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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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.


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.

Sīrat Banī Hilāl names the oral epic narrative known throughout the Arabic and Amazigh/Berber-speaking world as a living and enduring tradition still performed by poets and reciters in parts of the Maghrib and Mashriq. The cycle of tales chronicles the Banū Hilāl tribe of Bedouin Arabs as they moved north out of the Arabian Peninsula in the eighth century, then headed west traversing the Levant and the Sinai Peninsula to settle temporarily in Egypt. According to Ibn Khaldūn, writing history in the fourteenth century, the Hilali tribal confederations were dispatched to war across North Africa by the eleventh century when the Egyptian Fatimid leaders sought to overthrow the ruler of the Tunisian coast after the latter switched allegiance from Fatimid Cairo to Umayyad Baghdad.1 Rich in historically attested characters and battles, the Hilali epic is often consigned to imaginative literary chronicles, hence an unreliable analogue to weighty histories more concerned with the religious and political Islamicization of the Maghrib.2

And yet the excellence of oral epic poetry, even in the vernacular without the case endings of Classical Arabic, was acknowledged as early as the fourteenth century by Ibn Khaldūn, who emphatically concluded that poems in dialect by the Arabs “show all the methods and forms of true poetry.”3 Ibn Khaldūn evidently heard epic performances, since he noted disparagingly that while epic poetry is profoundly shaped by singing and instrumental accompaniment, “[t]hey often use plain melodies which are not artistic musical compositions.”4 Nonetheless, his semi-transcriptions in Arabic script of contemporary local North African versions in his Muqaddimah constitute the first scholarly folklore collection. Since Ibn Khaldūn necessarily used the Arabic lettering system, his texts descriptively approximate the dialect.

Issues surrounding transcriptions or transliterations of Arabic dialects continue to resonate when creating written texts from recorded performances in dialect that require selecting between competing protocols of Arabic script versus Latin letters. Each choice has detractors and supporters while each result targets different readers. For example, poet and collector ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Abnūdī published his five-volume version of the epic based on the Upper Egyptian poet Jābr Abū Ḥusayn’s performances and provided accompanying cassettes to offset his use of the Arabic script that inconsistently modified Classical Arabic conventions.5 In turn, my transcription protocols for Ṣaʿīdī Arabic to render poetic performances in this essay follow the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as opposed to Brill’s transcription rules. IPA requires one letter, not two, for one sound as for example “š” in IPA for the Arabic letter “šīn” versus this journal’s “sh” for the same letter. Nor does colloquial Arabic IPA transcription mark long and short vowels with macrons as does Classical Arabic, but rather the same diacritical mark of the macron is confusingly deployed to indicate stressed and unstressed vowels of spoken Egyptian Arabic. In addition, a capitalized letter “I” marks the anaptyctic vowel characteristic of spoken Egyptian Arabic since the additional syllable affects the length of a line of dialect poetry. In sum, the IPA transcribes what is heard as opposed to what may be transposed from the written in “classicized” form. Still missing from all these transcriptions regardless of script choice are musical notations which should accompany each line of professionally performed epic texts.6

Even so, Ibn Khaldūn’s transcriptions of Maghribi Banī Hilāl poems remain relevant to this day. They chronicle episodes about the Hilali heroine Zazyah still popularly recited in present-day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Modern scholarship on the epic must always return to his earliest examples as does the work of pioneering literary scholar Pierre Cachia. Alluding to Ibn Khaldūn’s prescient valorization of colloquial Arabic poetry in North Africa as true poetry, Cachia argued against the ways in which al-adab al-shaʿbī or “popular literature” remains the object of longstanding misinformed scholarly approaches. In his 1979 study of the Egyptian narrative ballad, Cachia included oral epics under this rubric of “popular literature,” a translation he preferred to the European-inflected “folk literature” because the Arabic terminology encompasses a variety of orally performed genres that shared intertwined chronologies and linguistic registers:

There is evidence, although all too often fragmentary and indirect, that, for at least a thousand years, co-existing with it [adab] was a plethora of compositions in prose and verse, more varied and more variable, more intimately linked with the concerns of the masses, and couched in the regional dialects that had become the medium of expression of all people in their day-to-day communications. Not until very recently have these compositions come to be recognized as a literature of some kind.… The fact that most if not all of it is in the colloquial idiom is both its most obvious feature and the reason why it was denied any status by generation after generation of Arab intellectuals.7

All too often, negative ascriptions devolved from dialect descriptions in order to conclude prescriptively that the vernacular was and is vulgar and inartistic; in so doing, language, content and form were equally vilified. Other factors, Cachia noted, inadvertently supporting an erroneous grasp of the dialect’s complex artistry were the adverse role of genre, since poetry is the literary category par excellence for ballads and epics. This is because in striking contrast to colloquial poetry, colloquial prose is readily transformed and transcribed into Classical Arabic and subsequently but mistakenly deemed a linguistic improvement over the vernacular. Although the spoken word was written down, it was routinely “classicized.” Yet it is poetry not prose that predominates whenever professional Hilali poets perform in Egypt. Since colloquial verse was less likely than colloquial prose to be recorded or transcribed, Cachia concludes that it rarely emerged into the “full light of literary history’ … [W]hereas tales like those of the Arabian Nights—were sometimes preserved once the language was recast in ‘grammatical’ form, metrical compositions did not easily lend themselves to such treatment.”8

Radical transformations in linguistic approaches have underpinned new fieldwork studies that dovetail with the rebirth of Egyptian folklore studies in general and folk epic studies in particular. Such scholarly innovations began with pioneering researchers of the 1950s and 1960s who emerged after the establishment of the Republic of Egypt by 1953. Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, socialist-inflected ideologies encouraged and underwrote systematic investigations into both Egyptian folk literature and the spoken language precisely because they reflected oral and literary transmission in the dialect by the masses.9 Scholars such as ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Yūnus, Aḥmad Rushdī Ṣāliḥ, Suhayr al-Qalamāwī, Aḥmad Mūrsī, Muḥammad ʿUmrān, Nabīlah Ibrāhīm, and my own teacher, ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Ḥawwāṣ among others, helped institutionalize folklore studies through the journal al-Funūn al-Shaʿbiyyah (Folk Arts), the Cairo-based Center for Folklore Studies, and the High Institute of Folk Art along with a network of regional Palaces of Culture throughout Egypt to promote traditional artisans and handicrafts.10

With institutional academic and activist entities in place in several Arab countries, beginning in the 1980s on behalf of the Sīrat Banī Hilāl, the one living performed oral epic, a series of international conferences held in Tunis (1980), Cairo (1985), and Algiers (1990) heralded the formation of what Italian folklorist Giovanni Canova termed an international équipe hilalienne (a team of Hilali scholars).11 Canova, who conducted fieldwork in the Maghrib, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula, summarized scholarly trajectories in a special 2003 issue of Oriente Moderno devoted to twentieth-century research on Arab epic studies:

Field research of the Seventies had a pioneering quality to it, and it was characterized by a great enthusiasm to find witnesses of an age-old oral narrative tradition, and to participate in their performances and their own everyday experiences:

[…] Research has thus taken a variety of directions: from studies of the historical-literary tradition to research on primitive forms of texts; from linguistic and lexical analysis to that on narrative themes and motifs; from the place of epics in popular literature, highlighting their peculiarities (oral nature, formulaic structure, sung form), to their place in literature tout court, given their representation of an artistic elaboration on historical or legendary facts consolidated through tradition. These various approaches, together with those of ethno-poetic character typical of the study of oral epics, point out the wealth of a narrative material which goes from sung poetry to narration in prose, to handwritten or printed texts, in modest folk editions, characterized by a mixture of verse and rhyming prose.12

