ARABIAN PENINSULA Oral Poetry & Narratives from Central Arabia: Voices from the Desert, Vol. 5, by P. Marcel Kurpershoek. Gloss. Indices. List of Recordings. Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston, MA: Brill, 2005. xxiv + 421 pages. $178.
Reviewed by Sebastian Maisel
Opus operisi After more than a decade of meticulous scholarly fieldwork, author and current Ambassador of the Netherlands to Turkey, P. Marcel Kurpershoek, provides us with the ultimate research tool to fully appreciate his narrative of oral poetry from an area that is mostly unknown to the commoner, the heartland of Arabia. For his fifth volume of this series, he put together a compendium of glossaries, indices, and lists of the recordings, which are finally now also available as MP3 files, thus enabling us to cross-reference previous volumes. This contextual framework alone includes a mountain of empiric data on various aspects of the present situation of the nomadic, semi-nomadic, and settled tribal groups of the area highlighting the transformation process and conflict between traditional and modernized lifestyles.
Like no other researcher in recent times, with the exception of Saad Sowayan,1 Kurpershoek dives into the hearts and minds of the population of Souüiern Najd to explore, understand, and preserve their tribal identity through the study of their oral traditions. In the previous four volumes,2 Kurpershoek intraduced poets, transmitters, and informants, most of whom have since passed away. Through detailed and precise compilation of their narratives, he points to the survival of tribal systems in a country that is struggling with the impact of modernization.
Kurpershoek's summary of the previous texts can be seen as a laudation to a significant, though often neglected element of greater Arabian society: the values or codes of tribal groups, which he describes correctly as being cohering with, rather than obstructing prevailing Islamic law. He uses the texts not to represent the whole of Saudi culture but to bring to light their (hitherto neglected) parallels with classical Arabic poetry and culture and the distinctive perspective they provide on the relationship of Arabian tribal society to the past. Under King 'Abdallah, we notice a larger appreciation for the desert code and its most formidable aspect, honor. …