. Eman Quotah is the Saudi-American author of the novel Bride of the Sea.

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You can find copies of the FOLK issue of ArabLit Quarterly through GumRoad, Amazon, Ukiyoto, Khan Aljanub, and at select bookshops.

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