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Book Reviews : Soaring Songs From Women of the East

December 18, 1985|HOWARD KAPLAN | Kaplan, the author of "The Damascus Cover," teaches comparative Arabic and Israeli fiction at UCLA and is completing a new novel about the Middle East. and

Daughters of Yemen translated by Mishael Maswari Caspi (University of California: $25)

"Daughters of Yemen" offers the Western reader a wonderful glimpse into the poems recited by the Jewish women of this long-isolated community, now transplanted to Israel. These poems, actually songs, transcribed here with English translations opposite the original Arabic, represent the vibrant cultural heritage of women from a traditional Middle-Eastern society. Constrained by far more than their illiteracy, they burst their bonds in song. The daughters of Yemen do not merely sing--they soar.

The women sing at every occasion, from hoisting water from a well to preparing for their bridal bed, and they do not cloak their feelings. What is unexpected, and repeatedly fascinating, is the unveiled eroticism of so many of the songs. The strict segregation of the sexes in a traditional society allowed the women to sing without restraint, for they sang to other women, not to their men. At no time in semi-emancipated Eastern-European Jewish society do we have such unabashed confession of feeling.

Following the Cycles of Life

The songs are organized around the life cycle of their singers, opening with the hesitations, fears, joys and anticipations of the wedding songs and closing with the somber reflections of the death poems. Focused on everyday life, the poems mirror the cultural uniqueness of this society. Marriages were arranged (though they could be rejected) for these women between the ages of 10 and 14, to men between the ages of 18 and 20. Thus it is not surprising that some of the singers cry to remain in the home with laments such as, "O, mother, O, father, how could you have sold me?"

For me, however, it is in the raw pain of the poems of their husbands' adultery and the subsequent divorce that the songs transcend their cultural load and become songs applicable to all women. "Now my heart is a furnace, and the blacksmith spurs the fire," or "You have watered me with the venom of a serpent. You have deserted my heart and it can't see its way" are feelings felt universally.

I fault the book only for the laziness of the Notes on the Text, which are cursory. This fine compilation, whose references are often unfamiliar to Western readers, deserves far fuller exposition. But in the end it is the women's voices that matter, and they ring with moving clarity.

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