Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera: Poetry and Politics in Contemporary Bedouin Society.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Palva, Heikki
Pub Date: 01/01/2009
Publication: Name: Acta Orientalia Publisher: Hermes Academic Publishing Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Hermes Academic Publishing ISSN: 0001-6438
Issue: Date: Annual, 2009 Source Volume: 70
Topic: NamedWork: Poetry and Politics in Contemporary Bedouin Society (Poetry collection)
Persons: Reviewee: Abu Athera, Said Salman; Holes, Clive
Accession Number: 300652489
Full Text: Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera: Poetry and Politics in Contemporary Bedouin Society. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2009. xv, 351 pp. ISBN: 978-0-86372-338-4.

The corpus of this most interesting study consists of forty-one poems orally composed by five Bedouin poets, two of them from southern Jordan (al-Huwaytat, al-Hagaya), one from northern Jordan (Bani Hasan) and two from the Sinai Peninsula (Tarabin, Tayaha). They were recorded by the Jordanian scholar Said Salman Abu Athera himself a Bedouin "nabafi" poet with background in the Negev from recitations by the poets themselves, and selected from a comprehensive archive of recorded and transcribed Bedouin poetry on which he has been working for several decades. The poems selected deal exclusively with political and social issues, and they were composed during the period 1956-2006. Some of them were presented in Abu Athera's Ph.D. thesis (Glasgow, 1995). The Arabic script version of the poems included in the book under review (pp. 267-344) was produced by Abu Athera, whereupon the meaning of each line was discussed together with Clive Holes, who then transliterated the poems, translated them into English verse and provided them with linguistic and cultural annotations. These were checked by Abu Athera for accuracy. Holes wrote the contextualising material and the introductory essay, and compiled the language notes and glossary. The authors also paid visits to two of the five poets whose compositions were included in the book; two others were dead, and one could not be tracked down during the field trip.

Among the five poets, only one, Muhammad Fanatil al-Hagaya alDaygaml, aged about 50, has published anthologies of his poems. He lives in the village of Sultani, about 150 km south of Amman. He was for a considerable period loosely attached to the Hashemite Court, and his diwans were published in 1997 and 2000. The other southern Jordanian poet, Barrak Dagis Gazi Abu Tayih al-Huwayti (1925-1999) did not publish his poems, but wrote a 350-page autograph of his complete poems, written in a mixture of Standard Arabic and Jordanian dialect. A relative of the famous 'Awda Abu Tayih (d. 1924, immortalised by T. E. Lawrence), he was a proud asll (or hurr) Bedouin: invited to participate in a programme on Jordanian radio about Bedouin poetry in the 1960s, he declined on learning that one of the invitees was a gypsy. The northern Jordanian poet Gassan Surur al-Sbaylat, born in al-Zarqa' in 1954 as the son of the paramount sheikh of the al-'Uwaysat section of the Bani Hasan, now living in al-Mafraq, is a successful self-made businessman. He has no formal education, but he has read quite widely. His poetry is technically very variable, and he ignores standard elements such as the rihla, nasib and divine invocations. His poems have circulated orally were recorded by the Jordanian scholar Said Salman Abu Athera--himself a Bedouin "nabati" poet with background in the Negev--from recitations by the poets themselves, and selected from a comprehensive archive of recorded and transcribed Bedouin poetry on which he has been working for several decades. The poems selected deal exclusively with political and social issues, and they were composed during the period 1956-2006. Some of them were presented in Abu Athera's Ph.D. thesis (Glasgow, 1995). The Arabic script version of the poems included in the book under review (pp. 267-344) was produced by Abu Athera, whereupon the meaning of each line was discussed together with Clive Holes, who then transliterated the poems, translated them into English verse and provided them with linguistic and cultural annotations. These were checked by Abu Athera for accuracy. Holes wrote the contextualising material and the introductory essay, and compiled the language notes and glossary. The authors also paid visits to two of the five poets whose compositions were included in the book; two others were dead, and one could not be tracked down during the field trip.

Among the five poets, only one, Muhammad Fanatil al-Hagaya al-Daygami, aged about 50, has published anthologies of his poems. He lives in the village of Sultani, about 150 km south of Amman. He was for a considerable period loosely attached to the Hashemite Court, and his diwans were published in 1997 and 2000. The other southern Jordanian poet, Barrak Dagis Gazi Abu Tayih al-Huwayti (1925-1999) did not publish his poems, but wrote a 350-page autograph of his complete poems, written in a mixture of Standard Arabic and Jordanian dialect. A relative of the famous Awda Abu Tayih (d. 1924, immortalised by T. E. Lawrence), he was a proud asil (or hurr) Bedouin: invited to participate in a programme on Jordanian radio about Bedouin poetry in the 1960s, he declined on learning that one of the invitees was a gypsy. The northern Jordanian poet Gassan Surur al-Sbaylat, born in al-Zarqa3 in 1954 as the son of the paramount sheikh of the al-Uwaysat section of the Bani Hasan, now living in al-Mafraq, is a successful self-made businessman. He has no formal education, but he has read quite widely. His poetry is technically very variable, and he ignores standard elements such as the rihla, nasib and divine invocations. His poems have circulated orally and on cassette tapes, and the latest method is via text messaging on mobile phones.