In turn, decades of scholarly endeavors contributed to activist interventions at the national and international levels, notably when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) enlarged its remit to include traditional oral expression. Much has changed in Egypt since Cachia penned those early articles in the 1970s on the lamentable state of folk literary studies, especially concerning measures to safeguard epic performance in the twenty-first century. By 2008, for example, some forty years after and perhaps in part due to Cachia’s early path-breaking translations of Egyptian folk literature into English, the Hilali epic was inscribed among “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” following an official proclamation by UNESCO, the United Nations agency charged with creating lists of protected tangible and intangible cultural heritage.13 That same year in which Egyptian cultural elites bureaucratically validated their oral heritage also witnessed profound reversals in oral epic performance. Jonathan P.K. Hallemeier, who researched the state of the Egyptian epic noted changes in audience makeup and appreciation as traditional performance contexts seemed to be in decline:

Thus the story of professional poetic performance over the last century is one of competing trends. On the one hand, the traditional audiences of epic performances, the rural villagers and common city dwellers, have to a large extent turned away, increasingly considering the tradition to be backwards and “hickish”…. On the other hand, those who have historically held those same views, the cultural elite, have increasingly come to consider the epic to be a sophisticated subject of study and an important part of Egyptian, and world, heritage. Despite the patronage of foreign and domestic researchers, traditional performances, which rely on traditional contexts, audiences, and social interactions, cannot be supported if the first trend continues, and there seems little reason to expect it to stop. However, based on the performances I attended, it is clear that some poets have adapted to these rapid societal changes and exploited the opportunities of the second trend.14

Egyptian state recognition produced a national acquiescence to UNESCO categories and directives, which in turn led to international ratification and subsequent implementation of the Hilali epic’s enshrinement and elevated status as a valuable yet endangered, intangible cultural heritage. These steps seem to reflect a range of novel twenty-first century relationships forged among contemporary Egyptian poets, the production of performance texts, and new audience constituencies. However, despite these radically novel public performance venues made available through television, film, YouTube renditions, and spectacles of Hilali poets on foreign tours, many contextual and structural frameworks for epic performance persist through formidable adaptive formations. For example, Cachia’s text-based anthologies do not account for the economics of patronage and payment for poetic performances which continue to define relationships among audience, patron, and poet—whether the paying patron is the state, television and radio stations, or village elites celebrating and remunerating locally favored poets on the occasions of Ramadan, the return from the hajj, and circumcision festivities.15

The Hilali epic finds new appreciative audiences (beyond the traditional galabiyyah-wearers that Cachia describes as foundational) along with innovative avenues of dissemination.16 Yet Cachia urges us to look to the audience that folk literature attracts as he defines the content of popular literature as “any composition no matter what its provenance may be, that proves acceptable to such an audience by remaining current, say for a generation.”17 In this essay I relegate to the background approaches to the Egyptian folk epic that rely on evolving constituencies from traditional to newfound audiences. It matters less if a performance foregrounds the disappearing epic poet rarely performing in his prelapsarian village context or if the performance is a staged, state-run entertainment devoted to the practice of salvage ethnography on behalf of that same lost pastoral past. Folklore studies of the epic by Cachia and many others have contributed to changing valorizations of epic performance but also to shaping local Egyptian receptions and perceptions.

Thus, this brief introduction to Hilali epic studies by way of linguistic transcription protocols and Pierre Cachia’s contributions are a prelude to analyzing what I claim remains the perennial heart of Hilali oral performance, which is the mutually constitutive triad of epic poet, epic hero, and epic performance. Moreover, the specific poetic category of artistic composition that illuminates and links my foundational constituent elements of poet, performance, and plot is the madīḥ or praise-poem. Such condensed structural roles that I attribute to the madīḥ are not found in many other oral folk performances, even among those that may begin with praise-poems or other popular literary praise recitations to the Prophet found in the forms of the madīḥ nabawī. The Hilali epic endures and continues to illuminate perennially fascinating and complex relationships in performance theory and more specifically in actual Upper Egyptian performances through the relations between the characteristics of the epic hero Abū Zayd, the figure of the epic poet-performer himself as seen in verses of self-praise, and the madīḥ or introductory panegyric verses addressed to the Prophet Muḥammad with which Sīrat Banī Hilāl performances in Upper Egypt always began.

Introducing the Praise-Poem

According to the temporal sequencing of a live performance, the praise-poem must be declaimed first in order to introduce the poet to audiences and the audience to the performance. Research by folklorist Dwight Reynolds among Hilali poets of the Nile Delta describes the praise-poem not only as “the first genre in the performance” but also “the mobilization of the religious figuration” for what will become its opposite, namely a storyteller’s rendition of non-religious Hilali narratives based on historically informed legends about the Bedouin tribes who invaded North Africa in waves from the eighth and twelfth centuries:

In pragmatic terms, the madīḥ assists in unifying the attention of the listeners and effectively brings an end to other on-going activities through the repeated references to the Prophet Muḥammad, to which the listeners respond with one or another form of the nearly obligatory traditional blessings…. Such socially approbated group responses also move the audience for the first time in the evening into the participatory role of providing the expected verbal responses and other vocal forms of encouragement which are an integral part of the sahra. The attention and emotional involvement of the audience members at this point are usually still limited, betraying the auxiliary nature of the madīḥ in this setting. A similar performance of madīḥ at a saint festival…, for example would typically evoke a much stronger and energetic reaction; here, however, the madīḥ is a prefatory genre and not the emotional highpoint of the performance.18

The praise-poem is poetry with a purpose. It associates in structural, thematic and performative ways a co-constitutive set of three entities: the Egyptian epic poet, the hero-protagonist Abū Zayd in the Hilali epic narrative, and the living performed epic of Sīrat Banī Hilāl. Even during the Abbasid period, Beatrice Gruendler notes that the praise-poem’s “usefulness constituted part of this poetry’s very value […]: what role did madīḥ play between author and recipient? How did it shape and how was it shaped by the process of exchange? Which higher authorities did it invoke?”19 Similarly, American performance-oriented approaches in Dell Hymes’ much-cited essay, “Breakthrough into Performance” suggest to scholars that an “appreciation and interpretation of performances as unique events can be united with analysis of the underlying rules and regulations which make performance possible and intelligible.”20 The usefulness of praise-poetry in this respect extends to its analytic qualities as the quintessential genre that activates, bookends, and generates unique events.

Praise is conventionally understood to be a referential discourse that amplifies its referent by means of ornamental tropes and usually comparative ones. The opening praise songs that begin epic performance in the Arab tradition are not only poems of praise but characteristically poems about praise. Praise is demonstrative speech that works by showing its own showing, by pointing to its pointing. It is an objective showing that is essentially a subjective showing off. The ultimate model for this form of speech is prayer and secondarily madīḥ, the poetic genre in honor of the Prophet Muḥammad. Reynolds places the Prophet Muḥammad as the addressee, or mamdūḥ, both subject and object of panegyric (madḥ): “the first lines must be in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad … beginning with praise to the Prophet Muḥammad is not only proper, but also serves to focus the audience’s attention and forces them to settle down in preparation for extended audition of the epic.”21 When we praise the Prophet it is not so much for His sake but for ours in order to attach our devotions to Him. So praise points back here to us, when it points there to the divine. We are accustomed to a praising self, a first person “I,” but the “I” depends upon its correspondence to a praiseworthy divine addressee or “Thou.” Thus, a song of praise establishes a poetics based on ideal admiration and a grammar of poetic presence that controls the way the poet can articulate himself. Praise of the Prophet addresses a timeless and unchanging reality, while praise of our ancestors and ourselves is concerned with shifting and unpredictable events here below. These two spheres intersect in the life and teachings of the Prophet Muḥammad.

