Caton's story begins in Khawlan al-alTiyal, Yemen Arab Republic, in 1979. Yemen is located between Oman and Saudi Arabia, bordering the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Red Sea. He travels to a small village, a hijra or sanctuary, to study tribal poetry. Initially, he tries to Arabize his American name to be more pronounceable; to his chagrin, he discovers that I-S-T-I-F-A-N translates to "My ass is a work of art." He wisely takes an elder's advice to be known as Seif which also means "sword".
Poetry has a different purpose in Khawlan than in the United States. Not only used for ceremony and pleasure, it often is employed in political negotiations; sometimes two poems are coupled as a "provocation" and "retort". The use of oral poetry in the settling of intertribal disputes becomes critcal as war threatens the peace of the sanctuary.
A local boy abducts two young girls from a neighboring tribe, provoking a brief tribal war and years of unrest. The negotiations are complex; honor is all important as the young man is found and imprisioned. The fate of the girls remains a mystery to Caton for decades. His friend, Muhammad, helps him to tease out the hidden meanings of the provocations and retorts exchanged between leaders. Adding to the complexity of the negotiations are the differences between Muslim law and tribal law.
Caton brillantly and sensitively describes life in the sanctuary - his relationship with Muhammad, who helps him translate and understand the subtlties of language and inflection in oral poetry, as well as showing him how these oral poems relate to greater Arab conflicts.
Part adventure, part tragicomedy, Caton's book is a wonderful addition to studies of Middle Eastern culture. He is ultimately imprisoned as an American spy, discovering the reasons behind his arrest in a subsequent return to Yemen in 2001. This book has great depth and beauty and should be included in the collecton of anyone interested in the Middle East.