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Scene 1
1 Seiwɔ nɨmbo əpə mapwe Long ago we were here
2 okudə kwahʷi kwonaki gani and then this white woman came from some place
3 hɨlɨkum Bethlehem. near Bethlehem.
4 Seiwɔ əpə mati owudə bumeb— Long ago all we saw were these books—
5 Baibel. Bibles.
6 Baibel wokana— kwakəri əpə mati maka The Bibles they said— we saw what it said and we wondered,
7 Əbʉrədə wabʉr Bethlehem This place Bethlehem
8 betem gairuh heven aka? is it up above in heaven or
9 Utəg gairuh aka? above in the clouds perhaps?
10 LMD: Yu tingim Bethlehem o Yerushalem? LMD: Are you remembering Bethlehem or Jerusalem?
11 AW: Yerushalem. AW: Jerusalem.
12        Yerushalem, Bethlehem.        Jerusalem, Bethlehem.
13 Seiwɔ maka Bethlehem gairuh utəg Long ago we thought Bethlehem was up in the clouds
14 o bapwe gairuh heven. or maybe up above in heaven.
15 Əpə ino mudəkemec. We didn't know.
16 Na əpə mati Baibel. For all we saw was the Bible.
17 Baibel kwakəri namɨndə. That's what the Bible said.
18 Əriə əpə maka: əbʉrədə wabʉr Jisas nɨmbo can And so we thought: is this village where they killed Jesus
19 gairuh aka atap? above or here on earth?
20 Əpə ino mudəkemec. We just didn't know.
Scene 2
21 Bihain nau Later on,
22 dou now,
23 okudə kwahʷi konaki kwani araminen cenaki gani hɨlɨkɨm this white woman came with her husband from somewhere
24 Bethlehem. near Bethlehem.
25 Na dou matɨric, əriə And we saw them now, and
26 ecec capune: wa, əpə arəpec ətic. they saw us, and we each thought: no, we're all just people.
27 Na əpa mati ecec namɨndə And we saw them and thought that,
28 o ecec okwok kwati ecec biec cati apə copu namo. or they, she, the two of them saw us and thought it too.
29 Əpə arəpec ətic. We are all just people.
30 Na seiwɔ maka wa. But long ago, that's not what we thought.
31 Ecɨdə enjel o capwe momam? Are they angels, or where do they live?
32 Cahʷ aka? Is their skin white?
33 Capwe abo tuagomi morim aka Are they like white people, or
34 abo apak ənəhʷ— ətuh ageɲihʷ? are they like us, with the same skins as us?
35 Ino mudəkemec. We didn't know.
36 Əpə ino mudəkemec nau. We just didn't know.
37 LMD: Inap mi kam yu no klia? LMD: Until I came you weren't sure?
38 AW: Əpə ino mudəkemum ipə. AW: We didn't know anything about your kind.
39 Əpə ino mudəkem olsem ipə namɨndəkihʷ ageɲihʷ gani We didn't know that you people had that kind of skin in
40 Bethlehem, o... Bethlehem, or...
41 Ino mudəkemec. We didn't know.
42 LMD: Dou? LMD: And now?
43 Ino mudəkemec namɨndək. We didn't know things like that.
44 Mapwe. We were just here.
45 Mati buk Baibel məyoh wakəri— All we saw was what the Bible book said—
46 əriə maka Bethlehem ɲapwe gairuh, and so we thought Bethlehem was above,
47 gairuh utəg. up in the clouds.
48 O mapwe ino mudəkemec. Or we were just here and didn't know.
49 LMD: Nau yu klia? LMD: And now do you understand?
50 AW: Nau? AW: Now?
Scene 3
51 Nau mipela klia. Now we understand.
52 Olsem yutupela kam klostu long dispela hap The two of you came from near this place
53 Jisas ikam daun bifo na idai long diwai kros. where Jesus came down and died on the cross.
54 Olsem na mipela save. And so we know.
55 Mipela save na mipela tok: Ah, em graun tasol, We know and we say: Oh, it's just the earth,
56 em ples tasol. it's just a place on earth.
57 Na bihain William Nindim, o And later William Nindim, or
58 LMD: Tok ples! [whispered] LMD: Speak in the vernacular! [whispered]
59 bihain William Nindim nəna nani Bernard Narokobi then William Nindim and Bernard Narokobi
60 cena capwe Bethlehem, went and visited Bethlehem,
61 Michael Somare isave Bethlehem Michael Somare knew Bethlehem
62 Cati seiwɔ nɨmbo Jisas ənən nəsah diwai kros, They saw where Jesus carried the wooden cross,
63 nəna natu, na ohurɨb bapwe simen where he fell and his knee-prints remain in the cement
64 utom. stone.
65 Cati wara Jordan, They saw the Jordan River,
66 cati ərɨbʉdə warɨb olgeta. they saw all those places.
67 Catɨrəb cati namɨn, They saw what they were like,
68 cati Maunten Olive. they saw the Mount of Olives.
69 Cati ihic enecenec dou cenaki. They saw it all and then came back.
70 Ceyabikəp aboriguh matɨrɨguh əriə maka: tru. They showed us pictures and we thought: it's true.
71 Ecec əbʉdə əmənəb. Those are things of this earth.
72 Əpə seiwɔk ino mudəkemec. But before we didn't know.
73 Әpә maka bapwe gairuh utәg. We thought those places were up in the clouds.


