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Veiled Sentiments: HONOR AND POETRY IN A BEDOUIN SOCIETY by Lila Abu-Lughod (University of California: $38; 317 pp., illustrated) : Arab Folk Epic and Identity by Bridget Connelly (University of California: $42; 328 pp.)

May 03, 1987|Howard Kaplan | Kaplan, who teaches comparative Arabic and Israeli literature at UCLA, is the author of "Bullets of Palestine," a novel about Abu Nidal and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to be published in August (Gold Eagle Books).

Both of these works, by women scholars of the Arab world, focus on the fascinating poetic forms of modern Egyptian Bedouin. Lila Abu-Lughod's "Veiled Sentiments," a case study of the Awlad 'Ali tribes of the desert that borders the Mediterranean and Libya, concentrates on the relationship between the rigid Bedouin code of honor and Bedouin poetry, in which sentiments in conflict with that code are released. Bridget Connelly's "Arab Folk Epic and Identity" is primarily an interpretive study of one Arab epic poem, the Sirat Bani Hilal: the saga of the adventures of the Hilali tribe from the early centuries of Islam to their migrations through North Africa in the 13th Century. Her work centers on this singular, important oral epic as still recited today, 800 years later, by the Bedouin of Upper (southern) Egypt.

Both women authors found difficulties pursuing their work in the male-dominated cultures they chose to study. Though Moslem, Abu-Lughod reluctantly had to allow her father to speak to the Haj, leader of a large extended Bedouin family, to arrange her living with the Awlad 'Ali tribe for nearly two years. Her father's introduction successfully dispelled the Bedouin belief that a woman alone must have so alienated her family, especially her male kin, that they no longer cared about her. Connelly notes that on several occasions on listening to performances of the Bani Hilal epic, the recitation was inferior because the Bedouin were certain that, as a woman and a foreigner, she could have no real understanding of their tradition. Both women scholars overcame prejudice against their sex to write significant and fascinating works.

The Bani Hilal story, orally fluid for nine centuries (though extant in printed editions), illustrates the vibrancy of Arabic folk history. Tradition has it that one must be able to recite the epic for 99 successive nights from dusk until dawn to be considered a poet, a stringent test and evidence of the tale's complexity. The epic preserves the Bedouin roots, and modernity has affected connection to those roots very little. The winds of change have blown over the once nomadic Awlad 'Ali Bedouin, who now live in pastel-painted concrete houses, but Abu-Lughod argues persuasively that the change is superficial. Rather than heralding the demise of Bedouin culture and society, adapting to modernity merely demonstrates the Bedouin openness to useful innovation and their capacity to absorb new elements into old structures.

Toyota pickup trucks today are status objects for the Awlad 'Ali, as horses were in the past. Still, the purchase of a new car occasions a sheep sacrifice and a trip to the holy man to procure a protective amulet to hang on the rearview mirror. Weddings may be celebrated with a loudspeaker system, the bride brought in a car, with her trousseau following in a pickup--yet, weddings are held on traditionally auspicious days of the week, celebrated with traditional song and poetry, and the defloration still takes place in the afternoon with the proof of virginity triumphantly displayed.

The Bedouin do not fear they are losing their identity because, as they see it, this identity is grounded not in nomadic wanderings and harsh desert existence but rather in the twin principles of social organization by family and the Bedouin code of morality.

Probably the critical element in the Bedouin network of morality is self-mastery. Bedouin honor demands no reaction to physical pain and stoic acceptance of emotional hurt. To weep is a sign of weakness, so men do not cry. Self-control is a paramount virtue in the political realm, and mediators are chosen, among other reasons, for their ability to refrain from anger. Honor is afforded by behavior; for example, a man is chastised by the community if he mopes over a woman. This is dishonorable, and his status diminishes.

Abu-Lughod studied the ghinnawa , the lyric poetry of personal life, and discovered how sentiments squashed by the code of honor are vented here. For the most part, individuals recite such poetry about their personal situations and closest relationships. People often sing or punctuate their conversations with short ghinnawas , little songs, like Japanese haiku in form but more like American blues in content and emotional tone.

Not surprisingly, the poems recited by the Awlad 'Ali men and women are radically different than the sentiments expressed about the same situations in ordinary conversation. This proud, honor-bound culture tends to meet difficulties in personal matters with angry defiance and demands for revenge. But in their lyric poems, the Awlad 'Ali wrench out their vulnerability, pain, loss.

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