Audience definitions corroborate this sequence of praise-poems both preceding and concluding public recitations of a performed Hilali episode. Similar to the Nile Delta poets studied by Reynolds, Canova’s fieldwork in Upper Egypt yielded the required framing of the madīḥ. In addition, the proportion of praise poetry to epic recitation was understood locally as a critical determinant that defined who could even be called a singer of tales in the epic tradition. For example, Canova interviewed Yūsef Māzen, father of a famous troupe of ghawāzī dancers, all five of whom were his daughters known as Banāt Māzen from the Qinā region of Upper Egypt.22 Māzen was seventy-five years old at the time Canova’s interview occurred in 1979 in Luxor. He categorically distinguished between the praise poet (maddāḥ) and the Hilali poet (shāʿir) based on experientially calibrated proportions of initializing and concluding praise-poem to epic content. For Māzen, the term shāʿir should refer exclusively to the poet of the Hilali epic and not even to those who write and publish in Egyptian dialect such as the renowned ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Abnūdī himself:

A poet cannot do what he wants. He must follow tradition: at first he must sing in praise of the Prophet (yemdaḥ) and repeat the name of God (yedhkar). Only then can he start with Abū Zeyd. Also in conclusion, he must resume the initial madīḥ. Every now and then, he may stop to rest, drink a coffee or tea; when he resumes, he must begin again with a madīḥ. The poet who “grabs” (yemsek) directly the episode is not a shāʿer. Instead he who only sings praises to the Prophet is a maddāḥ and not a shāʿer. The shāʿer is the one who declaims the epic of the Arabs (biyeshʿar fi sīret el-’arab), true poetry is only the sīrah of Benī Hilāl.23

Canova concludes that the poet’s relation to his audience is complicit (complicità) in the sense of a mutual collusion, while his Upper Egyptian interlocutor Māzen prefers a fixed typology which systematically balances the temporal order of performance with an appreciation for the religious and functional uses of praise poetry that must never overwhelm the true poetic expression of the Hilali epic. For Māzen, the local connoisseur, as well as for Cachia, audience members actively act as guarantors of these traditions, serving as active agents who render judgment about an individual Upper Egyptian poet’s artistry.24

The Praising Poet Divinely and Oneirically Inspired

Another approach that receives particular emphasis and prominence in the poetry of praise is the contention that the poet who praises is a seer, a vates who claims to speak visionary words that derive from special access to the divine. In the Arab epic tradition, the praising poet and the prophetic poet are frequently conflated, the panegyrics of the former being readily assimilated to the historically rooted vision of the latter. Thus, the praise-poem also serves to connect with the poet’s sense of divine inspiration. Here the center of attention shifts to the life and creative virtuosity of the performing poet. His artistry derives explicitly from the mystical and preternatural manifestation of divine intervention through which many storytellers and epic singers lay claim to authenticity, creativity, and artistic genealogy.

An example of an etiological narrative that justifies the divine sources of his epic narrative is recounted by ʿAwaḍ Allāh ʿAbd al-Jalīl ʿAlī, a professional epic poet to whom I was introduced during my research and fieldwork in Egypt from 1979 until 1990. He told me how his ancestors learned their art according to a tale that joins poetic subject to poetic object. At the same time, he positioned himself as an epic poet boldly and somewhat transgressively inspired by the Arab sīrah hilāliyyah through the agency of a prophet of Islam: ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s grandfather ʿAlī, while wandering in the mountains, came upon a book in the desert. That night, sleeping in a cave, the Prophet al-Khiḍr came to ʿAlī in a dream, saying Igraʾ, “recite” (or possibly “read”) in Ṣaʿīdī Arabic.25 ʿAlī answered, “I cannot.” Again al-Khiḍr commanded him by saying Igraʾ and again ʿAlī replied, “I cannot.” Yet a third time al-Khiḍr said, “Igraʾ.” This time to his surprise, ʿAlī could read what was written in the book and so began to recite. The miracle of oral transmission was encoded and legitimated paradoxically through literacy and reading from a pre-existing book, which was named by ʿAwaḍ Allāh as sīrat al-ʿarab, the epic or saga of the Arabs. ʿAlị memorized this book and taught his son ʿAbd al-Jalīl who taught his son ʿAwaḍ Allāh. After memorizing the book, ʿAlī lost the ability to read and also lost the book.

Not only ʿAwaḍ Allāh, but also among Upper Egyptian Hilali poets researched by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Abnūdī, there were several who claimed that the epic came to them night after night through a dream although without a named intercessor; al-Abnūdī describes these poets as al-maḍrūb bi-l-sīrah as if they were stricken with and possessed by epic.26 In these accounts, epic poets consider oral transmission to be fixed, reliable, oneirically magical or divinely inspired but invariably possessing the authentic lineage accorded by the dream for the transfer and communication of valued group histories. That the Upper Egyptian epic poet dreams the entire epic also finds its structuring parallels in the deployment of dreams within the epic narrative. Not just the epic poet as narrator and progenitor of narrative but similarly epic emplotment is filled with protagonists who foresee or are foretold their fate, a process of “secularization” for dreams that have been traditionally associated with the realm of the divine.27

ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s family legend depicts the ways in which the poet characterizes himself as a seer with claims of special access to the divine as well as the one who speaks a visionary speech possessing knowledge of an extraordinary and privileged kind.28 Moreover, ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s tale about his poetic apprenticeship is related to the account in Ibn Hishām’s The Life of Muḥammad in which the Angel Gabriel appeared before the Prophet and spoke to him three times saying each time, “ʾIqraʾ” while delivering to him verses that form part of the Qurʾān, Sūrah 96. The striking parallels between the well-known sacred story and ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s grandfather’s dreamed revelation are structural and thematic. The epic poet assigns the role of the Angel Gabriel to al-Khiḍr as the messenger and teacher thereby enabling the divine gift of the revealed word which became the poetic history of the Arabs, a secular text henceforth known as the Hilali epic. While the words the Prophet Muḥammad uttered constitute chronologically and historically the Qurʾān, in contrast, the epic poet ʿAwaḍ Allāh gives artistic birth to the epic hero Abū Zayd whose magical birth begins the Hilali cycle of tales.

The Praise-Poem Foreshadows the Narrative Episode

Thus, the act of initiating oral public performances of the Hilali epic is inconceivable without recourse by the poet to the tradition of praise-poetry to the Prophet Muḥammad. In addition, the chosen praise-poem often foreshadows aspects of the Hilali narrative to follow. While divine intervention is invoked by epic poets for themselves on behalf of their creative artistry, a second set of relevant magical events occurs within the epic narrative sequence itself. For the Hilali storyteller, both the hero’s birth recounted within the epic narrative and the artistic genesis of that narrative derive their aesthetic power and historical authenticity from the agency of divine intervention. In what follows, I focus on the opening sequences of the epic, entitled mīlād Abū Zayd, or the birth of Abū Zayd, the hero of this epic. I ask how an epic poet begins reciting an epic and how the epic hero is born. How does an epic begin in performance and in narration? The beginning of an epic performance differs from the origins of the text, which are owed to the tale of al-Khiḍr’s divinely-inspired bestowal of the gift of the sīrah. Edward Said famously distinguished between origins, which like the etiological tale of ʿAwaḍ Allāh are divine, otherworldly, and mythical as opposed to the ways humans rationally enable a beginning by taking the first step: “A beginning methodologically unites a practical need with a theory, an intention with a method.”29 Although Said’s focus was preeminently the Western novel, nonetheless for both Said concerned with the literate writer, as well as scholars who study the artistry of illiterate epic performers, beginnings possess key features about intention, the production of meaning, and method.

