American Folklore Society
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  • Types of the Folktale in the Arab World: A Demographically Oriented Tale-Type Index
Types of the Folktale in the Arab World: A Demographically Oriented Tale-Type Index. By Hasan M. El-Shamy. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Pp. xxviii + 1255, bibliography, register of tale types, list of changed tale-type numbers, register of motifs, index of authors and sources, register of countries, tale-type subject index, addendum.)

As Hasan El-Shamy notes, the classification scheme of Aarne and Thompson’s tale-type index “is seldom adequate for identifying folk [End Page 118] narratives outside [its] relatively select corpus of European dominated data; nor is it always successful in relating Middle Eastern and Arab tales to the proper tale type” (p. xxvii). This shortcoming of Aarne and Thompson’s index has long been apparent to those who try to use it for regions, such as the Middle East, outside of the core area from which they selected their tales, and on that basis alone Hasan El-Shamy’s Types of the Folktale in the Arab World: A Demographically Oriented Tale-Type Index is a welcome addition to the available folktale indices.

El-Shamy’s index is not, however, solely an index of Arabic-language tales from the Middle East. It is rather, as the title suggests, a broader index to tales told in the Arab world. As he writes, the “Arab world has been characterized by its ‘mosaic’ demographic composition” (p. xvii), and a proper tale-type index must reflect that diversity. “An index that limits its scope of coverage to only Arabic texts would be incomplete,” he continues, and would not “be representative of the Arab world culture” (p. xvii). Numerous languages and cultural groups exist alongside the Arabic-speaking group, so El-Shamy has included tales from these peoples in his sample. This is one way in which this index is, as the subtitle indicates, demographically oriented. But its demographic orientation also shows in the material provided in the entries. El-Shamy gives careful attention to data about the tale tellers, indicating the gender, religion, and ethnicity of the tellers. Information about archived and published versions of the tales, as cally well as about literary or semiliterary forms, is also included.

One aspect of this index that users might find odd is that El-Shamy does not “provide a single pattern of action (plot), constituted of a certain set of episodes in a fixed sequence,” as does Aarne and Thompson’s index (p. xviii). El-Shamy rightly observes that “when considering dozens of variants of a narrative (tale-type) such a syntax is not always stable or uniform” (pp. xviii–xix). Without more research into the folk narrative of the Arab world, he suggests, it is premature to assign a characteristic syntax to the tales; “[c]onsequently, in this index, a tale-type title succinctly presents the core of action” (p. xix). Instead of a plot outline, El-Shamy gives what he calls a “motif spectrum” that lists the characteristic motifs of a particular tale type and also supplies cross-references to all tale types relevant to the one currently at hand. As he writes, “similar but independent tale-types frequently overlap and share certain motifs or episodes” (p. xviii). By approaching classification in this way, El-Shamy gives his index an openness often lacking in earlier indices and removes the problem of assigning to a tale a specific plot that may or may not be characteristic of the type as a whole.

El-Shamy has published a series of important works on Arab folk narrative in recent years. The first of these was his 1995 Folk Traditions of the Arab World: A Guide to Motif Classification (Indiana University Press); the second, his 1999 Tales Arab Women Tell (Indiana University Press). With Types of the Folktale in the Arab World, he adds yet another major work to the list of key books on Arab folk culture and narrative.

David Elton Gay
Indiana University