Epic tales of Arab bravery

In the courtyard of a restored Mamluk mansion in Cairo, an old man stirs his audience with the epic poem of the Banu Hilal tribe, a legend of past Arab bravery.

    The Banu Hilal epic strikes a chord with Arabs during crises

    Wearing a brown jalabiya and white scarf, Sayyid al-Dawi,

    spectacles on his wrinkled face, is among the last practitioners of

    a centuries-old oral tradition.

    With his troupe intensifying drumbeats during great battle

    scenes, Dawi tells of Abu Zeid al-Hilali

    and his tribe who voyaged from Yemen to North Africa.

    The Banu Hilal saga "is the Iliad of the Arab people", according

    to Egyptian poet Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi who has spent 35 years

    recording and publishing the oral tradition in Egypt, Tunisia,

    Morocco and Arabia.

    Al-Abnudi interrupts the

    storyteller at times to explain the old verses in contemporary

    Arabic for a group of young Egyptians and a few Europeans who

    gathered there one night last week.

    Oral tradition 

    "The Banu Hilal epic represents the entire Arab nation. Abu Zeid al-Hilali

    personifies the Arab leader whom the

    nation looks up to and is looking for to unite it during crises and

    periods of danger"

    Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi,
    Egyptian poet

     

    The event, sponsored by the ministry of culture, was part of

    efforts to save the oral tradition.

    "The Banu Hilal epic represents the entire Arab nation," al-Abnudi

    said. "Abu Zeid al-Hilali personifies the Arab leader whom the

    nation looks up to and is looking for to unite it during crises and

    periods of danger."

    The legendary Abu Zeid fought historic battles in Iraq, which

    strike a chord with Arabs who oppose the US-led coalition now

    occupying Iraq, he added.

    "The 'Sira' (epic) is not just entertainment, it plays a role

    in periods of crisis, which explains why it spread through Egypt at

    the time of the Crusades," al-Abnudi said.

    He added that "storytellers are in fact poets who improvise

    while reciting".

    Dying breed

    The epic is composed of hundreds of thousands of verses, and the

    69-year-old al-Dawi is among the last people who can recite them by

    heart. Decades ago, before television, they were a focal point of

    village life.

    However, this tradition is being lost today and "whole parts of

    the Hilali story are being forgotten," mainly because of the death

    of the storytellers, according to a member of the Al-Warsha

    (Workshop) troupe.

    The troupe, composed of young people who are trying to revive

    the Sira, "seeks to research popular tradition", said Husayn Yunis,

    an assistant producer for Al-Warsha.

    The troupe writes down poems from the bards themselves or from

    recordings made before the old storytellers died.

    "The 'Sira' (epic) is not just entertainment, it plays a role

    in periods of crisis, which explains why it spread through Egypt at

    the time of the Crusades"


    Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi,
    Egyptian poet

     

    Indeed, it was a group of young Egyptians dressed in jeans who

    told the Banu Hillal saga in contemporary Arabic during a show

    at the French Centre for Culture

    and Cooperation in Cairo.

    Great fighter

    The story is about the powerful Banu Hilal tribe, who left home

    in Yemen for the Hejaz in Saudi Arabia

     and took part in the great battles of the early

    Islamic period.

    In the 11th century, the tribe moved to Egypt where, according

    to historians, the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir urged them to

    reconquer Tunisia, which had just split from his empire.

    The story centres around the mythic hero Abu Zeid al-Hilali, a

    black baby born to white parents, something which prompted his father

    to disown his mother.

    During one battle, Abu Zeid, a great fighter, was on the verge of

    killing his father, whom he did not recognise, but fortune

    intervened and their arms froze at the crucial moment.

    He then learned of his origins and returned to his tribe.

    SOURCE: AFP


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