The manner in which an epic performance begins is partly the poet’s choice but is also shaped by audience interest. While epic performance begins with praise-poetry, epic narrative beginnings are not necessarily found in the birth of the hero. In discussions about the opening episode of the Hilali epic, chronologically rooted in the birth and early years of the hero as it might appear in written versions, it came as a surprise to me that according to ʿAwaḍ Allāh, poetic performances chronicling the first part never took place in front of audiences in the Ṣaʿīd. Favorite sequences requested by Upper Egyptian patrons involved later battle scenes, love stories, or bloody descriptions of conquests drawn from the second or third sections, known respectively as the riyādah or reconnaissance of part two, and taghrībah or the “move westward” of part three. These subsequent episodes remain most in demand by audiences even when watching television or film versions.

The idea that a complete epic can exist in the minds of both performer and audience without ever being realized in performance was developed by students of the African oral epic as a paradigm for oral epic studies in general. The notion of an “immanent” epic was posited to underscore the fact that no epic, whether the European Odyssey or the African Mwindo epic, can lay claim to a “natural” oral existence.30 Isidore Okpewho and Daniel Biebuyck maintained that though an African bard may never recite a story consecutively from its beginning to end—indeed might even be puzzled by such a request—he could do so if he were asked, and usually he is asked only by the redactor and scholar seeking a written, literary version that follows chronological ordering rather than performance time. Therefore, the fact that epic poets’ listening communities possess a relative lack of interest in hearing the hero’s birth story, which was one Upper Egyptian example from my fieldwork, necessarily relies on an unstated familiarity with the entire story cycle. This permits the performance of what appears to be sequences randomly chosen either by the audience through a patron’s paid “command performance,” or by the performing poet’s inclinations. While listening to such episodes that are chronologically distant from the birth sequence when the hero’s adult exploits are central, audience and narrator nonetheless see, hear, and know the narrative arc of the entire epic.31

Likewise, traditional Upper Egyptian audiences were familiar with sequences declaimed and sung by ʿAwaḍ Allāh and placed them against the background of a communally shared knowledge of Bedouin genealogy and history including legends surrounding the Hilali hero’s birth. When popular video and sound recording versions in Egypt came to replace, or perhaps augment the listener’s experience, these new modes of dissemination highlight what remains true and consistent in traditional settings: love and knowledge of the immensely detailed Hilali epic cycle was always the exclusive patrimony of the epic poets and their devoted, usually male fans. In rural or poorer urban contexts (whose traditional audiences for epic recitation are said to be declining), when those audiences patronized epic poets, and even if requests are influenced by film and cassette versions, topics for an evening storytelling session tended toward truncated and compact versions of love and battle scenes. The chronological beginnings of the epic are always “immanently” present as is the poet’s sources in divine inspiration. Although the beginning birth sequences are rarely performed, nonetheless audiences, regardless of their makeup, will always know how and why their Hilali hero, Abū Zayd the legendary warrior and leader, was born black-skinned.32

Magic Birth and the Origins of Abū Zayd’s Hero Pattern

The birth of the hero Abū Zayd, the son of Khaḍrah Sharīfah, herself a daughter of the noble Sharīf of Mecca and married to the Bedouin chieftain Rizq Ibn Nāyil, is a tale of supernatural forces directing the course of human life.33 Chronologically, the entire beginning section of the Hilali epic is initiated by events surrounding the magical birth of the hero in which Abū Zayd conforms to a familiar cross-cultural hero pattern. As delineated by Lord Raglan and expanded by Alan Dundes, the pattern of heroic leaders allows for typological comparisons with the lives of traditional European male protagonists such as Oedipus, Perseus, Arthur, Robin Hood and Jesus Christ.34 Abū Zayd shares many traits with other mythical figures: the hero is a child of distinguished parents, the mother is a princess, the father a king, there is difficulty in conception or an unusual conception, the hero is of (presumed) illegitimate birth, there is an attempt (usually by the father) to kill or do away with the child, the hero is spirited away, he is saved by lowly people or foster parents in a faraway country, the hero takes revenge on his father, the hero is acknowledged by his people, attains rank and honors, and marries a princess. In sum, the life of Abū Zayd is an Arabic variant of the standard biography of the hero of tradition.35 Like his hero counterparts, he is an outcast, but for an unusual reason. As with another Arab epic Sīrat ʿAntar, the eponymous hero ʿAntar bin Shaddād is an outsider but in this latter case it is because ʿAntar is the son of an Arab and an Abyssinian slave mother. Both ʿAntar and Abū Zayd share the same trajectory in their fight for recognition, as noted by Peter Heath:

‘Antar’s black skin and African features appear to assure a life of ignominious slavery in his stratified and racially discriminatory tribal society. Thus the contradictions between the hero’s inherent worth and his superficial social unworthiness is internally represented in the position of ‘Antar himself. It becomes externally represented, however, as he strives to win paternal acknowledgement … The struggle to win social acceptance, symbolized by winning his patrimony, provides the dramatic mainspring for the first part of the story.36

As well, Abū Zayd in the Hilali Arab epic is black: he is born dark-skinned thanks to a cosmic literalness of interpretation. In the Upper Egyptian versions, his mother’s wishes upon a ferocious black bird because of its demonstrated ferocity. Her wish yields a hero who is ferocious but also black.37 This origin tale in which maternal desire trumped skin color is repeated in oral southern Tunisian prose variants collected by Anita Baker in 1978 from a non-professional storyteller (rāwī):

Rizq, the Shaykh of Hilālīs had a wife who a) had no children b) gave birth to one daughter after another. He wanted a son. His wife Khaḍraʾ, daughter of a Meccan prince was in despair. One day in the desert she saw a) a black crow b) a raven with a white breast. It fearlessly chased away a group of much larger birds. O Lord, she said, grant me a son like that bird even if he is as black as it is. In time she had a son. He was named Barakāt. The Shaykh was well pleased and all the tribe came to offer congratulations and wish blessings and long life for the new baby boy. The Shaykh wanted to see his newborn son. He had heard whispers that all was not as it should be, but he had to wait the customary seven days. When he went to the tent and the child was brought to him, he saw that it was black as a crow, with a white breast. He was furious. This is no son of mine!38

Much earlier, in the mid-nineteenth century Cairene version summarized by Edward W. Lane’s An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, a book which preceded Baker’s Tunisian oral collection by one hundred and fifty years, the same story of fierce maternal desire unfolds:

Meanwhile, it happened that the Emeerah Khadra, walking with the Emeerah Shemmeh, a wife of King Sarhán, and a number of other females, saw a black bird attack and kill a numerous flock of birds of various kinds and hues, and, astonished at the sight, earnestly prayed God to give her a son like this bird, even though he should be black. Her prayer was answered: she gave birth to a black boy.39

Abū Zayd is therefore of noble birth, but also black-skinned, in Arab epic a sure sign of servile status; paradoxically he is also a warrior by definition, but an outsider or outcast, who unlike the noble black-skinned ‘Antar, takes on various guises throughout the epic including as an epic poet. There are interconnections between the role of the Upper Egyptian professional poet, who is often coded as an outcast in his society and the black Arab epic hero in the epic narrative, and these connections mediate the relationship between the storyteller and story in an enacted performance. Elsewhere I claimed that at the heart of this configuration is the outcast Upper Egyptian poet, a black Arab culture-hero who disguises himself as an outcast epic poet within the epic, and the many ambiguous, polyvalent features of Upper Egyptian performance which include narrative transgressions (a wife giving birth to a black son) as well as linguistic ones (notably the proliferation of puns).40 In this essay, I focus on the literary and performative parallels between the poet’s access to the sīrah narrative and the Prophet’s access to revelation, and refer the reader to my writings on the sociocultural aspects of the epic poet as social outcast in Upper Egyptian society, which is then reproduced by the epic hero Abū Zayd as an apparent social outcast within the epic narrative.41

To conclude thus far, there are several miraculous beginnings and origins in support of epic performance through the history of scholarly research on the Hilali epic. The next analytic step is not only to underscore the ways in which Abū Zayd, the protagonist of the Hilali epic, owes his status and renown as an epic hero to professional epic poets in the Arabic- and Amazigh-speaking world who preserve the memory of Abū Zayd that enables an epic performance to take place, but next to consider the specific framework of their breakthrough into performance instigated by the poem of praise. In what follows, the argument I advance relies on analyzing the performative links between the opening performed praise-poems and the opening birth sequence of the Hilali epic as recited by two Upper Egyptian poets which serves to connect the powerful and mutually corroboratory ways in which the poets, the poetic language of Ṣaʿīdī Arabic, and praise meet.

