More Proverbial Wisdom from Yemen

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 28/29 (1991):26

The folklore of Yemen is a rich lode which has been only sparsely mined. The southern part of the Arabian Peninsula is especially rich in the varieties of folk literature(poetry, proverbs, stories, songs) because these are still part of alive tradition. One of the benefits stemming from the long isolation of the region is that the folklore has been preserved and revived a sin no other country of the Middle East. Only a few foreign scholars have come to Yemen to study various aspects of the oral literature. The bulk of the documentation is coming from Yemeni scholars with numerous new books every year.

The proverb is an integral part of everyday speech in Yemeni society. Many proverbs have already been recorded, some of which share in the wider tradition of the Arab World and some of which are more or less universal. The largest volume published thus far is the major work of Qadi Isma'il al-Akwa' [See AIYS Newsletter, #18, pp.7-8 (1985)]. The most recent edition to the genre is an Arabic text edited by Shaykh Muhammad 'Uthman Thabital-Adimi, Al-Tharwa al-Yamaniya min al-amthal al-sha'biya[Yemeni Heritage from Traditional Proverbs]. This was published in 1989 by the author (no publisher indicated) in a nicely bound edition of 496 pages. The book was printed in Beirut, despite the ongoing war there. The proverbs are arranged in alphabetical order and numbered consecutively for each letter of the Arabic alphabet. The compiler provides notes on some of the more difficult terms and twists of meaning, although the details are not as elaborate as in the work of Qadi al-Akwa'.

The fun of reading through a book of proverbs is the range of subjects covered. Some of the examples have a distinct Yemeni flavor. For example, "The Marib dam was destroyed by a mouse" (sud Ma'rib akhrabuh fa'r ), a reference to the legend that this great architectural wonder of the ancient world was humbled by a small mouse. Many of the proverbs express common witticisms that easily translate. Thus, "The road to honor is full of thorns" (tariq al-'izz mushwiq). Or, "The owner of the house knows what's in it" (sahib al-bayt adra bi-ma fihi ). Or, "One hour like honey, another like an onion" (sa'a 'asalwa-sa'a basal ).

Many proverbs recorded in this volume (as in most published collections) refer to women, usually not in a flattering manner. Perhaps this is due to the fact most compliers tend to record proverbs from men. While women indeed have their own proverbs and retorts, the men who collect proverbs tend to be ignorant or to deliberately ignore these. Some sentiments cross the borders of the peninsula, such as "A woman's weapon is her tongue"(silah al-mar'at lisanuha ). Some are innocent yet poignent, such as "a weapon in the hand of an old woman" (silah bi-yar 'ajuz), i.e., in the hands of someone unable to use it.

One refreshing aspect about this particular volume is that the author is not reluctant to record examples of what might be called barnyard humor in another context. Thus, when you see someone fooling around with magic, you can say "The Devil pissed in his ear" (shakh Iblis fi udhunih ). Or, one that I want put to memory for the appropriate occasion: "In the donkey suqI don't worry if I hear a fart" (suq al-himar wa-la tubalibi-dartuh).

If you are looking for a quick and entertaining way to steep yourself in Yemeni culture, then start reading through this volume of proverbs. But act quickly, as it will probably disappear from the market before you know it.

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