Praise of the Prophet and Praise of Self: Sīrat Banī Hilāl and Epic Narrative in Performance

In: Journal of Arabic Literature
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  • 1 University of California, Los Angeles
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How does an epic begin in performance and in narration? Questions surrounding the beginning of an Arab oral epic performance differ from those surrounding the origins of the text. This essay explores several levels of beginning in the Sīrat Banī Hilāl epic, a cycle of heroic tales recited throughout the Arabic and Amazigh-speaking world, with reference to versions by the oral epic poet ʿAwaḍ Allāh ʿAbd al-Jalīl ʿAlī that I collected in Upper Egypt in the 1980s. By drawing on the writings of Pierre Cachia, a pioneering scholar in the study, transcription, and English translation of vernacular Arabic literature, I ask how the epic poet begins reciting an epic in performance and how the epic hero is born in text, performance, and scholarly histories. Answers may be found both in the history of Egyptian folklore studies and the tradition of praise-poetry (madīḥ) sung or recited by poets and storytellers to initiate oral epic performance.

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