ʿAwaḍ Allāh ʿAbd al-Jalīl ʿAlī

ʿAwaḍ Allāh was sixty-three years of age at the time of my first recordings. Son and grandson of illiterate epic singers, he traveled through the southern Egyptian governorates of Aswan and Qinā earning his living both as a small-time merchant of Nubian basketry and primarily as a professional epic poet. In my book The Merchant of Art, I describe the nexus of the Ṣaʿịdī performer ʿAwaḍ Allāh, his audience, my role as a Western female ethnographer, and the text of a specific performed episode (the story of ʿĀmir Khafājī) in order to demonstrate the improvisatory nature of epic performance conditioned by the social roles and relationships between performer and audience.42 Although ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s version below of the hero’s birth (transcribed according to the IPA system) was performed for me, an audience of one in an elicited recording session during the month of March 1983, he felt obliged to follow conventional performance practice by beginning with the customary praise-poem addressed to the Prophet Muḥammad. Calling down multiple blessings upon the Prophet in his opening quatrain, ʿAwaḍ Allāh chose to emphasize the Prophet’s quality as the “protector of the oppressed against those who oppress”:

How happy are you who praise the Prophet,
Aḥmad Muḥammad, who dwells in the city of Yathrib.
I took as my heavenly merit a poem of praise to the One with kohl- darkened eyes.
I adore the beauty of the Prophet while praising Him.
I adore His beauty, I adore the beauty of the Prophet to Whom we utter “peace.”
O Protector of the oppressed against those who oppress,
I praise a Prophet, Ṭaha, his light is consummate,
Muḥammad of the ʿAdnān, clouds came sheltering him.
My next words, my words, about the Prophet of good lineage,
Aḥmad was led by Gabriel on the night of Rajab.
ya masʿadak ya -lli tiṣalli ʿala -nnabi
ʾahmad muḥammad sākin madīnt –ilyathribi
ʾana xadt I madīḥ axal ilʿēn maksabi
aʿšag gamāl innabī muṣṣallī ʿaliyye
ya nāṣir ilmaẓlūm ʿala min ẓalim
ʾamdaḥ nabi nūru ṭaha muktamal
muḥammad ilʿadnān jāt ilghamām ẓallituh
tāni kalāmi kalāmi fi -nnabī -lmuntasab
ʾaḥmad sāra lu jibraʾil fi- lēlit rajab

According to ʿAwaḍ Allāh, the opening praise-poem of a performance must be more than a formulaic invocation to the Prophet. He insisted in various conversations with me that a madīḥ is made meaningful when it suggests implicitly a narrative and ethical connection to the story that follows. Thus, the poetics of the poetry of praise determines and foreshadows the thematic outlines of the subsequent performed episode. At the same time, the praising poet presents his poetic self. ʿAwaḍ Allāh does so in the last line of the ten-line introductory madīḥ by foregrounding the role of the Angel Gabriel: “Aḥmad (or Muḥammad) was led by Gabriel on the night of Rajab.” Muslim tradition has identified Gabriel as the figure imparting God’s message to mankind through the Messenger of God, namely the Prophet Muḥammad. Gabriel is also identified here as Muḥammad’s companion and God’s servant who, on the twenty-seventh of the month of Rajab in the year before the hijrah, accompanied the Prophet on his mystic night journey from the sacred mosque (al-masjid al-ḥarām) at Mecca to the farthest mosque (al-masjid al-aqṣā) (Qurʾān 17:1). Muḥammad’s night journey is not only a mystical vision but also understood by Muslim commentators as a literal bodily voyage through the seven heavens to the sublime throne. Thus, the second aspect of the Prophet Muḥammad’s sīrah is the miracle of his passage westward, which ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s opening praise-song evokes in order to initiate the tale of another sīrah, which is the epic westward migration of the Hilali Bedouins. ʿAwaḍ Allāh follows the double references to the Prophet Muḥammad—namely God’s revelation of the Qurʾān to Muḥammad and Muḥammad’s mystical night journey—with a quatrain (murabbaʿ) that compactly serves to identify the epic poet ʿAwaḍ Allāh, to flatter his audience as adept listeners, and more importantly, to create an artistic link between ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s own tale and biography (the sīrah of ʿAwaḍ Allāh) and the divine revelation of the Prophet:

I create and make art about the Arab horsemen
with my art, esteemed only by clever minds,
with my art, esteemed only by perfect minds:
the community of our Prophet, the Hashemite, peace be upon Him.
ʾabduʿ wa -fannin ʿala -lfārs ilʿarab
bi fannī tiʿtabiru illa -lʿugūl iẓẓukā
bi fannī tiʿtabiru illa -lʿugūl ittamām
ʾummit nabīna -lhāšimi ʿalayhī -ssalām

The speaking first person, the “I” who creates the poem, invests the referent of his praising, namely the Prophet Muḥammad, with noble qualities and exalted lineage. The poet then mimetically extends similar praises to his own person and also to listeners who are praiseworthy because they understand the poet’s art, an art “esteemed only by clever and perfect minds,” and because they belong to the community (ummah) of Muslim Arabs. Full circularity and linkages are achieved among poet, listeners, and the Prophet because praise accorded to an object redounds to draw attention to the one who praises, namely to the poet who self-referentially “creates and makes art.”

After ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s opening praise-poem, we hear the voice of the father, Rizg Ibn Nāyil, prince of the Hilali Bedouin, who declares his desire to marry. At his tribesmen’s suggestion, he chooses Khaḍrah Sharīfah, the daughter of the Sharīf of Mecca, a family that claims descent from the Prophet. The Hilali Bedouin descend upon Mecca, they are welcomed and feasted by the Sharīf. Marriage negotiations are swiftly concluded and by line 67, Khaḍrah Sharīfah becomes the bride of the Hilali chieftain. She first gives birth to a daughter, Shīḥah, but thereafter remains barren for eleven years. Though happy in their marriage, the lack of a son and heir creates misery for Khaḍrah and Rizg. Khaḍrah descends to a limpid pool accompanied by Shammah and ninety more Hilali maidens. There she sees a powerful black bird and wishes for a son who will be its equal in strength and ferocity:

