Arabian knights and days of sex and violence

The Arabian Epic
May 30, 1997

In his preface, Malcolm Lyons quotes the author of Ecclesiastes who felt "weariness of flesh" caused by excessive reading. Both writers would sympathise with any conscientious reviewer of this work. Arabic folk literature is a vast field, though no more interesting or extensive than, say, Punjabi poetry or Scottish ballads or Celtic minstrelsy. Lyons summarises and analyses a dozen folk cycles, the originals amounting to more than four million words. Students of ethnography and cultural studies would love to sample this material; nothing but a sense of duty could carry even a scholar through the entire terrain.

Only one of the 12 cycles selected is still performed orally. Ours is an age of cassette recordings and live television broadcasts. There are few itinerant open-air performers left now, even in traditional Muslim societies - apart from the religious actors in Shia passion plays, enacted mainly in Iran and Pakistan, recounting the sufferings of the House of Hussain. Such sacred lore is however outside the scope of Lyons's project.

The first volume introduces the task and assumes that "the Arabian epic" refers to a characteristically identifiable and repeatable literary achievement. In fact, like the Arabic Koran or the Greek New Testament, each epic is a soi-disant literary production.

Both the definite article and the adjective "Arabian" in the title are misleading. There are a dozen different epics with varied themes. And "Arabian" is a vague epithet that, like "western", can intend either a territory or an ideology. Lyons does not comment on his title. Few readers would know that Arabs originally lived mainly in the Arabian peninsula: roughly, the land now wrongly called Saudi Arabia. Other "Arab" lands, such as Egypt, Syria and Libya, were acquired as a result of the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. In their eastern expansion, by contrast, the Arabs failed to fully colonise the Persians and Indians: these peoples retained their languages and cultures while adopting a revised version of Arabic Islam. Ironically, virtually none of the events related in the selected epics takes place in the geographical region called the Arabian Peninsula.

Lyons laments the indifference to Arabian folk literature once the publication of The Arabian Nights had usurped all European fascination with things Oriental. But there are good reasons for this indifference. Take the story of Antar, the pre-Islamic poet-warrior, whose heroic cycle is processed here. We do not find Antar engaging. There is no tragedy, no contradiction, in his soul. It is all sex and violence until his dying day. Heroes are not saints; and Antar is not overly intelligent. Western Christianity has provided a natural habitat for the kind of literature where characters occasionally engage in moral self-scrutiny. A hero without the drive for self-knowledge is a bore, even a clown. We would prefer our heroes to fail worthily rather than succeed unworthily.

Europeans are not alone in their indifference to Arabic folk literature. Few Arab scholars would regard compositions in colloquial Arabic as having any literary status. This is partly due to the existence of the Koran, whose classical language is seen as the exclusive canon of literary taste. Literatures that "begin" with a masterpiece, as both Greek and Arabic do, cannot concede the worth of later merely colloquial productions. Moreover, in Arabic, the pioneering masterpiece is not seen as humanly produced.

Volume one contains insightful profiles of major and minor characters and describes various narrative settings. Lyons comments on the ambivalent notices of women and racial groups. Jews often appear as servile con-men and conspirators, "the vilest race", as one character puts it. But poison is mixed with praise: Jewish doctors are commended at the sultan's court.

Turks are said to be hard-hearted. Women are portrayed variously as stupid, fickle and faithless but always a source of delicious temptation to men. Lyons does not tell us whether such ambivalences occur in a given cycle or across the chosen set of 12.

In volume two, Lyons patiently sifts the narratives, identifying literary motifs in each part of each cycle. He lists the motifs in an exhaustive "narrative index" and indicates their location in each epic tale. There is also a compilation of other sources in world literature where parallel motifs occur. The findings are then presented in a "comparative index". The erudition and industry are outstanding.

Perhaps, from the publishing viewpoint, volumes one and two should have been combined. Volume three is the heart of the matter. Here, Lyons processes one printed recension of each narrative, except for the brief Qissat al-Zir (Zir's tale), of which two versions are offered.

Lyons describes the language of the selected texts as neither colloquial nor formal. He also notes instances of editorial interference. Printed texts were collated from cheaply produced editions. The oral performances, spiced with racy colloquialisms, would be edited to produce a text that was grammatically and ideologically acceptable to the literate elite who publish books. In publishing an epic, it is clearly no part of an editor's duty to decide what may or may not offend the public taste. In any event, Lyons has prepared his chosen audience, armed with a lexicon and a grammar, to secure an intelligent view of the originals.

Shabbir Akhtar was until recently teaching at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

The Arabian Epic: Vols 1-3: Heroic and Oral Story-Telling

Editor - Malcolm Lyons
ISBN - 0521 48354 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £125.00 (set)
Pages - 183; 489; 660

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