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Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture.

This book contains a collection of 113 poems recorded between 1968 and 1988 among different Bedouin tribes living in Sinai and the Negev. In addition to the 55 poems composed in Sinai and the 26 composed in the Negev, the collection includes 32 poems originating in North Arabia but belonging to the poetic heritage of Sinai and the Negev as well. From his larger collection of some 700 poems, Bailey chose these on the basis of their popularity, the extent to which they contain material important for understanding Bedouin experience and poetry, and the fidelity and clarity of the text. Five of the poems are based on texts published by Musil, Socin, Arif, and Suqayr. The oldest poems can be traced back to the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, but the majority are of relatively recent origin. The authors of 70 of them can be identified with certainty, and in many cases the poems were recited by their authors.

Recording and publishing a rich collection of genuine Bedouin poetry during a time of profound cultural change is a praiseworthy deed in itself, but this book has two further main purposes: (a) to discover the motives that induce an illiterate Bedouin to compose poetry, and (b) to investigate the functions of poetry in an illiterate Bedouin society. The division of the material corresponds to these purposes and thus very clearly profiles the main characteristics of the poetry. The first four chapters are devoted to poems of expression, poems of communication, poems of instruction, and poems to entertain, reflecting the four basic reasons for composing poetry. The remaining chapters are "Episodes in Poetry" (poems from the War of Zari al-Huzayyil, pp. 253-87), "Poet in Prison", and "On the Margin of Historic Events".

Each poem is published both in Arabic script and in transcription, and is provided not only with an enjoyable poetic translation and very informative notes but also with an introduction giving its specific background, as well as accurate information about the author, reciter, and the place and date of recording. All this is done with a skill that unmistakably reveals Bailey as a real connoisseur of the genre. Interpreting Bedouin poems is a very difficult task which involves intimate familiarity with the details and nuances of Bedouin culture: everyday life, persons and places alluded to, events in local history, the language and imagery of the Bedouin as well as their poetic tradition. In this field Bailey manifests an exceptional mastery.

Among the rich selection of Bedouin poetry of different types, Bailey gives an interesting example of sira literature, a genre perhaps better known in certain urban centers, in Egypt and Tunisia in particular, than among the Bedouin. The example given here is the romance of Jide Ibn Haddal, collected from five raconteurs and reconstructed by Bailey. Only short fragments of the fascinating romance have been published earlier, by Musil (Rwala, 147f.) and Sowayan (Nabati Poetry, 107, translated from Ibn Raddas, Sa irat min al-badiyah), and in both cases included in other poems. Bailey makes no mention of Montagne, who has published a narrative and two lines of verse belonging to this sira, recorded among the Sammar of the Jazira ("Contes poetiques bedouins," BEO 5 |1935~: 33-119; text no. II). Even though the introductory prose narratives (salfeh) do not have any fixed form, they often are an integral part of recitals of different kinds of poetry during evening entertainments among the Bedouin. Consequently, transcriptions of these in their original form would have been most welcome. For obvious reasons of economy, this is not done in this book, but Bailey introduces the poems with all relevant background data. However, since the prose passages of sira literature are rather fixed in form, Bailey in this case renders the narrative in English translation, following word-for-word the accounts of the raconteurs.

In his intriguing chapter 8, entitled "Composing Bedouin Poetry," Bailey gives a very illustrative account of some basic elements vital to the creative process of Bedouin poetry: the "culture of rhyme," the aesthetic input, the imagery, the technique of creativity, and the role of memory. In his metrical analysis he comes to the conclusion that the meters employed are irregular and based, not on syllable quantity, but stress. Bailey's analysis seems to be well applicable to his material, but his assertion that an illiterate person is unlikely to be able to compose poetry according to quantitative metre, "since this requires a knowledge of too many rules that can only be comprehended by seeing the written word on the page" inevitably raises objections. This claim may be true of the Bedouin in Sinai and the Negev, as well as of speakers of some other dialects, but to extend the claim so as to include all Bedouin poetry, both contemporary and medieval, is not well grounded. Bailey launches the theory that the quantitative meters of Arabic poetry were created by poets patronized by rulers in settlements bordering the desert, "having received knowledge of Greek metrics through Aramaic-Christian intervention." This was earlier suggested by J. Tkatsch (Die arabische Ubersetzung der Poetik des Aristoteles |Wien, 1928~, 1:99ff.) who pointed to the fact that quantitative metrics is alien to all old Semitic poetry. Tkatsch's fundamental mistake was that he did not pay attention to differences in the phonetic structure of different languages. Surprisingly, Bailey also overlooks the differences of the syllable patterns that lie behind the different metrical systems. Thus, he does not take into consideration the difference between what J. Cantineau termed "trochaic" (e.g., nagati, ummahatena) and "atrochaic" (e.g., nagti, ummahatna) Bedouin dialect types ("Etudes sur quelques parlers de nomades arabes d'Orient," AIEO 2-3 |1936~: 1-237; see esp. pp. 114, 116, 156-59), a fact most relevant to metrical patterns. Nor does he discuss the profound difference between the syllable structures of Old Arabic and the dialects spoken at present in Sinai and the Negev. However, the trochaic syllable pattern of the North Arabian Sammari and Anazi dialects, the linguistic basis of the Bedouin poetry studied by Sowayan (Nabati Poetry: The Oral Poetry of Arabia |Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985~), is much better suited to quantitative metrics than the atrochaic pattern of the dialects of the Negev and Sinai Bedouin in which the relative frequency of short syllables is too low. The syllable structure of Old Arabic, on the other hand, provides an ideal basis for quantitative metrics, "wohl am besten von allen Sprachen" (Alfred Bloch, Vers und Sprache im Altarabischen |Basel, 1946~, 1f.; Gotthold Weil, Grundriss und System der altarabischen Metren |Wiesbaden, 1958~, esp. ch. 6).

The transcription is a phonetic approximation, and definitely not phonemic, as implied on page xx. The introductory linguistic notes are rather inexact and often give erroneous diachronic information. Thus, the forms mani, mint, mink are presented as results of "elisions" (|is less than~ ma ana, |is less than~ ma inti, |is less than~ minnak); the developments Imbarak |is less than~ Mubarak, islah |is less than~ silah as examples of "metathesis"; yaklu as resulting from "the occasional deletion of the short vowel 'i' (kasra) between two long vowels" (|is less than~ yakilu). The statement that tanwin occurs "in both indefinite and definite nouns and adjectives" sounds absolutely incredible: what could be meant by "definite" in this case? When the author describes xadena |is less than~ axadna as an ungrammatical change due to poetic license, he does not seem to be aware of its being a regular dialectal form in many Bedouin dialects--admittedly not reported from Sinai and the Negev--and, significantly, a form spread into the poetic language of the Bedouin in the whole of North Arabia and its peripheries (Cantineau, Etudes, I:87; II:192; passim in, e.g., Ingham, Prochazka, Rosenhouse, Palva). The texts yield a plentitude of different kinds of valuable linguistic data, the use of which is facilitated by a good glossary of Bedouin words and usages.

My critical remarks on a few minor details do not bear upon literary and cultural aspects, which are the very essence of Bailey's book. Unique in its manysidedness and ample documentation, it is an admirable collection of Bedouin poetry, and makes most delightful and inspiring reading. As expressed in the subtitle of the book, it is a veritable mirror of a culture.
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Author:Palva, Heikke
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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