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Poetic Discourse and the Honour Code: Alternative Discourse through Sung Poetry among the Bedouin, Andalusians, Berbers and Tauregs

Poetry and song are significant elements in the lives of people around the world. They often describe emotions and sentiments related to the singer’s experience, or more broadly, to a public experience common to the community. In some communities, these poems and songs give voice to sentiments which are not discussed in ordinary, everyday language. Lila Abu-Lughod has introduced the concept of multiple discourses, or counter-discourses, juxtaposed against each other and complementing each other. She argues that both discourses legitimately express the cultural ideology of a particular community (Abu-Lughod 1985b, 258). This concept is particularly relevant to communities based on the so-called “honour code,” a moral ideology that underlies their way of life. In this paper I will consider the concept of an alternative poetic discourse within daily life through an exploration Bedouin society in comparison other Mediterranean communities that emphasis a similar ideology.

The Honour Code

The “honour code” plays an important role in many nomadic societies in the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean world. While Abu-Lughod suggests that the exact moral ideals that form the basis of the honour code may vary from one Mediterranean culture to another, this paper will not explore the differences. Rather I will touch on discussions of the honour code in other cultures only as relevant to the discussion of the poetic discourse and its juxtaposition with ordinary speech.

In Veiled Sentiments Abu-Lughod (1986b, 79) explores how Bedouin society values equality through autonomy and independence, autonomy becoming a standard for measuring status in the social hierarchy. Since this ideology of autonomy stands in tension with the social realities of status differentiation, she suggests that the two are mediated through the notion of authority derived from moral worthiness. Thus “individuals must earn the respect on which their positions rest through the embodiment of their society’s moral ideals” (Abu-Lughod 1986b, 86). Racy describes three sets of related cultural traits that express these moral ideals (I quote his extended explanation only for the first set, which is most relevant): (a) “honor” and “shame,” “phenomena that are associated with sexuality and power, as honor is linked to masculinity and the social implications of maleness, whereas shame is experienced when manhood is undermined or when women’s chastity is question” (b) “hospitality” and “chivalry,” and (c) “bravery” and “militancy” (Racy 1996, 405).

Abu-Lughod further explores these categories in relation to Bedouin society, noting specifically the concept of hasham (connected with ideas of modesty, shame and shyness) and which she describes as the “honour of the weak;” the appearance of voluntary deference or submission as the honourable mode of dependency (Abu-Lughod 1986b, 105).

Bedouin society

Bedouin society is based on a patrilineal, tribally organized political and social system (Abu-Lughod 1985a and 1986a). The Awlad ‘Ali in particular, are semi nomadic pastoralists in the process of sedentarization. Their everyday social world is divided into two; one half for the adult men, and the other for women and children. This separate women’s world is internally regulated, and structures through principals of kinship and seniority similar to society as a while, while hierarchical structures are not as pronounced as among men. While women collude to keep a barrier of silence around their community (supporting male avoidance because it allows opportunity to express independence and defiance), they have access to the outside world through the young and low-status men who easily pass through the permeable separation between the two gender-segregated communities.

The segregation is permeable, because the division is a relatively informal, mutual avoidance based not on the wishes and power of particular men, but rather on “the sexual division of labor and a social system structured by the primacy of agnatic bonds (those between male and female paternal kin) and the authority of senior kinsmen, and maintained by individuals whose attitudes and actions are guided by a shared moral ideology” (Abu-Lughod 1985a, 640).

Discourse of Honour, Discourse of Poetry

Within the above mentioned segregation and stratification of the social order, the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin make use of multiple discourses in discussing their emotional response to events in their lives. In ordinary discourse, for example, expressions in response to loss, poor treatment, or neglect are hostility, bitterness and anger, while the response to lost love is expressed through extreme indifference and denial of concern (Abu-Lughod 1986b, 187). Abu-Lughod argues that these sentiments are appropriate to what she calls a “discourse of honour,” located in the context of the dominant honour code ideology. Due to the cultural ideal of an independent autonomous figure, unwilling to submit to others and commanding respect through physical and emotional self control; she explains that to express weakness or to admit that one is wounded or deeply affected by loss “is to admit a lack of autonomy and self-control, a dependency through vulnerability” (Abu-Lughod 1986b, 205).

Poetic discourse, on the other hand, expresses through ghinnawa, sentiments that run counter to those expressed in ordinary language. The Ghinnawa are short poetic forms, similar to the haiku in that they are formulaic and traditional, seemingly impersonal. However they also allow for creativity, although insight into the ambiguous metaphors depends on understanding of the context, tied to references to other songs within the ghinnawa repertoire (173). Abu-Lughod notes that they are either recited or sung, both styles in an almost chant-like fashion. The sung version of the poems repeats words and phrases, while also reversing the word order (178, 179, an example of this is here with Abu-Lughod's recording here).

