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  • Arab Folklore: A Handbook
  • Dana Hercbergs
Arab Folklore: A Handbook. By Dwight F. Reynolds. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007. Pp. xiv + 258, preface, acknowledgments, glossary, bibliography, web sources, index.)

This timely volume by Arab folklore specialist Dwight Reynolds is an informative and accessible introductory text covering a thoughtfully selected array of traditions from across the Arab world, generously supplemented with photographs. The Handbook is as suitable for scholars and students wishing to become acquainted with salient examples of Arab folkloric expression as it is for specialists searching for references and comparative notes. It begins with a [End Page 345] brief introduction on the Arabs, the advent of Islam, the Arabic language and its unifying function in the Middle East, as well as colonial history and its aftermath. Followed by a brief "Definitions and Classifications" chapter, the bulk of the book is found in chapter 3's "Examples and Text," which is organized in four main sections: Verbal Arts, Musical Arts, Material Arts, and Customs and Traditions. Here, Reynolds presents selections from well-known contemporary ethnographic works that the reader can refer to for further study, including Lila Abu Lughod's Veiled Sentiments (University of California Press, 2000) and Steven C. Caton's Peaks of Yemen I Summon (University of California Press, 1993). The case studies provide breadth and variety, covering wide geographical ground. For instance, the Folk Narrative section includes research from Palestine, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt. The book provides an overview of the most notable traditions of Arab folklore and makes thoughtful comparison among their features, including styles of religious ritual, musical instruments, manners and greetings, and rural and urban poetry traditions.

Unlike some introductory folklore texts, but following the Greenwood format, Reynolds situates a "Scholarship and Approaches" section towards the end of the book in chapter 4, where the historical-geographic method, functionalism, performance studies, and other approaches are briefly described and related to the history of research on Arab folklore. The Handbook is short on definitions and long on examples, an approach that seems to serve the student well in this introductory text. In the poetry section, the author emphasizes an understanding of the genre as social practice rather than simply an art form. He summarizes where different poetic genres are performed, on what occasions, by whom, and how long they continue. Definitions are relatively straightforward, and the choice of genres included in the book is, we are told, based on what Arabs consider to be Arab folklore. Hence, more recent academic studies that bend the "traditional" rubric of folkloristic research and genres are omitted, and we are presented with the basics, as it were, of which there is nevertheless a great variety, including such minor genres as proverbs, lullabies, insults, jokes and forms of address, as well as traditions specific to parts of the Arab world such as pilgrimage paintings, Sufi ritual, henna, and perfuming. We are presented with an exciting, relevant and practical account of communicative expressions that are analyzed sensitively with a contemporary approach and fresh voice. The reader gains an impression of Arab folklore as a cadre of active expressions shaping people's communicative interaction in both ordinary and extraordinary situations.

The Handbook lends itself well to introductory and upper-level undergraduate folklore courses. The excerpted ethnographic works could be assigned as complementary readings to the Handbook or chosen for an in-depth study for a course. Reynolds inserts helpful comparisons between Arab folk traditions and ones more familiar to North American students. Going back to the poetry example, the author juxtaposes Western students' understanding of poetry as a marginal or "effete artistry" with its centrality in the Arab heritage, providing examples of the multiple functions of poetry in a pre-literate society (oral history, proverbial wisdom, expression of hidden emotion) that have shaped its status as a genre of truth. Reynolds then refers to the oral formulaic theory to demonstrate the success with which Arabic poetry is memorized and performed, exemplifying the meter and rhyme of classical Arabic poetry by comparing it to the limerick (p. 30). He also illustrates the transformation of oral poetry to written form by drawing a parallel to well-known works of Western literature...


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