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Poems on the Sand

Some half a century ago, Paula Ben-Gurion, wife of Israel’s first Prime Minister looked over the hedge while pottering around her Tel Aviv garden and espied a young man. She invited him in and a chance encounter became a calling. The young man was Clinton Bailey, a Jewish American who had been raised in upstate New York and had come to Israel in search of his destiny. A teaching job at Ben Gurion’s kibbutz at Sde Boker in the Negev soon followed where Bailey came in close touch with the Bedouin of the desert, their ancient culture already fraying under the inexorable influence of the forces of modernism. For the next four decades and more, Bailey has studied the Bedouin of the Negev and the Sinai, lived with them months at a time, become their trusted friend and a devoted witness to the passing of a way of life that has survived in the desert since pre-Biblical times. By the time I met Bailey, he was acknowledged as the foremost expert on Bedouin history, culture, poetry and law. Many enriching encounters ensued, culminating in a day-long tour with him in the Negev desert, eating with the Bedouin from a common platter heaped with rice and chicken and drinking strong bitter coffee cooked over coals in a hole in the sand, never mind that many of the tents were now of cement sheets and ramshackle cars jostled with camels in the compound.

One would presume that an unlettered nomadic culture that devoted its energies to sheer survival in the inhospitable desert would not lend itself naturally to the fine art of poetry. Bailey's monumental work Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev turns this perception on its head and shows that survival is not only economic but also social, spiritual, psychological and aesthetic. Poetry was for the Bedouin a counter to the stark harshness of the desert: it served as an expression of emotion as well as a practical way of passing a message, easier to remember since it was in rhyme. It was also a vehicle for celebrating traditional Bedouin traits — extreme generosity, hospitality, bravery and honour.

Over two decades, from 1967 to 1988, Bailey recorded 700 Bedouin poems recited around desert campfires. Some of these would be recited by the poet himself (known as shair in Arabic, as in Urdu); others would be those written by revered poets from earlier generations and committed to memory by reciters and travellers, a practice that ensured that a popular poem would travel huge distances from the deserts of Arabia to the Negev and Sinai, or into Iraq and Syria. The present book contains 113 of these poems, chosen primarily for their popularity among the Bedouin. Each poem has a little introductory essay explaining its context and myriad, enlightening footnotes that are testimony to Bailey's sincerity of commitment and academic discipline.

Divided into sections based on the basic motives of Bedouin poetry — emotion, communication, instruction and entertainment — the book also contains an exciting selection from the eight- year exchange of poems between Anez Abu Salim and other Bedouin. The free-spirited Anez, besides being the finest living poet in Sinai, was also a leading smuggler bringing income to hundreds of Bedouin and had been locked up by the Egyptians. His poems express his pessimism and despair in prison as well as his pain at finding out that two of his wives had proved to be unfaithful. He is informed of their indiscretions by another poet who writes:

Tell Anez that with relish they eat what he’s sown/ A harvest of darkened-eyed girls he’d once known.

In the end, Anez divorced all three wives, to avoid further calumny and wrote:

And, lest every Zed and Abed laugh at me,/ I've set my three non-bearing she-camels free.

Anez also wrote many other types of poems, including one to King Husein when he was not allowed to meet him by Mubarak ( Had the luck of Husein and myself so conspired/ A meeting of worthies would have transpired). And another, full of gentle flattery, to King Abdullah of Jordan in the hope of being presented a fine camel.

Say: O Sir, how you generously offer the glass,/Filled with tea that poets so commonly praise,

So strong that it leaves in the glass a stain;/Even after it’s washed black markings remain.

Then you pour fresh coffee over cardamom seeds:/Coffee that stains with henna-red beads.

And then when you bring your guests what to eat,/Goat-ghee flows through the rice and the meat.

Say: I want a young camel whose ride is a ‘high’:/Tawny, not whiteness that glares in the eye;

With a saddle and saddle-bags fitted just right,/And tassels that sway between his legs when in flight,

And a thigh-rest new, it’s thongs on his withers,/And reins stitched by hands dyed a henna-red hue.

If the king gave me only a pack camel-Fine!/But speedy young mares set me on fire.

The poems of instruction are enchanting too, hovering around the recurrent theme of hospitality: the host must be overtly available to his guests, light a fire immediately, roast the coffee beans right and then dispense coffee correctly. He needs a spacious tent, a wife of good breeding, enough goats for fresh meat and enough camels for milk. And for power, that would in turn help him make a good host, a Bedouin needs brave sons, a good rifle and a high reputation. An example of a poem on the making of coffee:

Roast me three handfuls, friend, one after one;/Let the beans in hot ghada-coals waft to the mart.

Take care that they neither be burnt nor undone;/While roasting don't let yourself dream, but be smart.

The cadence and beat of your grinding should stun,/Even out in the waste, weary travellers will start.

In a coffee-pot, tall by the fire, heap the grains;/Then the pot, like a crane, will go round with a tray.

The coffee, poured, will leave dark reddish stains,/Like the blood of a sheep, heart and lungs cut away.

But for the likes of Clinton Bailey, all this would be lost to us.


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