They found translucent waters surrounded by birds.
But among them a bird, black and disturbing.
He scattered all the kinds of birds, and cleared them away,
he scattered all the birds and kept them dispersed,
he was black and in his coloring were all the qualities.
Shammah says:
“Supplicate, O maidens, the Lord provides for His worshippers though they no eyes to see,
He provides for His worshippers though they have no eyes to see Him,
the Lord provides for His worshippers from the beginning of the world.
He knows the drops of dew and the walk of the ants.”
Khaḍrah says, “Give me a lad like this bird,
black like this bird!
I swear to make him possess Tunis and Wādī Ḥamā,43
I swear to make him possess Tunis by the blade of the sword.”
From this they say she bore a lad
to Rizg the Hilali fulfilling God’s favor.
ligyū māʾ bi zalāl ḥawluh -ṭṭiyūr
lakin fīhum ṭīr ya jamāl sawād wa ʿakkūr
šattat jamīʿ -ṭṭīr wa šāl min ḥadāh
šattat jamīʿ -laṭyār wa xallā šatūt
ʾasmar wa fī lōnhu jamīʿ iṣṣifāt
šamma tigūl
ʿaṭṭallabū ya banāt ilmawla yirzig il ʿibād bala ʿēn tarāh
yirzig ilʿibād bala ēn tarāh
ilmawla yirzig ilʿibad bi ḥāl ilmubtadaʾ
yaʿlam bi gaṭr innaml wi dabb innada
xaḍra tigūl addīni ġulām zayy I ṭṭīr da
ʾaswad zayy I ṭṭīr da
lamalliku tūnis wi wādi ḥimā
lamalliku tūnis bi ḥadd ilḥusām
u min lagl I ma yigūlu wi jābit ġulām
min ilhilāli rizg muwāfi -zzimām

The birth sequence of the hero ends with a closing praise-poem from ʿAwad Allāh, one that delights in its own excess, adding example to example, so as to show off its own rhetorical ingenuity:

O You Who cured Job
O You Who cured Job, he recovered from his affliction
O You Who cured Job, he recovered from affliction
O You Who opened Jacob’s eyes from blindness
O You Who raised Enoch to the highest heaven
O You Who called to our Lord Moses, O my God,
when Pharaoh came and his army was with him
when Pharaoh came and his army was cut down.
Moses lay his staff upon the ocean and it parted.
My generous Lord, You have neither associate nor son, there is only You,
O Knower of the waters’ course,
there is only You, O my Lord, who knows what is in the wilderness
You subdue the wind, the clouds and the rain
I beseech Thee, O light, O radiantly beautiful
I adore the beauty of the Prophet, let us praise Him.
ya man šafēt ayyūb
ya man šafēt ayyūb wa ṭāb min balāh
ya man šafēt ayyūb wa ṭāb min ilbalāʾ
ya man fattaḥt aʿqub min ilʿama
ya man rafaʿt adris liʿala samāʾ
ya man daʿayt sayyadna musa rabbi ah ya rabbi
lamma ʾata farʿōn wi dēšuh miʿāh
lamma ʾata farʿon wi dēšu -xtamag
waḍaʿ ʿaṣaytuh -ʿlbaḥr ilmuḥīṭ itfaraṭ
rabbi karīm lam līk šarīk wila walad illa -nta ya alīm bi jari ilmiyāh
illa -nta ya mawlay tiʿlim bi mā fi -liqtifār
tisaxxir irrīḥ wi -ssaḥab wi -nniṭār
asʾalka ya nūr bāhi -jjamāl
aʿšag jamāl innabi niṣallī ʿalēh

Although stress on its own verbal facility is a prominent feature of praise-poetry, it is nevertheless understood as genuine in its expression of both poetic intent and the definition of the poet’s purpose. Complicated poetic conceits are developed and the praising poet boldly piles one historical figure upon another: ʿAwaḍ Allāh progresses from the personages of Job, Jacob, and Enoch, who are comforted and cured, to Moses delivered from Pharaoh’s oppression. The poet invokes water and nature, eternally and historically subject to divine will and thereby alludes to his own just completed Hilali tale in which the miracle of water cures the affliction of barrenness, while the birds of the wilderness serve as emblems of the divine purpose operating once again in the history of the Arabs. ʿAwaḍ Allāh builds on the known beneficial powers of madīḥ. The praise-poem itself is both spiritual and physical cure.

ʿAbd al-Salām Ḥāmid Khalīfah

At the opposite end of the range of poetic practitioners from the shāʿir such as ʿAwaḍ Allāh is the storyteller or rāwī. Unlike the professional poet, the latter takes no payment for his storytelling sessions, narrates in rhymed prose and always without any instrument. One well-known storyteller I encountered was ʿAbd al-Salām Ḥāmid Khalīfah, who informed me during my 1983 fieldwork in Upper Egypt that since 1930, he has recited episodes from the Hilali epic in the marketplace of Luxor. During those winter evenings of my 1980s sojourns, after he finished his work cooking and selling tạʿmiyyah at his food stall, he lit a small fire on the main market thoroughfare and elderly men gathered to drink in tea and his words. In 1983, at the time of my first tape-recording, he claimed he was seventy-three years old, though his son informed me that he was eighty-three. He spoke of marriage to two wives, a number his son privately amended to four. He too did not usually recite the birth story of the hero, preferring the reconnaissance and journey to the west or riyādah and taghrībah of the second and third sections of the epic. Only when I specifically requested milād Abū Zayd did he begin with the version below. ʿAbd al-Salām considered it entirely appropriate that as a woman I would show a particular interest in birth sequences. In keeping with his stated preference for battle and conquest retellings, he describes the Najd with the epithet mariyyah meaning verdant, lush and abundant. Unlike most Hilali taletellers who looked to famine as the catastrophic event propelling the tribe out of the Arabian Peninsula, he maintained that the spirit of pure conquest impelled them westward. Assuring me that the Najd was rich pasture land, not famine-stricken desert, he began with a praise-poem to the Prophet that emphasizes the Prophet Muḥammad’s qualities as an Arab leader and the best guide or dalīl for the westward journey of invasion.

Before I begin I praise the Prophet
because he is an Arab Prophet.
Guide of guides when one journeys,
Master of the universe,
Messenger and forerunner.
I return and say my words
about verdant Najd, O peace,
about Rizg the son of Jaramūn.
O peace, when Khaḍrah Sharīfah from the city of Mecca
gave birth and had Shīhah,
she ceased and Khaḍrah gave birth to no sons.
Rizg returned from the hunt.
He meets the lads of the city riding horses
Rizg returned vexed and angered.
Khaḍrah Sharīfah said to him: “O Rizg, son of Jaramūn,
marry a maidservant who will give you sons.”
He said to her, “I have patience in God’s judgment.”
Many days passed
forty maidens went to the river
from verdant Najd.
The Arabs made wishes upon birds and the birds descended.
She wished for Sultan Ḥasan
She gave birth to Sultan Ḥasan, a white one,
King of the Arabs.
Mūsa: The wife of Mūsa made a wish
She made a wish, she gave birth to Diyāb
All the Arabs began making wishes.
All the men made wishes.
Only Khaḍrah Sharīfah did not make a wish
She remained patient
A black bird descended on her account
O how the birds fought among themselves
The red bird returned
The red and the black bird fought
The black bird defeated it
It returned no more
The red bird returned to it
O how it beat
It flew away and returned again
(The black bird) beat (the red bird) a third time
A resounding beating
The black bird
Beat the red bird
It fled never to return
Khaḍrah said, “O Master
O listener of prayers and rewards,
give me a son like this.
All who beat him may their blood flow.”
ʾawwal ana mʾabdi ʿaṣalli ʿala -nnabi
liʾannu nabi ʿarabi
dalīl iddalīl lamma ṣār
ya sayyid ilkawanīn
ya bašīr iššām
ʾarjaʿ w-agūl kalāmi
ʿala najd ilmiriyya ya salām
ʿala rizg ibn I jaramūn
ya salām lamma xaḍra šarīfa
min makka -lmadīna
waḍaʿit wi jābit dī šīḥa
wi gaṭamit ma jabitši xaḍra fatwān
rizg yāji min iṣṣīd wi -lganaṣ
yilga fatwān ilmadīna biyirkabu ilxēl
yāji rizg miġaḍḍab wi zaʿlān
xaḍra šarīfa gālit-lu
ya rizg ya -bn I jaramūn
itjawwiz ḥalīla ḥatijīb-lak dī fatwān
gāl-liha ana ṣabr ʿala ḥukm ilāhi
gaḍit ayyām ʿadīda
wi rāḥu nhār ilʿarab arabaʿin ṣabiyya
min najd ilmariyya
tamanu ʿarab ṭīr nizil iṭṭīr tamanu ʿalē
sulṭān ḥasan itmanit ʿalē
jābit sulṭān ḥasan abyaḍ
malik ilʿarab
ilmūsa itmanit mart mūsa
itmanit jābit diyāb
bigi -lʿarab itmanit
itmanit kull ilbawādi
bass I xaḍra ma taminit
wi faḍla ʿa -ṣṣabr ilāhi
nizil ṭīr iswad bi sababha
ya salām bahdal iṭṭiyūra
rijiʿ iṭṭīr aḥmar līh
tiʿarak huwwa wi ṭīr ilazrag
ṭīr alazrag ḍarabū
ma gamš I tāni
rijiʿ ʿalē -ṭṭīr ilaḥmar
ya salām ḍarabū
wi farr rajaʿ līh tāni
wi ḍarabū tālita
ḍarba šadīda
iṭṭīr ilazrag
ḍarab iṭṭīr ilaḥmar
ṭafaš ma jaš tāni
gālit ya rabb ya rabāb
ya sāmiʿ iddaʿā wi –lajār
tidīni ṭīr wi maḥla
wi kull ma yiḍrabu ḍarba yisayil dimā