Where ordinary discourse expresses hostility, bitterness, or denial, ghinnawas reveals vulnerability through sentiments of deep sadness in betrayal:

Memories stirred by mention of the beloved
should I release, I’d find myself flooded…

Oh eyes be strong
you cherish people and then they’re gone… (Abu-Lughod 1985b, 245, 246)

despair, loss or sadness at separation:

The night of the beloved’s parting
cloud cover, no starts and no moon… (Abu-Lughod 1986b, 195)

Tears increased oh Lord
the beloved came to mind in the time of sadness… (179)

or the sense of mistreatment:

I never figured you’d do
wrongs like these, oh they hurt…

Forced by drought in the land
to seek refuge among peoples of twisted tongues… (196)

Even emotions regarding marriage are expressed through ghinnawa, where it would be inappropriate in ordinary discourse. They reveal the pain and longing of separated lovers, difficulties adjusting in a marriage, and even pride in a desired husband:

A falcon, not a sparrow
he lifted his hood and brought his prey… (291)

Abu-Lughod argues that this poetic discourse is subversive in that “it gives voice to experiences and emotions that lie outside those culturally prescribed as appropriate” (1986a, 164) but at the same time it conforms to social values through its very nature. The use of ghinnawa demonstrates the self-mastery and control of channelling strong emotions into a conventional and formulaic medium, while also demonstrating the voluntary nature of an individual’s conformity to the code of social values (Abu-Lughod 1985b, 257). Recitation or singing of ghinnawa also conforms to social norms through segregation and hierarchical stratification of performance. As a discourse of intimacy, it “usually does not cross the boundaries created by differential power and status, or gender” (Abu-Lughod 1985a, 252).

Poetic Discourse in Andalusia

While this discussion of the poetic discourse as an alternative form of communication has so far discussed only the case of the Bedouin as described by Abu-Lughod, the concept can be applied to other honour-oriented societies in the Mediterranean world. In “Mother-Son Intimacy and the Dual View of Woman in Andalusia: Analysis Through Oral Poetry,” David Gilmore contrasts the machismo independence demonstrated in ordinary discourse by the men of Andalusia with an alternative view presented in concerts through sentimental lament.

According to Gilmore, machismo represents men through symbols and sentiments as “sexually superior, autonomous, and dominant over women,” but the songs demonstrate opposite sentiments: “men as helpless, dependent on women, inadequate, childlike, and women as powerful and controlling” (Gilmore 1986, 230). While these ideological ingredients mimic Abu-Lughod’s discussion of Bedouin culture, there is a principle difference between these examples due to the social context of the poetic performances and the interaction between the poet, performer and audience.

While Bedouin ghinnawa can be performed by anyone, but only among intimates, Gilmore notes that Andalusian genres are public performances by specialized artists (232). They take place at festivals and weddings in a context where cultural restrictions and gender segregations are temporarily lifted. Thus the poet becomes spokesperson for the assembled men as the liminal space provides him the opportunity to speak both to and about the women. The men verbally demonstrate their agreement and approval as he on their behalf, “articulate[ing] shared sentiments about women that men normally forbear or deny since they contradict the austere masculine code of independence, stoicism, and superiority” (233).

The ballad-like songs themselves focus on a nostalgic longing for self-sacrificing maternal love:

If only you knew how good a mother is,
And the need you have of her always.
I wish I had mine back:
I am disconsolate since she passed away. (239)

or reference its antithesis in the greedy wife or exploitive mother-in-law:

Even if you emigrate to Germany,
To Switzerland, or to the Coast,
A wife only loves a man who
Comes back loaded with dough.

This happens with your wife
With mine, and everyone's.
If she sees those greenbacks,
Look how amorous she becomes (242).

The imagery that conveys a sense of masculine helplessness, loss and dependency in contrast to female power and autonomy, but at the same time, the subversive surface images are conveyed in a way that communicates conformity to women regarding societal norms and values.

Poetic Discourse among Berbers and Tauregs

Among the Berbers and the Taureg subgroups, there are also examples of dual discourse regarding the expression of sentiment. Like the Bedouin, these societies have also developed out of a semi nomadic way of life, with separate spheres for men and women, however, as Susan Rasmussen notes regarding the Taureg, the separation and stratification of society is not as extreme (Rasmussen 1998, 167). At the same time, music and poetic discourse allow for indirect expression of sentiments (such as love and anger) and actions that would otherwise be considered shameful or inappropriate. Sung Taureg weddings in particular, women’s Tende songs and the male ishumar provide a legitimate space for these emotions while also commenting on society(Rasumussen 1998, 167).

In a context that is not as segregated as the Bedouin society, Berber and Taureg poetic discourse is performed in the public context of weddings, much like that of Andalusia. However rather than male professional performers singing on behalf of others, in these contexts it is the women themselves who are provided the opportunity to express themselves to the wider community and take a role in determining their future. Thus, as Katherine Hoffman notes regarding Berber women, “song…fulfills a contrarian role to spoken discourse” as young women “actively negotiate their own fates and that of their loved ones” (Hoffman 2002, 527). Terri Brint Joseph agrees, providing examples of tirarrin that express social criticism or strategies of defence. Social critique can be aimed at upheaval in local culture and the external forces that contribute to it:

A piece of packing cord has sullied a water glass…
Oh, Germany! You have given illusions to beggers! (Joseph 2003, 241)

as well as local government actions and even tourism:

The young boys of Al-Hoceima dive from the shining cliffs
You, the Germans, sprawl on the blazing sand (241).

