Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

Stonework Journal Home

Letters to the Editor

Stonework Staff

Submission Guidelines

Editorial Philosophy

Our Favorite Links

E-mail Stonework:

  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Friday, September 12, 2008

A House Into Which the Wind Blows

Oral Literature of the Al-Zawaideh Bedouin of Wadi Rum, Jordan

Collected and introduced by Caitlin Woolsey

The village of Dissa in the Wadi Rum desert of southern Jordan is breathtakingly beautiful, with towering mountains of jagged rock cut harshly by wind and sand and sloping dunes of radiantly pink and orange sand. Dissa is home almost exclusively to the Bedouin, the most direct descendents of the original nomadic peoples who populated Transjordan, and who still identify foremost by their tribal ancestry, followed by their Jordanian nationality. The harsh, isolated, desert-dwelling way of life is no longer prevalent, but despite the visible effects of modernization, including cell phones and a remarkable, pervasive commitment to university education for both boys and girls, the community retains many distinctive characteristics of their past nomadic life, such as raising goats and eating without utensils, seated on the floor around communal platters.

While modernization in Jordan is increasingly altering the desert life of the nomadic Bedouin, their rich oral tradition of stories, poems, and songs is one method by which they preserve remnants of their traditional culture. During a semester of study in the capital city of Amman, I arranged to spend two weeks living with the Al-Zawaideh tribe in Dissa, hoping to collect stories, songs, poems, and proverbs from their distinctly Jordanian-Bedouin oral tradition.

There has been virtually no discussion or documentation of the oral literature of the Bedouin peoples of Jordan. In light of this dearth, and with the dramatically shifting structures of Bedouin society due to modernization, I believe documentation is increasingly necessary, particularly since knowledge of the oral tradition lies increasingly with the older generations. Yet while children do not know these stories by heart, the way they may have in past generations, I found that oral literature’s variation, adaptability, and improvisational nature grant it longevity, for it can also be altered and modified to incorporate modern content, ideas, and language within the established framework of traditional Bedouin forms, narratives, and ideals. For example, the Al-Zawaideh told me of a local, blind poet who composed verses about a helicopter, which he clearly had never seen, as had few others in the area.

Indeed, the perpetuation of these stories, songs, and poems is contingent upon their resonance within a community of listeners. If the Al-Zawaideh family is any indication, however, even modernizing Bedouin are still connected to and take great pride in their oral roots. On my final night in Dissa, two adult brothers who had been instrumental in the transcription process told me my interest in their oral tradition had rekindled their own passion for these traditional stories, poems, and songs. They had exchanged stories among themselves even when I was out visiting other family members, and they had begun to document the works, with the intention of gradually compiling many stories, poems, and songs from various family members.

Oral literature remains within the collective memory because, despite the passage of time, the ideas are still meaningful, even when families like the Al-Zawaidehs are, in many ways, divorced from the traditional society out of which the works evolved. If the Al-Zawaidehs themselves actively seek to continue the oral tradition—telling and retelling for each other and their children—these stories, poems, and songs will indeed endure.

A House Into Which the Wind Blows[1]

If my heart were a stone, Song told by Malihah Al-Zawaideh

If I tell you the secrets of my heart, Poem composed and told by Salam Sabah Al-Zawaideh

The Honor of Al-Mahadi, Story told by Muhammad Al-Zawaideh

Bedouin Lullaby, Song told by Khadra Al-Zawaideh

The Poet’s Wager, Story told by Muhammad Al-Zawaideh

Song for the Wheat Harvest, Told by Khadra Al-Zawaideh

A Clever Man, A true story told by Salam Sabah Al-Zawaideh

Proverb told by Shata Al-Zawaideh

The Bedouin Girl and The Prince from Damascus, Story told by Ali Al-Zawaideh

Old woman who comes from the south, Song told by Najah Al-Zawaideh

In this mournful song, the female protagonist describes the surrounding mountain both literally and metaphorically, for the language also seems to articulate her own sense of loss, absence, and loneliness. The metaphor of the young woman’s heart as a stone not only expresses her fervent wish to be with her family immediately—as swiftly and effortlessly as one would toss a stone--but also conveys the sadness she experiences from their separation. The tree and woods at the top of the mountain may represent her loneliness and isolation or, conversely, they could reference her family as that which is desirable and yet distant and out of reach. The gazelle perhaps signifies the girl herself, for her happiness and contentment are dormant in the face of her longing. The hollow yet gentle sound of the rain seems to mimic her inner sadness, and just as rainfall, though expected, comes only seldom, so the speaker longs for her family in the face of a separation which is manifest and inescapable. The final line of the song expresses a very different sentiment and tone, and is spoken by the removed, objective voice of the singer rather than the girl. Along with the two love poems, this song stands as the work with the most heightened description, imagery, and emotion of all the pieces I documented.