For both ʿAwaḍ Allāh, the Upper Egyptian professional poet, and ʿAbd al-Salām, the amateur Luxor storyteller, the epic hero Abū Zayd must constantly prove his heroic qualities and high-born lineage to those who mistake him for a black servant, even more so when he doubles his outcast status by assuming his traditional disguise within the narrative as a wandering black-skinned epic singer of the sīrah hilāliyyah. So too, as I have described elsewhere,44 the professional epic poet in Upper Egypt is coded both as a social outsider and yet is the bearer of his group’s cultural history. In Upper Egypt, professional epic poets own no land, are ethnically designated, even if they are not, as gypsies (everywhere an outcast group), and are not aṣīl, the Upper Egyptian qualities of honorable character aligned with good “clean” lineage. All these characteristics disqualify them from respectable social standing. But both audiences and poet see the professional poet at the moment of performance as the bearer of tradition and not as an individual, let alone an individual creative artist. In performance, ʿAwaḍ Allāh’s epic story is respected though ʿAwaḍ Allāh the epic poet is not. The storyteller ʿAbd al-Salām’s version is amusing and light, as he transmits an abridged content reliant on many different professional performances he witnessed. Indeed, audience members seated with me at the market were able to pinpoint which professional poet was the likely source of his version; he was said to quote and compile based on a prodigious memory and love of the epic, but he did not create.

Both storyteller and professional poet in Upper Egyptian society, therefore, employ praise-poetry to address issues and themes that establish and even organize strong cultural values. The poetry of praise that precedes poetic epic performance collates speaker with speech in such a way that even the poet’s rhetoric, however ingenious and stylized, is nevertheless consistent with the poet’s ideal image of himself. Thus, the techniques and metaphors of praising determine the ways the poet presents himself because comparison is the distinctive formal feature of praise. Comparison works at the rhetorical level but equally at the mnemonic level. Here I borrow opportunistically part of literary critic Suzanne Stetkevych’s use of “conceptual correlative” in which “metaphors and similes are not intended to convey merely sensory similitude—that is, they are not primarily descriptive—but serve to convey an underlying semantic relationship.” For oral performance that relies on the prodigious memories and improvisatory capacities of Upper Egyptian poets, and following Stetkevych in relation to the constant oscillating comparisons by and between the praise poet (maddāḥ) and the Prophet praised (mamdūḥ), “the point of a simile or metaphor is not to physically describe an object, but to imprint its conceptual correlative in the memory. It is not descriptive but rhetorical. This is why it is not the technical precision of a simile that makes it effective, but rather its affective and sensory (that is, rhetorical) aspects.”45 In these rhetorical performative ways, the epic poet compares himself to heroes by simultaneously identifying himself with Abū Zayd, who is also an epic hero and often disguises himself as a professional poet within the epic narrative. These epic poets, ʿAwaḍ Allāh and ʿAbd al-Salām (as well as Abū Zayd, the imagined hero within the epic), thus echo, double, and mimic selective aspects in the life of the Prophet Muḥammad. Whenever the poet in performance amplifies innumerable praiseworthy qualities or alludes to episodes within the life of the Prophet, the audience responds with additional calls for all to shower blessings on the epic poet, the epic hero, and the prophet. In these ways, the professional epic poet thereby creates the possibility of an audience during performance that can also be likened to heroes.


Ibn Khaldūn, Kitāb al-‘Ibar (Beirut 1961), vol. 6: 27-35, 323-326 and Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton, NJ: Bollingen Series XLIII, 1967), vol. 1: 458.


Michael Brett, “Ibn Khaldoun and the Invasion of Ifriqiya by the Banu Hilal, 5th Century AH / 11th Century AD,” in Actes du Colloque International sur Ibn Khaldoun, Alger, 21-26 juin, 1978 (Algiers: Société Nationale d’Edition et Diffusion, 1982), 289-298.


Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddimah, no. 59, section on Contemporary Arab poetry, Bedouin and urban, vol. 3: 360.


Ibid., 414.


ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Abnūdī, al-Sīrah al-Hilāliyyah (Cairo: al-Akhbār, 1980).


For my full transcription protocols in Ṣa‘īdī Arabic, see my Appendix A in Susan Slyomovics, The Merchant of Art: An Egyptian Hilali Oral Epic Poet in Performance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 269-273.


Pierre Cachia, “The Use of the Colloquial in Modern Arabic Literature,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 87/1 (1967): 12-22; and Cachia, Popular Narrative Ballads of Modern Egypt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 3-4. On distinctions between adab as elite literature and adab ʿammī of the folk, see also Cachia, “Arabic Literatures: Elite and Folk Junctions and Disjunctions,” Quaderni di Studi Arabi, Nuova Serie, 3 (2008): 135-152.


Cachia, “The Egyptian Mawwāl,” Journal of Arabic Literature 8 (1977), 78.


See Ghālī Shukrī, Adab al-muqāwamah (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1970) on the intersections between nationalism and valorizing folk poetry. For an overview of changes in Egyptian scholarship, see Giovanni Canova, “Gli studi sull’ epica popolare araba,” Oriente Moderno 62/5-6 (1977): 211-226.


Hasan El-Shamy notes that the term “folk literature” provided academic legitimacy to an emerging field in the 1950s when the first thesis approved by an Egyptian university was on the Hilali epic by ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Yūnus, which was published in more than one edition as al-Hilāliyyah fī al-tārīkh wa-l-adab al-shaʿbī. 2d ed. (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿrifah, 1968). See El-Shamy, “Oral Traditional Tales and theThousand Nights and a Night: The Demographic Factor,” in Morton Nøjgaard, J. de Mylius, I. Piø, and Bengt Holbeck, eds. The Telling of Stories: Approaches to a Traditional Craft. (Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1990), 63-117, especially footnote 34.


