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People

This island finds itself at a convergence of  culture due to its strategic location. The ancient  trade of incense and other valuables in more recent centuries, has left the footprint of many African groups and Europeans including Greek, Portuguese and British.

The coastal area is inhabited by fishermen, majority of african origin (Somali people, an ethnic group located in the Horn of Africa), whereas the wadis and mountain regions are inhabited by nomads, sometime still living in caves, descendent from arabic tribes. There are also interesting affinities with other groups of islands including Seychelles and some remote islands of the Atlantic Ocean.

The majority of male residents on Socotra are reported to be in the J* subclade of Y-DNA haplogroup J. Several of the female lineages on the island, notably those in mtDNA haplogroup N, are found nowhere else on earth.

Almost all inhabitants of Socotra, numbering nearly 50.000, live on the homonymous main island of the archipelago. The principal city  Hadibo (with a population of 8.545 at the census of 2004), the second largest town, Qalansiyah (population 3.862) and Qād̨ub (population 929), are all located on the north coast of the island of Socotra. Only a few hundred people (about 400) live on the islands of ‘Abd-al-Kūrī and Samha (just 150); the island of Darsa and the islet of the archipelago are uninhabited.

The archipelago forms two districts of the Hadhramaut governorate:

  • the district of Hadibo (حديبو), with a population of 32,285 and a district seat at Hadibo, consists of the eastern two-thirds of the main island of Socotra;
  • the district of Qalansiyah wa ‘Abd-al-Kūrī (قلنسيه وعبد الكوري), with a population of 10,557 and a district seat at Qalansiyah, consists of the minor islands (the island of ‘Abd-al-Kūrī chief among them) and the western third of the main island.

Jobs

As the majority of local population lives under the poverty line, they heavily depend on outside support which mainly comes from the Yemeni Government and development programmes of NGO’s and international organizations such as the UNDP. An estimated of 8,000 Socotries live and work in the United Arab Emirates, contributing considerably to the income of related families on their home island.

The native Socotrans are simple, kind, and hospitable to visiting tourists. Their primary occupations have been fishing, animal husbandry (cattle and goats) and cultivation of dates.  Eco-tourism and all related activities, seem to be a very attractive job for younger people

Life in rural areas

Socotri population leaving in rural areas is mostly semi-nomadic pastoralis, raising livestock such as goats, sheep, cattle and cames in the inland. Because local weather is prone to extremes, the Socotris developed a system of keeping several kinds of livestock to minimize riscks. Each type of animal has different weather, terrain and dietary requirements, tolerance to hardship and productivity. Camels and donkeys, traditionally used as baggage animals especially to fetch water, have been loosing their importance since motor vehicles and paved roads occurred on the island.

Date palm cultivation is an important activity even though dates marked is almost non existing and most of the harvest stays on the island. Date harvesting is the main occupation during the summer monsoon when people escape from nothern coast suffering from strong winds.

Agriculture reamins unknows except small scale gardening supported recently by international projects.

Live along the sea coast

Along the coasts, fishing from small boat is the main source of livelihood. Fish and seafood are the most important commodities exported from the island, sold mostly to the industrial fishery of Al-Mukalla. The main stoks targeted are shark, king fish and tuna, which are salted or dried and sold on the mainland. Reef fish and lobsters represent also an important source of income, and are mostly sold to visiting fishing vessels from neighboring countries. 

Religion

All the people follows Islam.

Language

The natives speak a local unwritten language (Socotri) of Semitic origin. This language spoken originally only in Socotra, is related to such other Modern South Arabian languages on the Arabian mainland as Mehri, Harsusi, Bathari, Shehri, and Hobyot. Socotri is also spoken by minority populations in the United Arab Emirates  and other Gulf states.
Official language is Arabic of Yemen, English is spoken by some people working in the tourism (trained guides).

“A generation without a language” (Mira Baz): click here

Meeting the local community: a traveller’s guide for respectful interactions

The impacts of tourism on the Galapagos, the Caribbean, the Canaries and the Seychelles are well documented and we must learn from this. However, tourists can play a positive role in helping to ensure that the island environment is protected, enhanced and understood, and its resources valued. By visiting the island in a sensitive way and contributing to its economy, they can also aid the Socotri people in their desire to enhance their quality of life while still maintaining their cultural identity, and they can contribute to a wider understanding between the islanders and the outside world. The following notes are given as a guideline to acceptable and unacceptable behaviour on your part.

The Socotrans greet each other by touching their noses. Except for usual handshake touching noses together once or three times when greeting is the Socotrans’ gesture of friendship and respect.