If my heart were a stone

Song told by Malihah Al-Zawaideh[2]

Oh my family, I miss you

If my heart were a stone it would drop down to meet you

Oh you tree on top of the mountain

The gazelle is sleeping in the hot hours of the day, the sound of the rain knocks against

the trees

Oh woods on the top of the mountain

She is very beautiful, all the men track her steps like wolves following the goats

Many although not all of the works I documented were recited by elderly members of the family, but eighty-five year old Salam Sabah Al-Zawaideh, said to have been one of the first to settle in the area and a local authority on all matters, was the stalwart authority. After reciting his poem If I tell you the secrets of my heart, Salam communicated through gestures that since his last wife died three years ago, he had not recited anything until my arrival, but was beginning to share his poems and stories again.

The heightened, classical language of Salam Al-Zawaideh’s love poem participates in a canon of descriptive idiom. For example, the metaphor of the lover as a strong, noble animal is a familiar device, and “my saliva is dry and sour” is a common phrase that suggests the speaker’s anxiety that his lover will reject him. Yet despite these archetypal features and the disciplined rhyming pattern at the ends of both columns, the poem is infused with moving, vivid poetic imagery, such as the poet’s comparison of the violent abandon of passion with the tumultuous sea—a particularly powerful comparison, given the desert landscape the Bedouin call home.[3]

If I tell you the secrets of my heart

Poem composed and told by Salam Sabah Al-Zawaideh[4]

Salam speaks these words from a heart / which is as turbulent as the sea when it is rough

Because I have many things tossing inside my heart / my hair[5] is becoming grey

I am striving to find the way to reach this girl / who bewitched me with her eyes

It’s as if she kills me with a knife / and shoots me with a gun

Shattering my bones / so that I can no longer stand

My saliva is dry[6] and sour / and my lips are chapped

If I tell you the secrets of my heart / maybe you will see everything written on my face

I love the young girl / with small breasts

She is like a roan mare / who runs at the front of the herd

No one is like the girl that I love / she is like the highest, brightest stars[7]

The communal impact and repercussions of honor become apparent in the story of Al-Mahadi, wherein the neighbor’s son's decision to go against standards of proper conduct not only reflects poorly upon him, but also threatens the girl's honor, and, subsequently, her marriagability, as well as the good standing of both families. This associative quality of honor and dishonor in Bedouin society is yet another explanation for the relative lack of explicitly emotional or personal works. To expose one’s feelings or opinions openly before the tribe is to be vulnerable. If these sentiments do not align with societal expectations, the speaker risks bringing dishonor upon him or herself and the family as a whole. In the story of Al-Mahadi, however, the son’s guilt is redeemed by the respect the son’s father pays to the wronged Al-Mahadi. By disowning his son, the neighbor honors Al-Mahadi above his own familial bonds. Al-Mahadi then exhibits even greater respect for the neighbor by allowing the boy to marry his daughter, essentially obliterating his dishonorable deeds. Overcome with gratitude by this tribute, the neighbor commemorates the patience, respect, and honor of Al-Mahadi in a poem. Indeed, Al-Mahadi’s honor, as it is represented in his interactions with his neighbor, defines him as a person. The integral role of honor—the performance of honor in daily life, decisions, and interactions with others and its manifest presence in ones’ control of oneself in accordance with societal principles—is demonstrated in this story more clearly than any other in this collection.

The Honor of Al-Mahadi

Story told by Muhammad Al-Zawaideh[8]

The Bedouin move from place to place, following the water and the grass. At one time, there were two families who had a strong relationship between each other. The Bedouin hold a great respect for these affiliations--especially between neighbors.[9] One family was called Al-Mahadi; the father of this family had three daughter, and his neighbor had three boys.

