In the kingdom of desert chivalry
The daughter of Ibn DlāꜤah was married to DirꜤān in ꜤRēꜤir, a man of noble birth and a tribal chief known for his generosity. He possessed every chivalrous quality. When God willed that he make up his mind to divorce her, he first tested her with a verse of poetry,
"Listen lady, torch of light in the darkness of late night:
Is there still reason for me to hope or do I fold up in despair?"
She was not stupid, she knew at once that he was planning to divorce her. She replied,
"I'd rather have someone else as husband, you cheat!
My word, after this I am surely folding up in despair.
My old father has accomplished all the manly feats,
For his passion in life is chivalry and glory.
The entry to his shady palm garden is never closed,
Nor is there a guard to keep out the poor at harvest time.
My kinsmen, dear fellow, inspire awe with their roars,
When battle us joined and horsemen fight their duels." (p. 324/325-326/327)
Certainly, this is not how most people imagine a taqlidi (traditional-style) divorce in Saudi Arabia; but this is the sort of things I read while I'm at Leiden University, musing, at the same time, on the essence of the literary as it emerges from my global surveys. Poetry is to be read in a comfortable armchair, in the protective circle of light from a lamp with a special warm-colored LED bulb; it serves to make world even more cozy; this is what we, the Western people, believe. Other, non-Western people still use it to negotiate life transitions, to cover the crudeness of reality. Perhaps it is still about feeling cozy in the world, after all.
The situation is very common, and universal to be sure. He wants to divorce, perhaps feeling rejected and deprived of his wife's affection, but he doesn't know how to tell this; her heart, as he still believes, might be cruelly broken. But it is not the case. The lady is only too keen to see herself free from her husband, and she doesn't mind to come back to her daddy's home; what is more, she feels positive enough about hiding behind the backs of her brothers and cousins, should any further problem arise. Under the circumstance, they speak in verse to each other, perhaps precisely in order to avoid such a violent confrontation, involving kith and kin on both sides. Anger and resentment are channeled through cultured schemes, and the divorce is as civilized as it might possibly be. The case is remembered and transmitted as a sort of model procedure in similar situations in the future, "a body of instruction, the verbal legacy bequeathed by the ancestors through this generation's transmitters to the future standard-bearers of the tribe's identity" (p. 8). This is where a Western scholar gathers it to put in his extensive anthology encompassing several heavy volumes. But originally, those things are not to be found on book shelves; they are stored in human memory for immediate, incisive use when needed. This is how poetic word saves blood and bruises.
This fourth volume of the Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia is dedicated to the collective patrimony of the tribal confederation, contrary to the former parts, focusing individual poets, such as ad-Dindān and Ibn Batla. This collective authorship is placed under the sign of the minor, even marginal, in more than one way. The researcher mentions in the introduction the general social and historical context in which tribalism, and Bedouin way of life in particular, becomes progressively stigmatized. Especially for those who were unwilling to move into the hujar, the villages created by the Wahhābis. "In this era" - he says - "the word Bedouin became a synonym for heathenish ignorance (...), unruliness, lackadaisical opportunism, rapacity, unreliability, and general uselessness. To be a Bedouin became something to be ashamed for and implied a stigma of despicable backwardness" (p. 13).
Kurpershoek spent patient years gathering this sort of minor dialectal poetry and local anecdotes that form the extensive treasury of Central Arabian memory. At the very beginning of his volume, he put photographs of his informants, bearded old men in traditional dress, some of them still barefoot. This is fully a philological work, with informative introduction, rigorous transcripts of researcher's tapes, English translations, glossary and tribal structure explained in the appendix; other, less rigorous works, such as travelogues in Dutch, make sense of his adventure (I still need to read those earlier writings, Diep in Arabië, first published in 1992, and De laatste Bedoeïen, 1995), as he gives a continuity to the classical European works on Arabia, such as Alois Musil's The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins (1928).
The Dawāsir, squeezed between the Red Sea and the Jabal Towaiq, inhabit a rather remote corner of Arabia; the choice of this tribe in particular fits the ethnological preference of the European acholar; other tribes might have equal or greater literary achievements, but in such a place in the middle of nowhere traditions are supposed to be found unspoiled and kept in a convenient state of immaculate purity; which is of course only relative in a quickly modernizing country. Even if, as he mentions in the introduction, it was precisely in that remote region that at least some people would be most unwilling to have any dealings whatsoever with an unbeliever: After a while I came to accept as normal practice that children who opened the gate when I arrived would announce to the household that the kāfir was at the door. When their fathers had gone to pray in the mosque the same children would graphically depict to me the torments that were awaiting me in Hell, They would - kindly - offer to fetch some red-hot embers from the kitchen and put them under the soles of my feet so as to give me a foretaste of what was in store for me if I continued to cling stubbornly to my refusal to see the Truth (p. 18).
He must have had an acute sense of recording things just as they disappear; he mentions the transition from a predominantly oral to a literate culture, as well as old age and death of the last depositors of the former: Indeed, at the moment of this writing in 2000 almost all of the older informants, who were generally considered the last generation to have memorized these poems through the chain of oral transmission and whose words now appear in print, are no longer there to repeat them (p. 100-101). In 1989, when he came to Wādi ad-Dawāsir for the first time, Arabia must have been quite a different reality; I have myself noticed the profundity of the change across the thirteen years that I am familiar with this country. At the same time, I would say that such a sort of traditional literature as studied here gained a new lease of life with Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and similar channels of communication, circulating from one mobile phone to another inside and across the traditional tribal frontiers that the literary ethnologist would be inclined to respect.
Also, I'm not entirely sure if those old men for whom Kurpershoek went all the way down to the last backwaters of Arabia were in fact the last ones to memorize these poems. Perhaps the last ones, if we persist in accentuating the exclusivity of oral transmission. But Arabs have always had a written culture; it always coexisted with oral transmission; the cultural changes a researcher belonging to our generation might have observed are nothing, compared to the millennia of Arab poetry; if we remember only a fraction of whatever had been created, it is to make place for new poets and their inventions "patching the old cloak" (the metaphor, as I've heard, was coined by Antara Ibn Shaddad, at the very beginning of Arabian poetry, as it seems to us, but quite the contrary, if we consider his perspective), to be kept again through a number of generations. As it happens everywhere in nature, also cultural death and disintegration is a condition of rebirth. This is why the philological minutiae of his work clash against the very nature of this poetry that was and is essentially a flux. How anachronistic do we sometimes manage to be, applying our Leidener academic rigor to the Bedouins of Arabia!
P. Marcel Kurpershoek, Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia, vol. IV, A Saudi Tribal History. Honour and Faith in the Traditions of the Dawāsir, Leiden - Boston - Koln, Brill, 2002.
Friendships of the Desert