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Edebiyat Vol. NS 4 , pp. 35-48
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© 1993 Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH
Printed in the United States

On Canonicity, Literacy, and
Middle Eastern Folk Narrative
Sabra J. Webber
The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA

The study of the shifting canonical parameters and concomitant changes in literary holdings of a particular literary tradition over time is a part of a larger inquiry into the institutions of literary study that define and redefine canon. Although we posit universal standards that all canonized works should meet ( cf. Smith, 1983), our focus on several of these literary institutions reveals quite clearly that the canonization process is time- and culture-bound, political and thus subvertable, and includes only a very small portion of the artistic production that would qualify (in "universal" terms) for canonization . In particular, literary candidates for canonization are technique-bound. The achievement of the ultimate measure of a canonized work - the power to speak complexly and deeply across cultures and over time - is allowed to only through very specific artistic means and media . Thus, only the works of a select number of members of any particular culture, those who have control of these techniques, media, and messages (or who have the ear of a member of the establishment with the power to moderate the parameters of the canonY are even considered candidates for canonization by canonizing institutions. My interest in this paper is to raise some questions about the relationships between the literary canon ("canon" in the narrow sense, videlicet the rules outlining a limited number of rhetorical strategies considered esthetically appropriate for the production of" great works" in any one time and place) and one Middle Eastern genre of the "excluded": oral folk narrative, a subset of what could be called anti- or extra-canonical literature . Through a discussion of folk narrative (whether sung poetry or prose) I want to make some preliminary observations about what the study of the borderland between folk and institutional or establishment (terms! prefer to "elite") literatures and the skirmishes that take place there can provide in terms of new perspectives on the creative process and its product, and on the politics of canonization itself. That folk literature is excluded from the institutional literary canon in the West as well as in the Middle East is quite clear. Smith (1983) and Bennet (1983), for example, unequivocally juxtapose texts of the canonized tradition to


Sabra Webber

what-else-is-out-there: "folk" or "popular" texts respectively . Folk literature is what is left over, either because it is produced by people outside the institutions of literary study, or in an excluded language (colloquial Arabic, to use an Arabworld example), or in the wrong medium (e.g., oral as opposed to written); 2 or, alternatively, it is excluded from "elite" institutions as being too structured (or not structured enough), too predictable or uncomplicated, or too tied to a particular set of historical circumstances. Some of these texts may be interesting, even important, but they are thought to be clearly inferior to institutionally canonized works .

But are they? Barbara Herrnstein Smith characterizes canonized literary works as those likely to be structurally complex and information-rich and thus answerable to multiple reconfigurations . Thus, they are more likely to enter into a relation with the emergent interests of various subjects and to be more readily adaptable to emergent conditions. Shortly thereafter she adds, "many folklore works . . . perform all the functions described above ·as characteristic of canonical works as such" (Smith, 1983: 30) . Indeed, as folklorists have urged for some time, folk literary forms have the same potential for multivoc~ic, indicative power as do establishment forms and, in this sense, they can be evaluated according to the same criteria as any institutional art work (although these criteria may not, in fact, be the most important to a particular folk group for a particular genre) . Measured by establishment standards, folk narrative has its own works that have "stood the test of time" and are worthy of canonization. Folkloric themes, plots, characters, even narrative genres have worked richly and complexly for people of diverse religious, social, ethnic, and linguistic affiliations over the centuries. Sometimes they have been incorporated into the institutional canon to become "classics" (e . g . , Gilgamesh, or portions of the Bible); sometimes they have continued to be marginalized (STrat Bani Hilal); and sometimes they have maintained a foot in each camp or in various camps (One Thousand and One Nights).

Institutional literature is produced within the context of older, institutionally approved texts. It is a response to older, canonized texts, either by imitating, attempting to transcend, or trying to overthrow them, at least as much as it is a response to, or comment upon, life circumstances or the human condition. Folk literature operates outside of this establishment (or "academic") system, though it serves similar rhetorical and esthetic functions both for folk within the establishment and among the disaffected. Folk narrative is the counterpart of institutional narrative . It is the anti-narrati1;1e, the anarchistic discourse that works with and against, but always outside of, the official stories that the establishment tells about itself. (This is so, I would suggest, even when members of the establishment are performing their own folk narratives for each other./ Public, formal, privileging of the canonized classical literature frees up extracanonicalliterature in interesting ways . As an informal, private, devalued folk form, its political and cultural power tends to be overlooked by all but the most

Canonicity, Literacy and Narrative


imaginative of those in power. (It is also, of course, generally in the best interests of the academy or establishment to see what cannot be controlled as inferior; cf. Ahmet Karamustafa on the Islamic antinomian dervish. Thus, drawing upon the overlooked or devalued media of any one time and place to make an anti-establishment point is also a rhetorical strategy. And, at every level of society, those who make talented use of the available esthetic media, both folk and institutional, for their own rhetorical purposes do have the means to power .

Folk literature is excluded not for reasons of inferiority vis-a-vis complexity, multivocality, or universality, but by definition. This is why it is not useful to ask whether folk literature should be separated from institutional or establishment, canonized literature. After all, once a folk narrative is ushered into the establishment canon, in a very real sense it is no longer either "folk" or "lore." As evocative of these two categories as it may still be, something else must take its place "out there."

Encounters, clashes, negotiations between folk and establishment literarure contribute to the dynamic tension necessary for cultural change and creativity. Both folk and establishment literature tend to profit from raids into the territory of the other, whether cross- or intraculturally. These forays provoke controversies leading to renewal, revitalization, a breaking down of canonical restraints on both sides, and an injection of fresh air into what would otherwise become stagnant.

In times when institutional literature has become too rigid or stagnant, folk literature, less controlled or controllable (or ignored, not considered "worth" controlling) can provide the locus of a culture's strength, vitality, renewability or processual unfolding. I would suggest, for example, that much of the "renewal" and innovation in Arabic literature in the twentieth century, which is usually attributed to inspiration by western literary models and themes, also comes from a reengagement and reappreciation by Arab authors of their own folk literary traditions - a reperception of Western literature through Middle Eastern folk literature and vice versa. The authors of novels like Children of Gebelawi by N ajTh Mal).fii~ "' short stories like The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid by al-Tayib $alil), and plays like Tree Climber by Tawfi'q al-l:lakTm, could draw upon the rich Middl~ Eastern folk traditions for both generic and thematic inspiration. Folk litera...

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