The "Bethlehem" text (p.174-175) was told to researcher Lise Dobrin by Arnold Watiem in November 1998. After Watiem recorded the narrative of the founding of Wautogik, his home village, the researcher noted that a few minutes of tape remained. Watiem said immediately that he had something he wanted to share on that last bit of tape. This was it.

The text relates how Watiem and his fellow villagers had not been able to fully grasp the nature and location of the lands, characters, and events of the Chrisitan Bible until they had acquired proper evidence about them through direct contact with the researcher and her husband, who were known to the villagers to be Jews and hence presumably to hail from those lands. Watiem was speaking to the researcher not as an American or even a white person, but as a Jew—in his understanding, Jesus's close kin. His insistence on Bethlehem as a key location (despite the researcher's attempted "correction" to Jerusalem) makes sense in that light: Bethlehem is Jesus's home village, and so, extrapolating from an Arapesh logic of belonging, the seat of Jewish lands.

The text nicely illustrates the Arapesh perspective on what constitutes reliable evidence—seeing for oneself; being able to cite place names and read the signs in the landscape (e.g., Jesus's knee prints in the stone). The story seems at first blush to have a nonlinear temporal profile, going from the researchers' presence in Scene 2 to the past reports of esteemed leaders (William Nindim, Bernard Narokobi, and Michael Somare) in Scene 3. But the proper evaluation of those reports and photos did in fact come later: the original information was suggestive, but could only provide a firm basis for knowledge when confirmed by firsthand experience. The story presupposes the weakness of a mere book, the Bible, as a form of evidence. The assumption that the sacred locations associated with Christianity are transcendent, rather than earthly, has been documented for other Papua New Guineans as well (see Robbins 2009).

The story was told in Cemaun Arapesh, except for the underlined strings which are in Tok Pisin. Note the dramatic switch in code choice right at the start of Scene 3, where the theme shifts to Watiem's new understanding. This provides strong confirmation for the perspective on language shift offered by Kulick 1992 that ideologically associates Tok Pisin with western-style development and social harmony. The Tok Pisin term applied to this set of concepts is save, which translates as 'knowing.' A new level of save is clearly what Watiem felt he had achieved, and when he spoke about this most directly and with the greatest level of involvement he did so in Tok Pisin.

The Bethlehem text also illustrates the poetic organization of Arapesh oral narrative into scenes, stanzas, and verses. Stories are not told in written-language paragraphs, but in rhythmic sequences of units that give the narrative its structure (Hymes 1981, 2003). The Bethlehem story is composed of three scenes, each of which is introduced with a temporal marker: seiwɔ 'long ago,' bihain nau 'later,' and dou 'now.' These define three distinct eras in the narrator's developing understanding, the "events" spoken about in the story. Each scene is composed of at least two stanzas "measuring out" or grouping verses into sets of four.

The four-verse stanza is a recurrent pattern in Arapesh oral narrative. Often, the stanza-initial verse sets the stage for further narrative progression by describing a condition, for example in line (51) Nau mipela klia 'Now we understand.' In the Bethlehem text the initial state is often one of limited and unreliable experience, as in line (16) Na әpә mati Baibel 'All we saw was the Bible' or line (43) Ino mudəkemec namɨndək. 'We didn't know things like that.' The verses expand where the events narrated are highly significant or intense, as in the first stanza of Scene 2 (lines 21-29) where Watiem describes the encounter with the researcher and the resulting transformation of his understanding, and especially in the second stanza of Scene 3 (lines 57-68), where Watiem elaborates on the reports he had heard from other Papua New Guineans about the land of Israel that he was now in a position to believe.

A remarkable property of the Bethlehem text is the way that the researcher's comments and queries are folded into the verse structure, so that the narrative organization cannot be comprehended apart from the contributions made by the listener. Interestingly, each such comment is dealt with differently. In Scene 1, the researcher's query occurs in the middle of the second stanza. The speaker responds to it, getting it out of the way, and then completes the stanza by providing the final two verses. In contrast, the researcher's query in Scene 2 (line 37) is treated as the first verse of a new stanza, followed by a response and two more verses. Adjustments like these remind us that seemingly monologic narratives are not simply preexisting linguistic objects, given by the speaker and documented by the researcher. Even relatively passive listeners are social actors who can powerfully affect the form of the stories they elicit.


Hymes, Dell. 1981. Discovering Oral Performance and Measured Verse in American Indian Texts. 309-341. "In Vain I Tried to Tell You": Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hymes, Dell. 2003. Ethnopoetics, Oral-Formulaic Theory, and Editing Texts. 303-332. Now I Know Only So Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Kulick, Don. 1992. Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self, and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinean Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2009. "Is the Trans- in Transnational the Trans- in Transcendent? On Alterity and the Sacred in the Age of Globalization." In Csordas, Thomas J. (ed.), Transnational Transcendence: Essays on Religion and Globalization, 55-71. Berkeley: University of California Press.