Perhaps the most famous of the five poets was Unayz Abu Salim Swaylim al-UrdI al-Turbani (ca. 1920-1999), according to Clinton Bailey (Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev. Oxford 1991; p. 9), he was considered the finest living poet in Sinai. He had no formal education, but was renowned not only as a skilled poet but as a successful smuggler as well. Bailey devotes a whole chapter (1991: 288-340) to the poetic exchanges between him and a number of other poets during his eight-year prison term. There is no definitive diwan of his poems, but more than one hundred of his best poems were collected by Abu Athera and published in Jordan (S. S. Abu Athera & A. I. al-Hassas, Diwan al-sair 'Unayz Abu Salim al-Turbani. Amman 1998). In addition, Abu Athera has published 'Unayz's prison diary with poems in 1995. The youngest among the five poets is Husayn bin cId bin Hamad bin Mislih bin 'Amir al-Tayaha (b. 1960) from northern Sinai. After 1986, when he started composing poetry, his poems quickly became well known in Sinai, circulating on cheap cassette tapes. He has often participated in festivals dedicated to the Bedouin arts of poetry and riding, but his poems have not been published in written form.

Besides poetry dealing with political and social issues, all of the poets discussed here have composed extensively in other genres. Central themes include Bedouin poverty and social marginalisation, Jordanian government corruption, incompetence, hypocrisy and nepotism, taxes and the cost of living. Also, the violation of Bedouin personal space and honour is an important theme. Ordinary Arab soldiers are praised for their courage, but their political leaders are often lampooned. Among the Arab leaders, Saddam Hussein and King Hussein are glorified heroes, whereas the Gulf rulers as well as the 'turncoats' Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi and Bashar al-Asad are sharply criticised.

The sedentarisation and urbanisation process inevitably leads towards increasing marginalisation of Bedouin culture. In many areas where a majority of the population during the first half of the twentieth century still led a nomadic life, the younger generations remember nothing of the old way of life. It is therefore only natural to look upon Bedouin culture as a phenomenon of the past, and Bedouin poetry as an art bound to disappear in a near future. However, Abu Athera's and Holes's study gives convincing evidence of the vitality of Bedouin poetry. Throughout history, there has been a strong social and political vein in Arabic poetry; Bedouin poetry is no exception, but instead of having mainly been engaged in contested issues on the tribal level, it now more often addresses issues on the national and international levels. It is the impression of the authors that the modern use of nabati poetry to express political and social opinions and emotions is on the increase. Moreover, it has become a means for voicing political dissent beyond the confines of state-controlled media. This is in some degree facilitated by the distancing medium of Bedouin poetry, which allows things to be said that could not be said in casual face-to-face talks, without embarrassing the interlocutor or compromising the speaker himself. An example is one of the published poems (3.1.), which Barrak al-Huwayti recited to King Hussein in person in the oasis of al-Gafr in 1972. Using the imagined shared Bedouinness of himself and the king, he, after a five-line opening of praise, emphatically urges the moderate king to start a war to liberate Jerusalem and the West Bank: "You're our hope and the focus of our expectation" ... "to fight for the faith: that is your obligation!"

The attitude of the Arab cultural and political establishment towards Bedouin poetry--as towards popular literature in general-tends to be ambivalent. To be sure, orally performed Bedouin poetry is widely enjoyed as pleasant, perhaps nostalgic entertainment and there are persons in high positions who take pride in this form of art. But because of its ephemeral reference points and its banal subject matter, it is not usually considered as having any lasting literary value. Its non-standard, 'corrupted' linguistic expression is hard to accept in written use, nor can it be thought of as a subject of serious study. This thoroughly negative view is, with good reason, sharply refuted by the well-known western-trained Saudi anthropologist Saad Sowayan as "ahistorical, unscientific, politically motivated, and elitist." "Nabati poetry and its language are natural developments of what went before." (Saad A. Sowayan, al-Sicr al-Nabati Dcfiqat al-sacb wasultat al-nass. London 2000; 7-25.) Albert Socin (Diwan aus Centralarabien I-III. Leipzig 1900-01; 111:46) was the first orientalist to propose that the nabati verse is "in many respects--contents, form, and language--direct continuation of the old Arabic poetry," or, as Holes formulates it, "the distant but recognisable descendant of the pre-Islamic tradition, which it eventually supplanted in the same geographical space. There is a shared set of genres, topoi, of artistic sensibilities, and, most striking of all, a shared vocabulary" (p. ix). Also in his earlier monograph, Nabati Poetry. The Oral Poetry of Arabia (Berkeley--Los Angeles--London 1985), Sowayan emphasises the uninterrupted historical continuity between classical and vernacular poetry (p. 167).