One of the girls was very beautiful, and one of the neighbor's boys loved her and tried to win her love. He wanted to take the chance to love her, even if it was not customary or proper. The girl told her mother of his intentions, not wanting her family to be shamed, and the mother told Al-Mahadi. Al-Mahadi understood the nature of the situation, so he visited his neighbor to play sejah.[10] Al-Mahadi told his neighbor, "Move, or I will move."[11] The neighbor understood that something bad had happened, although he didn't know what. He decided to move his tents and herds, and they left in the middle of the night. Al-Mahadi did not know that they had left until the next morning.

When the neighbor reached a new settling ground, he called each of his sons to him individually, asking them, "What happened to cause a problem with my neighbor? Be honest." The son who loved Al-Mahadi's daughter admitted his error, saying, "Oh my father, I had a relationship with one of the girls." When his father heard this, he angrily declared, "I am not your father anymore; you are no longer my son. You have brought our heads down low.[12] You may not live here anymore. Leave now." So the son fled.

Al-Mahadi heard news that the neighbor had forced his son into exile, and Al-Mahadi recognized that this was a sign of respect to Al-Mahadi. Because the neighbor valued his honor and their relationship so highly, and because the boy and girl were in love, Al-Mahadi decided to give his daughter to the neighbor's soon in marriage. This gesture demonstrated even greater respect to his neighbor, who had the honor to respect Al-Mahadi first. In recognition of this noble gesture, the neighbor sang a poem praising Al-Mahadi's honor:

I have had patience, but Al-Mahadi has even greater patience than I, for he saved

my son from many years of guilt

When he saw that his neighbor had an improper relationship with his girls, he

instructed his women not to talk about it amongst themselves[13]

If the rain water streams down from the hills into the valley, you will have this

richness, and we will not.[14]

You have the water for you and not for us[15]

After the rain, the flats are covered with grass, and your camels can stay and

graze, no one will capture them,[16] because you are strong as a sheikh[17]

Everyone knows that you are like a noble sheikh, you have an excellent

reputation, and our families will have many years together

While often manifested in behavior such as bravery in battle, the Bedouin notion of honor is sometimes symbolized by other objects such as the camel. In this song sung by mothers to put their children to sleep, the seven camels signify the mother’s desire to protect, honor, and provide for her child.

Bedouin Lullaby

Song told by Khadra Al-Zawaideh[18]

Ya, ya, seven camels we corral like a caravan for him

Those people who wish bad things upon my child, may these bad wishes go back to


The symbolism of coffee and its role in the performance of hospitality is another common thread throughout the Al-Zawaideh’s oral literature.

The Poet’s Wager

Story told by Muhammad Al-Zawaideh[20]

Bedouin poems always begin by describing the beauty of camels, the desert, and nature. Yet one time, a Bedouin man dared his friend to write a poem that did not describe any of these typical topics. He challenged the poet to write a poem just about coffee.[21] The man of the house had a beautiful sister who lived with him in his bait-sha9ar.[22] "If you succeed," the man of the house announced, "I will give you my sister in marriage." In love with the sister, the poet agreed to the challenge:

Please pour the coffee three times for each guest and be generous

When you roast the beans on the fire, do it slowly, but do not let them burn, and

everyone nearby will smell this delicious scent

Then you must place the beans in the nigir[23] and grind it; all people love this

sound of the pestle pounding the beans

The dalih[24] is white as a mushroom, and when one pours coffee from it, the

stream of liquid from the spout looks like the curve of a smile

The coffee should be a color between brown and red, like blood flowing from a


The man of the house realized that the poet was very clever and would surely win the bet. So he summoned his sister and asked her to dress in her most beautiful clothing and then come before them. The man of the house hoped that the poet would be so dazzled by the girl’s beauty that he would not be able to concentrate and would allow his composition to wander from the topic of coffee. When the poet saw the sister, he was filled with love for her, but he continued to recite his poem:

I miss my lover, and I wish that I could drink coffee with her at this moment When we sit together, it’s as sweet as picking a rose from the bush

The man of the house accused the poet, saying, “You are not abiding by the rules of the challenge. You are describing a lover.” Yet the man of the house recognized that the poet truly loved the girl, so in the end, he gave his sister to the poet in marriage.

This song for the wheat harvest demonstrates a progression of different sentiments regarding romantic love and honor. The speaker utilizes the power of romantic love to incite the workers, but also references traditional conceptions of honor by comparing the threshers to soldiers who must “conquer” the crops and the scythe to a powerful sword. Desire can be a temptation which ultimately leads to dishonor, yet love can also serve as an incitement for action.