The use of songs as a strategy of defence allows the young woman a role in choosing her husband, through abusing an unwanted suitor, voicing loneliness for an absent fiancé, or expressing affection for a desired suitor:

Did you drink wine today or yesterday?
Did you drink wine glass by glass or the whole bottle at once? (244)

His face in the window of the photographer’s shop
The portrait can’t speak, but how it resembles my darling.

He asked me, “Where shall I put you, my poor little one?”
Put me, my darling, where you put your book. (In his hip pocket) (246)

In this context song can even be used in personal defence, or as a means of redressing wrong:

Fill your ears and your heart with my songs!
Tell my denouncer he lied! (245)

While these songs provide an effective subversive discourse, one that allows the expression of sentiments ordinarily kept hidden and provides opportunity for young women to take a role in determining her future, they do so in a manner that upholds societal norms. The wedding context of the songs is a liminal space, a temporary release of societal restrictions, and as Joseph points out, “the songs may also be perceived as a mechanism which, while giving women the impression of gaining power, ultimately supports the patriarchal system” (248).

Examples of Berber Song
Chant de Femmes - Women song
Chant de fillettes (Little girls songs)

Examples of Tuareg Song

Herding Song, MarriageSong, Lullaby]

Arouia Idaoua Ouf Emri(Wedding Song)

Tarakemt (Love Song with Handclapping)

Technlogy and Change

While these poetics discourses have provided alternative means of expression for men and women within these honour code structured societies, introduction of new technologies, media, and social change are affecting the nature of this discourse. Among the Bedouin, for example, Abu-Lughod has described how the introduction of cassette technology has actually revitalized the tradition of sung poetry, which was beginning to die out due to lack of occasions for singing (Abu-Lughod 1989, 9 and 1990, 37). However this revitalization was only in the sphere of young men. Women are absent from the recording sessions, “out of modesty.”

This presence use of cassette recordings as a media for sung poetry is also by young emigrant Berber men. As a commercial music, the easily transportable cassette-recordings “mediated between city and countryside” (Hoffman 2008, 122). Hoffman does not mention the presence of women in these commercial recordings, but she does note that young women raised in cities do not join in the singing due to lack of locality-specific competence – they are not familiar with the local techniques (2002, 525). Hoffman also mentions a particular field experience that also relates to the ideas of mediation and music. In a pre-wedding situation that would have traditionally been an occasion for the singing of tizrrarin songs, the young bride-to-be put on a cassette tape of sung poetry that Hoffman herself had recorded a couple years earlier. When asked why she put on the cassette, “she responded that there was no need to sing the tizrrarin any longer since they could play my field recording” (Hoffman 2008, 54). Thus Hoffman herself was involved in the commodification of sung poetry and the beginnings of a possible shift in the expression of cultural practices.


The concept of poetic discourse as an alternate discourse of emotion is one that is found in various honour based societies around the Mediterranean. As this paper has discussed, sung poetry provides a means of expressing sentiments that would otherwise be counter to cultural ideals based on concepts of the honour code. While containing a subversive element, the alternative discourse non-the-less ascribes to the traditional values of these societies. The question remains as to how changing environments and the introduction of new media technologies will affect these alternative discourses and poetic genres in the future.


Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1985a. A community of secrets: The separate world of Bedouin Women. Signs, 10 (4): 637–657.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1985b. Honor and the sentiments of loss in a Bedouin society. American Ethnologist, 12 (2): 245–261.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Modest women, subversive poems: The politics of love in an Egyptian Bedouin society. Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), 13 (2): 159–168.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled sentiments: Honor and poetry in a Bedouin society. Berkely: University of California Press.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1989. Bedouins, Cassettes and Technologies of Public Culture. Middle East Report, 159: 7–11, 47.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1990. Shifting politics in Bedouin love poetry. In Language and the politics of emotion, 24-45, eds. Catherine A. Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gilmore, David D. 1986. Mother-son intimacy and the dual view of woman in Andalusia: Analysis through oral poetry. Ethos, 14 (3): 227–251.

Hoffman, Katherine E. 2002. Generational change in Berber women's song of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Ethnomusicology, 46 (3): 510–540.

Hoffman, Katherine E. 2008. We share walls: Language, land and gender in Berber Morocco. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing.

Joseph, Terri Brint. 1980. Poetry as a strategy of power: The case of Riffian Berber women. In Music and gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean, 233–250, ed. Tullia Magrini. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Racy, A. J. 1996. Heroes, lovers, and poet-singers: The Bedouin ethos in the music of the Arab Near-East. Journal of American Folklore, 109 (434): 404–424.

Rasmussen, Susan.1998. Within the tent and at the crossroads: Travel and gender identity among the Tuareg of Niger. Ethos, 26 (2): 153–182.

Rasmussen, Susan. 2000. Grief at seeing a daughter leave home: Weeping and emotion in the Tuareg Techawait postmarital residence ritual. Journal of American Folklore, 113 (450): 391–421.