 

Clothing

Men. Shorts for men are not acceptable – they are seen as underpants, and as such indecent unless covered with another garment. T-shirts and short-sleeved shirts are perfectly acceptable, as are trousers rolled up to the knee and bermuda.

Women. As a general rule women should cover themselves from the ankle upwards and from below the elbow upwards. Trousers are acceptable but something loose should be worn over them to hide the outline of the buttocks. It is appreciated if some sort of headscarf is worn when visiting local communities.

Courtesy

Socotri people are extremely courteous and respect the ability to remain so even under severe provocation; it is important that however tired or frustrated you might feel that this is not apparent in your behaviour towards Socotri. You should remember that elderly people are held in special respect on the island and behave accordingly. Be careful of showing your admiration too markedly for anything you see: if animate you might be thought to ‘harm’ it with your ‘covetous eye’, if inanimate, you are likely to have it pressed on you as a gift.

Men ‘from over the sea’ have a dubious reputation in parts of the island as far as women are concerned, so it is important that you treat any women you see or meet with the necessary respect (ie. do not stare at them, watch them, or look overly interested in them).

Gift & children 

You will not be pursued by children asking for presents as happens elsewhere in parts of the world (including mainland Yemen) and it is important that we do not encourage this potentially harmful habit by giving gifts indiscriminately to children we happen to come across. However, small gifts useful or of interest to schoolchildren (posters, postcards, pencils, booklets, badges and so on) can be left at the schools, mosques or with community elders to show friendliness (see also under Tipping)

Greeting

All those who have just come to Socotra agree that the two most marked characteristics of the people of are their generosity and their courtesy. For their part, they often find us abrupt and impatient. It is important when you meet to go through the formal greeting ceremony before embarking on the matter in hand, and again before taking your leave. Try and be patient with this, and make a point of politely shaking the hand of every person present (including children). However, see the notes below:

  • For visiting men  – women, especially young women, may or may not expect to have their hand shaken. Let them take the lead.
  • For visiting women – Some Socotrans have been tought that it is wrong for a man to shake the hand of a woman. Again, follow their lead.

Invitation into the home

You are likely to be invited into Socotran homes: this can be a house, a hut, a cave, or just an area marked out with rocks. Whichever it is, it is good manners to remove your footwear before stepping over the threshold into their private space. It is then courteous to go around shaking the hand of all those present, and then sit down with the legs crossed or folded beneath the body. Tea will usually be offered: it is polite to accept the first cup, a second can be refused with an upheld hand or shake of the head, saying “shukran” (‘thank you‘).

Invitation to a meal

You may be asked to join Socotrans in a meal. Please remember that they can ill afford to offer such hospitality, however pressing they seem: it is their culture which insists that hospitality should always be offered to a stranger or visitor. You may chose to refuse on these grounds, or, unless the meal is offered as a thank you for something you have been able to do for the family or community, you may offer to pay for any meal you eat: this may be refused or accepted, but such an offer is generally appreciated. (If you consider that a sack of 50 kg of rice or flour costs around YR3,000, plus the  effort of fetching water and firewood, you can generally work out an appropriate sum to offer – be guided on this by your Socotran companions).

Picnic and camping 

When selecting your site:

  • Do not choose a spot beside the local water source – your presence is likely to make the women and girls whose job it is to fetch water or water livestock nervous.
  • Keep a reasonable distance from livestock pens and byres to avoid disturbing livestock.
  • Make sure that the ‘walled enclosure’ you have settled in is not the local mosque or out-of-season kitchen garden

Pictures

Socotrans are getting used to foreigners photographing views, plants and buildings. However, it is imperative that you do not photograph a person without first asking their permission, and especially do not photograph women.

Religious observance 

It must be always remembered that Soqotra is a country of very devout Muslims. If you are traveling around the island, your Soqotran companions will expect to stop to pray at noon, mid-afternoon, at sunset and at around nine o’clock in the evening, and, if you are camping with them, will wake you with the call to prayer at around four o’clock in the morning!  Because it is essential to ritually wash before praying, this sometimes means that you will stop before these times in order to be near a source of water. Look on it as an enforced, potentially pleasant break, and if you are fed up at the delay, try not to show it. The prayer stop rarely takes more than a quarter of an hour.

Tipping

Tipping is not expected anywhere on the island, nor is  desirable to introduce this custom indiscriminately. However, a gift or an extra sum of money for help ‘beyond the call of duty’ or if a trip has been especially onerous, is appreciated.

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