Poetic Tradition:
The Pilot Poem from Hadramaut to Zanzibar

In Water by Amani Omar

Humans are social creatures, we communicate through words that can transcend generations whether verbally or written. Our words connect the past to the future. An example of the beautiful connection of past and present is the verbal tradition of poetry.  Poetry can be used to express emotions, describe atmospheres and guide people on a journey of not only self-discovery but actual destinations too. For instance, the Pilot Poem of Nakhuda Sa-Id Ba Tayi of Al-Hami. 

The Pilot Poem is a poetic guide that describes the sailing directions from Hadramaut to Zanzibar through the colloquial tongue of Arabic made for the simple sailor. The poem has been said to have originally been composed in the Islamic year (Hijiri) 1217 or 1802 A.D. The Pilot poem had been passed through the generations like tradition until finally being transcribed at Al-Mukalla in 1964. In such a fashion, poetry was a traditional guide for seamen when sailing through crashing waves. Watching the stars and smelling the wind and looking for the descriptions from the poems left to them. As such, the Pilot Poem of Ba Tayi demonstrates the importance of poetry in history, because it has been passed down to others creating a tradition of knowledge that still is relevant today. 

The poem breaks down the directions to Zanzibar with the Dirah which means Compass in Arabic, which helps the sailors know which direction to go by following the stars. 

“The compass is divided into two sections, each called Nuss Al-Dirah, split by a line from the North Pole (al-Jah ) to the South Pole (al-Qutb)’ the east half is called al-Matla’ (the Ascension) and the west half al-Mughib (Decline, Setting). The compass is further divided into 32 rhumbs ( khann) each named after a star, with 15 points on each side, plus North and South. Both halves use the same names for the 15 points and are distinguished from al-Matla and al-Mughib.” (R.B Serjeant)

1 My Lord, Thee I beseech, ease what comes hard

Upon Thy servants amid land and sea

Through the Prophet Ahmad/Taha’s esteem, best of Mankind.

Holy, Clement, Thee I beseech, Sublime.

2 Now listen, shipmate, what I have to say.

Whenever the sun sets, bless the Apostle.

О God, I say, repentance brings and grace.

Forgive, forbear, make the words come easily.

In this introduction, the poet is beseeching Allah by the standing that the Prophet has with him. The word used for ‘esteem’ in this poem is the Arabic word Jah. Which is also a play on words as it means Pole Star. 

The Prophet Ahmad talked about is one of the five names of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). As the Prophet narrated, he has many names. 

The Prophet ﷺ said: “I have many names: I am Muhammad, I am Ahmad, I am al-Mahi through whom Allah obliterates unbelief, and I am Hashir (the gatherer) at whose feet people will be gathered, and I am ‘Aqib (after whom there would be none), and Allah has named him as compassionate and merciful.” Sahih Muslim

Ahmad means “The one who gives praise.” This name refers to the fact the Prophet (peace be upon him) would praise his Lord abundantly and show immense gratitude

Throughout the poem, Ba Tayi uses the Dirah/ Compass stars to guide the reader or listener to their destination through this type of wordplay (as seen in the introduction) but also clear cut instructions in the Compass Bearings. 

3 Sayhut, from it at even we set sail

When we’d finished what there was to be done,

Course set true on ‘Aqrab of the Ascension,

For a night entire wherein we keep each watch aright.

In this part of the poem, sailors begin to set sail from Sayhut which is a port that was known for its fishing, setting course for South-East which is Aqrab of the Ascension. Therein, he gives the directions through the stars and describes the areas that the sailor will pass on his journey.

7 Up rises [Cape] Hafun before you, tall, prominent.

Once it has fallen behind, set course

Upon Suhayl the Green, of the Setting. Give heed

To the helmsman on duty: watch he doesn’t fall asleep!

In this verse of the poem, Suhayl is referred to as “Suhayl the Green” because of the greenish colour of the star, the same with Al-Himarayn which is referred to as “The Red” because of the reddish light that it shines. 

12 Set this course of yours on the star Himar,

I mean Himãrayn, you master yarn-spinner of the nights.

Go along with the coast, follow it on

To Muruti and landmarks will come into your sight.

13 Here a tall tree, then the sand dunes.

Two sand dunes one sees, red both of them,

A low projecting peak, too, you’ll see overlooking [them].

After these we’ll divide them into shares.

Once again in these passages, we see wordplay with the names of the stars, along with rhymes we get to read about the imagery that one would see on their journey. “A tall tree, then sand dunes, two sand dunes one sees, red both of them.” The descriptions of the landscapes throughout the poem let us think of continuity and change. At the time this poem was written (which was in the beginning of the 1800s) there may well have been a tall tree and sand dunes, however, if we were to apply these to the modern age of industrialization and technology, it begs the question: Is the tree still there? If not, how would one find their way? 

“My notes record that a tree on the coast is a sort of landmark, and the fish found off the coast of al-Sawãhil is the tirriãk (Scomberomorus commerson). Вã Matraf speaks of groves of nakhl Iblfs , literally ‘The Devil’s Date Palm’, but in fact, according to Landberg, a Yemeni name for the dwarf fan palm which is called, in Hadramawt, nam (Arabica V, Leiden 1898). Al-Qutãmí speaks of a reef the indication of which is ” nakh – lat Iblfs sulbuyn .” In the vicinity of the groves are two mounds (aqwãz) of red sand, then you come to a small projecting peak with a black volcanic crest overlooking the two mounds of sand (Bã Matraf). Nãf means to be high, tall. 13/4 according to Bã Matraf means “We shall subtract them (the two sand hills) from the account” after we have passed by them. – R.B Serjeant

Through what was found by R.B Serjeant, a British scholar, during the time of the transcription done by Ba Matraf in 1964, he had noted that there was a tall tree that was a landmark in the dangerous coast of Muruti. In the time span of 162 years, the landscape had stayed the same, but what about now?  

28 These islands [well] to starboard leave.

And listen, mate, to all I have to say.

About them is a long projecting shallow reef,

And enter the land of the masters and the slaves/

And with safety enter the land of cloves.

29 Listeners [to me], conclude [these verses] with the Prophet,

[His] Family, Companions, then the Followers

And those who have followed them throughout the passage of the years,

As many times as one at prayer prostrates himself and rises.

Concluded, and in God is success.

Fast-forwarding to the end of the poem, in which the poet blesses the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), his family, and Companions and followers and thanks Allah (swt) for giving a safe and successful journey. Not only does it show the reach of Islam but the importance of religion in daily life. Ba Tayi asks God to protect them on their journey and thanks him when they reach successfully. Ba Tayi is a Somali Sailor from the city of Al-Hami, which is currently called Bayla, Somalia. From then until now, the Somali have always been an ethnoreligious people that carry Islam as a mark of not only religion but a sense of identity.

Religion is deeply ingrained into our everyday lives and even into the words that we seek. When thinking of continuity and change, the introduction and the conclusion to the Pilot Poem remind us that some things don’t change, and that’s beautiful. 

Time is forever flowing, like the water that carries a boat, and while we are just on the boat for the journey, we get to see what has changed and what has stayed over time by telling our own stories and passing them down to younger generations.  Poetry is a tradition, a tradition that teaches us customs, culture and history through the spoken word, the action and the written.

There are many different types of poems, however, the Pilot Poem specifically reminds us to look around. It’s a verbal map that gives directions straight from the experience of a man who sailed the very waters that the poem navigates. It gives us a chance to look at the same things because when you’re sailing, at least the stars stay the same.