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.