From Publishers Weekly
The oral poetry of Yemeni tribesmen would seem an easy subject for a long, placid bout of scholarly research, but a crisis erupted during Caton's fieldwork in North Yemen, where he lived from 1979 to 1981, when a youth in his village abducted two young girls from a neighboring tribe. The kidnapping sparked a brief intertribal war with nationwide repercussions. The Yemenis hashed out the dispute in oral poetry recitations, and the author found in his arcane dissertation topic the perfect window onto the harsh cultural codes and byzantine politics of this fascinating society. A Harvard anthropologist, Caton (Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology
) provides many poetry samples along with detailed exegeses of the policy implications of their florid metaphors. (Imagine Social Security reform debate conducted in sonnet and haiku.) But his larger theme is the difficulty and danger of understanding an alien culture—Caton himself was briefly imprisoned on suspicion of espionage. He ruminates on the feasibility of the anthropological project, but without the pose of scholarly detachment; he writes of his feelings for and relationships with the people around him. The result is a superb study of an Arab nation and an engrossing portrait of a stranger in a strange land. (Oct.)
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A Harvard anthropologist whose wanderlust and complex cultural identity suggest (and were perhaps inspired by) T. E. Lawrence, Caton has already written extensively on the prominence of poetry in Yemeni society, where chanted verse is an integral part of politics and intertribal dispute resolution. Caton's latest work engages the same subject matter in vivid firsthand context. As a graduate student researching oral poetry in a remote Yemeni village in 1979, Caton adopts local dress and chews khat with the locals out of respect for their culture as well as ethnographic legitimacy. But a dispute with a neighboring sheik, angry over the apparent kidnapping of his two young daughters, demonstrates both the strength and the limits of tribal generosity, and Caton is plunged into an anthropological spy thriller of sorts, surrounded by cultural mysteries and inexplicably imprisoned under suspicion of espionage. Despite such intrigues, Caton is not Indiana Jones, and this book's truly exciting focus is an intellectual one: poetry's power to mediate and explicate complex and perhaps intractable disputes. Strongly recommended for robust Middle East collections. Brendan DriscollCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved