LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE Arab Folklore: A Handbook, by Dwight F. Reynolds. Westport, CT and London, UK: Greenwood Press, 2007. xiv + 226 pages. Gloss. to p. 232. Bibl. to p. 241. Web resources to p. 245. Index to p. 258. $55.
Reviewed by Laura Rice
Arab Folklore follows the same format as other recent Greenwood Handbooks, giving a brief introduction to the culture covered in the study, a discussion of the definitions and classifications that apply, a series of examples and texts as illustrations, a historical explanation of the scholarship on and approaches to the topic, and a brief overview of various contexts in which the folklore occurs. Where Arab Folklore differs from many other handbooks is in the extraordinary geographical, historical, and generic sweep Dwight Reynolds has orchestrated in writing this guide to Arab folklore covering some 20 countries and multiple regional folk cultures.
To manage a task of this size in a limited space, Reynolds provides readers with a series of miniature case studies chosen to illustrate the major themes and genres of folklore studies and to highlight the importance of performance and context in Arab folklore. Reynolds defines folklore as "all of the many different ways we express who we are as members of a group" (p. 25) and describes the group he is covering, Arabs, as including "anyone whose mother tongue is the Arabic language and who identifies with Arabic culture" (p. 1). He suggests that one way we might conceptualize and define folklore is to think of it as "the multitude of artistic forms of communication that we learn directly from other people and then perform and transmit repeatedly over time" (p. 26). Given that many of the categories used to describe the objects of folklore have been imposed from outside the indigenous cultures, Reynolds also draws our attention to the differences in interpretation that arise from etic (outsider) and emic (insider) understandings of the same folk objects, customs, and performances.
The greater part of the handbook is devoted to the examples and texts Reynolds marshals to give readers concrete examples of Arab folklore from across the region. He has divided these examples into four broad categories: verbal arts (oral poetry, folk tales, epic poetry, proverbs, riddles, classic comparisons, jokes, etc.); musical arts (folk songs, musical instruments, dances); material arts (vernacular architecture, dress and jewelry, folk painting and crafts); and customs and traditions (weddings, birth rituals, games, festivals, pilgrimages, folk medicine, fortune-telling, beliefs about the supernatural, popular entertainments, etc. …