Like Joseph in Beauty: Yemeni Vernacular Poetry and Arab-Jewish Symbiosis. By MARK S. WAGNER. Brill Studies in Middle Eastern Literatures, vol. 33. Leiden: BRILL, 2009. Pp. xv + 354. $175.
In the introduction to his fine anthology of Hebrew Yemeni poetry, Yehuda Ratzaby (1916-2009) argues that "for national and religious grounds there was no cultural contact between the two peoples [Jews and Muslims in Yemen, EN]" (Shirat teman ha-'ivrit, Tel Aviv, 1988, 44). Ratzaby then somewhat qualifies this statement by remarking on the significant Muslim influence on the Arabic singing of Yemeni Jewish women, which he attributes to "their distance from Jewish literature (sifrut yisra'el) and closeness to the popular Arabic culture (poetry, proverbs, and tales)." Nevertheless, it is clear that his dogmatic statement referring to the hegemonic learned culture of male Yemeni Jews is taken as representative of Yemeni Jews in general.
This position expressed by a great scholar of Hebrew and Arabic Yemeni Jewish literature is fairly representative of the dominant scholarly approach to the efflorescence of Shabazian Hebrew-Arabic strophic poetry in Yemen starting in the seventeenth century. The Shabazian tradition, identified with its eponym, the Jewish poet, scholar, and mystic R. S[a.bar]lim al-Shabaz[i.bar] (1619-ca. 1679), continued to prosper long after his death. It marked a change in both form and content that clearly distinguished it from the known Yemeni Jewish poetic output that preceded it. The Shabazian poetic tradition is one of the most essential constituents of the Yemeni Jewish cultural identity, and is widely considered the greatest literary achievement of this community. The possibility that Yemeni Muslim vernacular poetry, dubbed humayn[i.bar], was a major influence on al-Shabaz[i.bar] and his successors was often doubted or denied by prominent scholars for different reasons. These scholars tended to view the emergence of the Shabazian "school" as stemming from Jewish precedents, most importantly Andalusian strophic poetry, and inspired by Lurianic Kabbalah.
In the book under review Mark Wagner makes a convincing case for the connection between humayn[i.bar] and Shabazian poetry. Based on his findings it becomes evident that the general statement of Ratzaby and the dominant "intra-Jewish hypothesis" regarding the roots of Shabazian poetry are untenable. Yet, first and foremost, Like Joseph in Beauty presents a meticulous and well-researched genealogy of both the humayn[i.bar] and Shabazian poetic traditions, and a careful analysis of their shifting assessment and interpretation by the Yemeni Muslim and Jewish communities. Through Wagner's comparative perspective we learn a lot about the ways in which each community grappled with issues posed by these related poetic traditions. We also see how familiarity with each tradition elucidates the other (code-switching is a case in point).
Humayn[i.bar] poetry is...