Abū Zayd al-Hilālī: Trickster, Womanizer, Warrior, Shaykh

In: Journal of Arabic Literature
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  • 1 University of California, Santa Barbara
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Sīrat Banī Hilāl (the Epic of the Banī Hilāl) is rooted in the 10th-century invasion of North Africa by the Banī Hilāl Bedouin tribe after they left their homeland of the Najd in the Arabian Peninsula. Told in a combination of poetry and prose similar to the style of other epic tales such as that of ‘Antar, Sayf ibn Dhī Yazin, and Dhāt al-Himmah, Sīrat Banī Hilāl is nevertheless unique in that it is the only one of the folk epics traditionally to be performed in sung verse to the accompaniment of musical instruments (rather than spoken or read aloud). It is also distinctive for being a tale that recounts the elaborate interactions among a constellation of main figures rather than being primarily about the exploits of a single hero. Among these central characters, however, one in particular deserves notice for his psychological complexity—Abū Zayd al-Hilālī, the black hero of the Banī Hilāl tribe. Abū Zayd, it is argued here, combines many of the features of the ‘classic hero’ as delineated by Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Joseph Campbell, as well as characteristics of the Trickster figures studied by Carl Jung, Paul Radin, M.C. Lyons, and others. He is at times the chivalrous hero, a model of manly virtues, but also capable of cunning and deceptive behavior that borders on the dishonorable, and in a few infamous scenes he kills innocent people and tells outright lies to cover his tracks, leaving modern audiences baffled and conflicted. At the same time, however, for reasons spelled out in this essay, Abū Zayd is the character with whom modern Egyptian audiences most clearly identify: a black hero denigrated for his skin color, capable of great deeds of heroism, chivalry, and religious devotion, as well as acts of an intensely transgressive nature.

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