Song for the Wheat Harvest

Told by Khadra Al-Zawaideh[25]

Collect the crops, don’t be concerned that the stalks are tall

Thrush many bundles, remember that you are gathering these crops for the sweet girls

We are the enemy of the crops and we will conquer them

My scythe is excellent, it shines when I clean it, its name is Abu Ruza,[26] I brought it from


The stalks are very tall

We must lift up our feet and work hard

This pretty girl is for the shepherd, not for you, so just focus on your work

While the Al-Zawaidehs’ stories touch on diverse issues, including courage, morality, familial loyalty, and romantic love, all are permeated by a core sense of personal, familial, and tribal honor. The perpetuation of societal expectations and ideals, such as this dominant conception of honor, re-enforces cultural practices and principles, even as the rich content and function of oral literature not only enriches the creative imagination, but also provides an accepted mode of expression within the confines of often rigid social standards.

Generosity is an emblematic signal of an individual’s honor. Even if the guest is an enemy, the host is required to provide food and shelter without question. If a poor man does not have food to offer his guests, he is allowed by custom to take the necessary amount of food from a neighbor without having to repay this debt, so that he might be able to enact this ritual role as host.

A Clever Man

A true story told by Salam Sabah Al-Zawaideh[27]

A rich Bedouin man had many goats and camels, but his fortunes turned and he lost all his herds. Everyone left him except his wife. They continued to live in the desert, completely destitute. All the people of the tribe knew of their poverty, so they went to visit the poor man and his wife. They left their camels far away, though, and approached the bait-sha9ar[28] on foot, for they didn’t want the man to see their camels and take them.[29] Yet the man noticed that the guests’ dish dashs[30] were loose, so he realized that they must have ridden camels.[31] The man followed their footprints in the sand back to where they had left their camels at a distance. He took one of the camels, killed it in the traditional way,[32] and served it to them. The guests realized that the man had killed one of their own camels, and they recognized the error of their behavior, so they gave him a number of goats. Therefore, the next time he received guests, he would be able to exercise the full extent of traditional Bedouin hospitality.

In this proverb, the import of honor is insinuated through the distinction drawn between a brave man—represented by the proud power of the falcon—and the coward—symbolized by the owl’s elusive timidity.

Proverb told by Shata Al-Zawaideh[33]

The falcon always soars in the sky

While the owl always darts in the burrows

Repeated recitations of oral literature are often part of the composition process itself, for while brief verses as well as extensive epics are sometimes memorized exactly, the definitive, unchanging, memorized work is much less common than the rich variation that typically arises over time from adaptation, improvisation, and subtle as well as dramatic changes. This story is one example of a conventional tale that has changed over time even as it retains a recognizable core narrative.

The tale presents an unusually frank expression of romantic love between man and woman. Love in Bedouin oral literature is rarely an articulated desire and emotion, in part because of the severe repercussions that confront romance that exists outside the permissible bounds of Bedouin culture, as seen in the story of Al-Mahadi. More commonly, love is expressed indirectly; within stories, songs, and poems, love tends to be a symbolic token, a temptation that threatens honor or a trial through which the male protagonist emerges victorious.

The Bedouin Girl and The Prince from Damascus

Story told by Ali Al-Zawaideh[34]

A young prince from Damascus[35] was traveling in the desert when he caught sight of a very beautiful Bedouin girl and fell in love with her. The prince asked her father for her hand in marriage, and the girl’s father agreed, so the prince took her back to Damascus with him. They lived in a magnificent palace, and he gave her fine clothing and expensive jewelry. By and by, though, he was walking outside the palace when he heard the girl singing to herself:

A house, into which the winds blow / is better to me than a fancy palace

And the packs of dogs barking on the road / are better to me than a sweet, tame


And wearing an aabaya[36] and sleeping well / is better to me than wearing fine


And eating a single piece of bread / is better to me than eating an entire loaf

The prince realized that the girl was not truly happy with her life in Damascus. He loved her and wanted her to be happy, so he took her back to her father in the desert. The prince gifted her with more fine clothing, camels, and other wealth, and they parted ways peaceably. The Bedouin girl returned to her previous life in the desert and the prince to his life in the palace because he loved her enough to let her go.