The 1980 Tunis and the 1990 Algiers conferences yielded these two publications: Sirat Beni Hilal: Actes de la 1ère Table Ronde Internationale sur la Geste des Beni Hilal (Hammamet 26-69 Juin 1980) (Tunis: Maison Tunisienne de l’Édition, 1989); and Bani Hilal: Geste et histoire: Actes du Colloque International sur les Banu Hilal (Alger 20-23 mai 1990) (Algiers: Société Nationale d’Édition et Diffusion, 1996). My contribution to the 1990 Algiers conference was a preliminary version of this essay.


Canova, “Twenty Years of Studies on Arabic Epic,” Oriente Moderno, 22/83 n.s. (2003): vii. See also Dwight Reynolds, “Bibliography,” Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive: Accessed January 31, 2016.


UNESCO proclamation text of 2003 is available at:, while the text of the Hilali epic’s official inscription in 2008 is available at: See also UNESCO’s celebratory video of the Hilal epic as a “repository of Arab folk history, customs and beliefs”:


Jonathan P.K. Hallemeier, “Beyond Folklore: The Sirat Bani Hilal in Modern Egypt,” Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive:


Jocelyn Sharlet, Patronage and Poetry in the Islamic World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011).




Cachia, Exploring Arabic Folk Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 192.


Reynolds, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes: The Ethnography of Performance in an Arab Oral Epic Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 145.


Beatrice Gruendler, Medieval Arabic Praise Poetry (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003), x.


Dell Hymes, “Breakthrough into Performance,” in Folklore: Performance and Communication, Issue 40 of Approaches to semiotics, ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Kenneth S. Goldstein (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1975), 11. See also the acronym SPEAKING developed by Hymes, for eight aspects of a speech event: Setting, Participants, Ends, Act sequence, Key, Instrumentalities, Norms, and Genres, in his Foundations in Sociolinguistics. An Ethnographic Approach (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), 3-66.


Reynolds, “Genres in Oral Epic Performance” in Joseph Harris, ed., The Ballad and Oral Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 301-2.


I had seen their live performances numerous times during my fieldwork in Upper Egypt until 1990 and rediscovered them on YouTube, see for example:


Canova, “Notizia sui Nawar et sugli altri gruppi di zingari presenti in Egitto: Estrato da ‘La Bisaccia dello Sheikh,’” Quaderni del Seminario Iranistica, Uralo-Altaistica e Caucasologia dell’Universita’ degli Studi di Venezia 29 (1981):80. Also cited in a slightly different English translation by Bridget Connelly, Arab Folk Epic and Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 63-64. See also Canova, “Aspects de la tradition épique vivante en Egypte et Syrie,” Sirat Beni Hilal: Actes de la 1ère Table Ronde Internationale, 38.


Canova, “Il poeta epico nella tradizione araba: Note e testimonianze,” Quaderni di studi arabi 1 (1983): 94.


On al-Khiḍr’s appearances, see Patrick Franke, Begegnung mit Khidr: Quellenstudien zum Imaginären im traditionellen Islam. Beiruter Texte und Studien 79 (Beirut: In Kommission bei Franz Steiner Verlag Stuttgart, 2000).


al-Abnūdī, al-Sīrah al-Hilāliyyah, vol. 1: 15.


Canova, “La funzione del sogno nella posia epica Hilaliana,” Quaderni di studi arabi 2 (1984): 1077-125.


Slyomovics, The Merchant of Art, 11-13.


Edward Said, Beginnings: Intentions and Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), xii.


For a review of the literature on “immanent” epic, see Carol Clover, “The Long Prose Poem,” Arkiv for nordisk filologi (1986):11-39.


Daniel Biebuyck, “The Epic as a Genre in Congo Oral Literature,” African Folklore, ed. Richard M. Dorson (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972), 257-274; and Isidore Okpewho, The Epic in Africa: Towards a Poetics of the Oral Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).


See my chapter, “The Arab Epic Hero as Outcast, Trickster, and Confidence Man,” in Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World, edited Margaret Beissinger, Jane Tylus, and Susanne Wofford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 54-68. See also Rachel Schine, “Conceiving the Pre-Modern Black-Arab Hero: On the Gendered Production of Racial Difference in Sīrat al-amīrah dhāt al-himmah,” Journal of Arabic Literature 48:3 (2016); and Reynolds’ “Abū Zayd al-Hilālī: Trickster, Womanizer, Warrior, Shaykh” in this issue of the Journal of Arabic Literature.


Tunisian scholars often transcribe the name of the mother of the hero as “Khaḍraʾ” with the ending hamzah glottal stop while Upper Egyptian versions, which I follow, prefer the “tā marbūṭah” of Khaḍrah.


Lord Raglan, “The Hero of Tradition,” Folklore 45 (1934): 212-231; Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama (New York: Vintage, 1956); and Alan Dundes, The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus (Berkeley, CA: The Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1978).


Otto Rank analyzed the psychological significance of the widespread hero pattern in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (New York: Vintage, 1959). His explanation is that the hero pattern exemplifies the psychological principle of projection: the son who wants to get rid of his father is transformed into the father who gets rid of the son. Thus, projection frees the son from guilt caused by hating the father for possessing the mother.


Peter Heath, The Thirsty Sword: Sirat ʿAntar and the Popular Arabic Epic (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1996), 71.


Some comparative versions in English translation on the birth sequence of the hero are: Reynolds, “Episode One: The Birth of Abu Zayd (Parts 1-4),” in English. The Arabic and performance are available at Reynolds’ Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive with the English translations at: 15; Reynolds, “The Arabic Oral Epic Tradition” and “The Birth of Abu Zayd,” in Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent, Eds. John William Johnson, Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Belcher (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 227-239; Susan Slyomovics, “The Epic of the Bani Hilal Narrated by Awad Allah Abd al-Jalil Ali,” in Oral Epics from Africa, 240-251; M. C. Lyons, The Arabian Epic: Heroic and Oral Storytelling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), vol.1:24 and vol. 3:238-238; Cathryn Anita Baker, “The Hilali Saga in the Tunisian South” (Ph.D diss., Indiana University, 1978), vol 1: 67-68; Edward W. Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians Written in Egypt During the Years 1833-35 (London: East West Publications [1836], 1978), 389-394; and Faiq Amin Mukhlis, “Studies and Comparison of the Cycles of the Banü Hilāl Romance” (Ph.D diss., University of London, 1964), 143-145. For a compilation of Upper Egyptian versions transcribed in Arabic script sharing similar narrative devices and often the same oral-formulaic epithets (pp. 23-24), see al-Abnūdī, al-Sīrah al-Hilāliyyah (Cairo: al-Akhbar, 1980), whose first of five volumes is entitled: “Khaḍrah Sharīfah.”


Baker, vol. I: 67-68.


Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 389.


Slyomovics, “The Arab Epic Poet as Outcast, Trickster, and Confidence Man,” 54-68.


See my chapter, “The Poet Outcast,” in The Merchant of Art, 6-19.


See my article, “The Death-song of Amir Khafaji: Puns in an Oral and Printed Episode of Sīrat Banī Hilāl,” Journal of Arabic Literature 18 (1987): 62-78.


ʿAwaḍ Allāh places “Wādī Ḥama” in the west (ilǧarb) near Marrakesh, Fez and Meknes, where Oued El Hamma (French transcription) is found due north of Meknes between Chefchaouen and Tetouan.


Slyomovics, op. cit., “The Poet Outcast.”


Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, “From Jahiliyyah to Badi’iyyah: Orality, Literacy, and the Transformations of Rhetoric in Arabic Poetry,” Oral Tradition 25/1 (2010): 212. I thank Adam Talib for pointing out Stetkevych’s reliance on T. S. Eliot’s concept of “objective correlative.”

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