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Journal of American Folklore 117.464 (2004) 231-232
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There are three fundamental categories of person in Egypt: nomads, city dwellers, and peasants. A significant body of work exists on the shifting political economy, social organization, and poetics of the Bedouin, and much contemporary work is being done on urbanization, modernization and globalization, focusing on the urban middle class. By contrast, the peasant has received relatively short shrift, and much of the material that does exist is particularly weak in its analysis of symbolic and expressive culture.
It is to this lacuna that El-Aswad's book is directed. On the basis of ethnography in two peasant villages in the Nile delta, the author seeks to map out the "lived cosmology of rural Egyptians" (p. 6). By "cosmology," he means the "assumptions concerning the structure of the universe" (p. 2) teased out of the discourse of his informants. With careful attention to language, especially the multiple and overlapping semantic ranges of key words from the colloquial Arabic of the Delta, El-Aswad offers a detailed account of the logic through which his informants orient themselves in relation to visible and invisible realms, social, ecological and spiritual spaces, relations between the living and the dead, and in regard to this world and the next.
The book is organized as a series of interconnected structuralist and poststrucuralist analyses of the sort done so well by Bruce Lincoln and the early Pierre Bourdieu. The second chapter explores the village as a historical, social, and spiritual site. The third chapter explores the relations between seen and unseen worlds and the ways that these worlds penetrate and influence one another. Chapter 4 explores concepts of personhood and hierarchy, and chapter 5 describes some of the notions of exchange that pertain between all these different realms.
There are a number of fascinating revelations in this book. El-Aswad's discussion of the relationship of veiling to the larger issue of the seen and unseen makes profound sense. His explanation of the metaphoric connections between semen and yeast offer an explanation for the local appreciation of plump "doughy" women that is more compelling than the mere assertion that different societies have different "codes" of beauty.
The sixth chapter is perhaps the most important, drawing attention to the fact that the cosmology he describes is not so much a tradition being "impacted" by globalization as that the effects of globalization are being imagined through this cosmology as villagers encounter them. Peasants weave secularism and globalization into their cosmology and read the negative [End Page 231] effects of these phenomena as signs of a growing cosmological corruption perhaps heralding the end of days. That the cosmology itself is changing as a result of this rethinking and reweaving does not distress El-Aswad, who recognizes that cosmologies are not primordial entities but symbolic constructs that shift and change with people's needs to explain new phenomena.
For the folklorist, mythographer, or student of verbal art, the book's chief problem is El-Aswad's handling of his primary data. We are privy to a large number of stories, proverbs and histories, but rarely to the contexts of their performance. In the absence of clear explanations of who is telling which story to whom and toward what rhetorical ends, the cosmologic laid out by El-Aswad comes to us as a collective production of the "folk."
There follows from this approach an unfortunate tendency toward a naïve realism of style that allows the omniscient author to tell us what "the peasant" thinks. Describing and diagramming the cultural orientation of Egyptian peasants in two villages as abstracted from their discourse, El-Aswad tends to reify his own construct. A more nuanced approach would be welcome.
In spite of these faults, this is a great book for anyone interested in contemporary Egyptian culture. The descriptions are...