The poems included in the collection make frequent use of traditional poetic imagery. Animals, rain, coffee, fate, the bitter cup, and a world turned upside down are recurrent pictures of this kind. The poems often begin with traditional elements such as the imaginary rihla and the stereotypical nasib section. Used by the most skilled Bedouin poets, these are no simple imitations of traditional poetry, but they are examples of creative, innovative poetic spirit. Thus, instead of mounting a thoroughbred camel, the imagined deliverer of the poem may be traveling with a Toyota LandCruiser VX-R, and the Bedouin poet climbing to the top of a lonely hill may be George W. Bush, who reflects on his situation in west Texas.

The rhyme schemes of the poems published here follow the most common type of scansion used in the area. Except for al-Sbaylat's technically variable poems, all have alternating rhymes of the type ababab, which implies that every hemistich is rhymed. The only exception is a light-hearted poem (no. 5.10) in which only the second hemistiches are rhymed. As to the question about the metrics of the nabati poetry, Holes agrees with Saad A. Sowayan (Nabati Poetry. The Oral Poetry of Arabia. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1985; p. 154) in that the system of scansion is quantitative (p. 41), and exemplifies it with an analysis of 10 pairs of hemistiches. Since all the poems published here were recorded by Abu Athera from the recitations of the poets themselves (p. x), no other kind of performances than recital are discussed in the book. When poems are sung with the accompaniment of the rababa, the syllables here analysed as C may actually be realised as CV, which renders the quantitative metrical system more distinct. On the purely synchronic level, the question about the system of scansion is rather complicated, as illustrated by Bailey's accentual analysis (Bailey 1991: 381-390). In dialect areas in which the basic syllable structure is, to use Cantineau's terminology, "trochaic", the quantitative scansion works well, while in areas having "atrochaic" syllable structure, it is rather opaque (Heikki Palva, "Metrical problems of the contemporary Bedouin Qasida: A linguistic approach." Asian Folklore Studies, 52 [1993]: 75-92).

The language of the poems is commented upon in Language Notes (pp. 209-235). As to the phonology, it is interesting to note that g and k as a rule are not affricated, not even in the poems of the northern Jordanian poet, whose ancestors one hundred years ago probably used phonetically conditioned affrication in both. As noted by Holes, in these poems g is never affricated, whereas k is affricated in a few cases, i.e., haci, caddabah, and cidb. This is actually an interesting phenomenon, because all of them are here used derogatorily. In a dialect area which has traditionally lacked affrication, the stylistic k : c contrast is striking. Thus, in the dialect of the Bani 'Atiyye, in the surroundings of Tabuk, in the 1980s I often observed the markedly derogatory use of the affrication in the exclamations cidb! and calb!

The two Sinai poets do not use 3rd masc. pi. imperfect forms with a final -n, whereas all three Jordanian poets have both the traditional local form with -n and the sedentary -n-less form. In the poems of two Jordanian poets, the final -n analogously appears a few times in 3rd masc. pi. perfect forms: galon, wuslon, daggon, a phenomenon well known from H. H. Spoer & E. N. Haddad, "Poems by Nimr ibn Adwan", Zeitsthrift fur Semitistik 7 (1929): 274-294. The b(i)imperfect occurs occasionally in the two Sinai poets' work, while the 6-less form is dominant. The north Jordanian poet Ghassan alSbaylat--the least traditional among the poets--uses S-forms very frequently, and even the sedentary Syrian-type form cam occurs in his poems.

The 'internal' passive occurs occasionally in the poems, and Measure IV forms, productively used in Bedouin dialects, occur frequently. Also the Bedouin-type optional dialectal tanwin is used in a number of different positions, systematically listed on pp. 215-220. Other linguistic features discussed are, e.g., word order, vocabulary and phraseology, similes, periphrastic expressions, and vocabulary (types of camels, pedigree and qualities of camels, types of falcon, types of rain and rainbringing clouds, and words for different pastures, hills and mountains).

Since Bedouin poetry abounds in lexical items not found in commonly used dictionaries, the study is supplied with a useful 30page glossary with the most relevant references.

As far as I know, a collection of Bedouin poetry has never before been translated in verse. Now the texts are easily available not only to dialectologists of Arabic and speakers of Arabic not used to reading transcription, but to a third, important group of readers as well: those interested in Arabic poetry and the subject matter in question in particular. For them, too, the poems make highly enjoyable reading, thanks to the liberal, yet accurate English verse translations which admirably convey the sense and the spirit of the poems to the reader.

In this book the skills of a native expert on nabati poetry and a non-native expert on Arabic dialectology with an interest in translation issues have been combined in a happy way. The authors show convincingly that Bedouin poetry is not a dying art. Due to its innovative capacity, it even today plays an important social and political role. As with good reason stated by Roger Allen in the foreword, the result of this study of top quality is "an extremely important collection of popular Arabic poetry."

Heikki Palva

University of Helsinki
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