Women almost exclusively shared songs and proverbs with me, whereas the men recited stories and poems. Many of these songs relate to women’s domestic duties, and the songs intended for celebrations, such as circumcisions and weddings, would primarily be heard by other women, given the traditional gender segregation that occurs at these events. I noted a clear distinction between the nature and style of the works I received from women and those from men. This is also reflected in the attitudes of the Al-Zawaideh themselves, for the men tended to dismiss the value of these songs. This piece is a common lullaby that women sing as they comb their children’s hair.

Old woman who comes from the south

Song told by Najah Al-Zawaideh[37]

Old woman who comes from the south—

She will solve the problems tangled in my daughter’s hair

Old woman who comes from the north—

She will solve the problems tangled in my son’s hair

[1] I am extremely grateful for the remarkable hospitality, generosity, and openness of the Al-Zawaideh tribe, which was in itself the first gift, before I even heard the first songs, stories, and poems. While I assisted with the translation of each of these pieces, I am also grateful to Rima Akermawi, for her additional translation assistance.

[2] Transcribed and translated by Najah Al-Zawaideh

[3] Although Wadi Rum’s proximity to Aqaba does allow for some first-hand experience.

[4] Transcribed by Salam Sabah Al-Zawaideh, translated by Harb Al-Zawaideh

[5] Sideburns

[6] Implies fear

[7] In the original Arabic, the words at the ends of both columns of lines rhyme

[8] Transcribed by Najah Al-Zawaideh, translated by Harb Al-Zawaideh

[9] There is a Bedouin saying that "Neighbors are still neighbors even when they fight."

[10] A traditional Bedouin game, similar to chess and mancala, wherein two players move pieces (usually stones, olives, or camel droppings) among forty-nine holes in the "board" drawn in the sand.

[11] Refers both to the turn-taking of the game, and also subtly implies that something has happened and therefore the neighbor must move his tents elsewhere, or Al-Mahadi himself will move.

[12] Brought shame on the family

[13] By preventing gossiping among his household, and thereby striving not to make a big issue out of the problem, Al-Mahadi is honoring his neighbor

[14] Meaning that Al-Mahadi has great patience and has shown the utmost sensitivity and respect to the neighbor

[15] Meaning that Al-Mahadi is in every way a braver, more noble man that the neighbor himself

[16] Which sometimes occurred among different Bedouin tribes

[17] Typical name for Bedouin tribal leader

[18] Transcribed by Najah Al-Zawaideh, translated by Harb Al-Zawaideh

[19] In an interesting parallel, Rima Akermawi noted that a similar lullaby is sung by women in the area of Amman, the capitol of Jordan, with the reference to camels substituted with a reference to "butter and honey"

[20] Transcribed and translated by Najah Al-Zawaideh

[21] Coffee plays a significant symbolic role in a host’s reception of guests and at weddings and parties. Further, when two men have a disagreement, they drink coffee together when they have reached a resolution, honoring the agreement.

[22] Arabic name for the traditional tent in which the Bedouin live

[23] Traditional Arabic mortar and pestle used to grind the coffee beans; the rhythmic sounds of the grinding also have traditional significance, and the skill of the grinder to produce a musicality of sounds is regarded as a signifier of a strong and noble man.

[24] Traditional Arabic coffee pot

[25] Transcribed by Najah Al-Zawaideh, translated by Harb Al-Zawaideh

[26] Means “shining, sparkling”

[27] Transcribed and translated by Najah Al-Zawaideh

[28] Arabic name for the traditional tent in which the Bedouin live

[29] Generosity is so important in Bedouin culture that social etiquette dictates that if guests arrive to a man’s home, and he has no food to offer them, he may take just enough from his neighbor—usually one or two goatsto provide a meal for his guests.

[30] Traditional long, loose tunic worn by Bedouin men, usually white or grey

[31] The dish dashs would be loose so that they could ride astride

[32] A knife drawn swiftly across the throat

[33] Transcribed by Aislam Al-Zawaideh, translated by Harb Al-Zawaideh and Rima Akermawi

[34] A well-known, traditional Bedouin story. Transcribed by Najah Al-Zawaideh, translated by Ali Al-Zawaideh and Rima Akermawi

[35] In present-day Syria

[36] Traditional long, loose dress, typically black, worn by Bedouin women

[37] Transcribed and translated by Najah Al-Zawaideh