Immortalizing a folkloric epic

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

Al-Abnoudi reflects on his travels to record Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyah

CAIRO: In an apartment whose décor reflects a passion for everything folkloric lives Abdul-Rahman Al-Abnoudi, one of Egypt’s famous 1960s generation poets, who, if asked to summarize his life in two words, would definitely answer, Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyah.

Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyah is based on historic events that took place during the Fatimid rule. Around the 13th century A.D. the nomadic tribe of Bani Hilal migrated from Saudi Arabia to Egypt after a widespread famine had hit the region. Afraid that this large tribe would raid, and subsequently ruin, the country, the Fatimid caliph of Egypt directed them to his rival country, Tunisia.

The epic, which takes its name from the hero, Abu Zeid Al-Hilali, the chief of the tribe, is a romanticized narrative of his heroic deeds as he confronts Khalifa Al-Zanati, the chief of the Tunisian Barbar Zenata. Being passed down orally through the generations, the epic gained new dimensions and plot twists depending on how innovative each storyteller was, hence leading to diversity in content and manner of recitation.

Like other forms of folkloric entertainment, the art of epic singing found its way into all celebrations around the country – at moulids, harvest gathering or to enliven Ramadan nights. However, with the introduction of radio and television, this tradition began to lose ground.

Remembering his early childhood, Al-Abnoudi, who grew up in the small village of Abnoud in the Qena governorate in Upper Egypt, relates how he first came to know about Al-Sirah.

“In Qena there used to be a moulid (birth celebration} of Sidi Abdel Rahim Al-Qenai, a very famous sheikh of the time. And everybody, singers, dancers, folk theater, the circus and poets, used to come to town to participate in the celebration, he says, adding, “Each rababa poet used to sing in a corner of one of the village cafés and I would go and listen to them.

It is in this manner that he got to know Hajj Al-Dawi (father of Sayed Al-Dawi the last remaining Sirah bard said to be able to recite the whole epic) and Jaber Abu Hussein, both of whom he grew to consider highly and respect.

“When I first saw Jaber Abu Hussein I found a man who narrates a history, who narrates true heroic deeds, a man who doesn’t exaggerate or use a regular language style but mixes fusha (modern standard Arabic) with the vernacular, giving it a glorious aura of its own, he explained.

While loving the way Hajj Al-Dawi sang the love stories of the Hilaliyah, Al-Abnoudi preferred Abu Hussein’s ability to act out all the characters and scenes. “He was a one-man show, Al-Abnoudi exclaims.

Realizing that the changes introduced by modernity were destroying many traditional aspects of life in Egypt, Al-Abnoudi decided to do something to preserve what he rightly considers a national heritage.

“Ever since I moved to Cairo I became aware that the whole tradition of folk singing that used to accompany working with slow traditional farming tools would disappear with the building of the High Dam and the introduction of electricity and mechanized irrigation and farming systems into villages, Al-Abnoudi said.

In 1966, Al-Abnoudi finally came up with a plan to gather the Hilaliyah single-handedly. “Abdel Halim Hafez was on his way to Yemen and he asked me if I needed anything so I told him that all I needed was a strong recording machine that can work for long periods of time. In addition to that, Kamal El-Tawil gave me 10 reels and with those on my shoulder and what little money I had at the time in my pocket I began my project, Al-Abnoudi said.

Al-Abnoudi started gathering the Hilaliyah from the Delta regions in the north and moved slowly south, once more ending up in Upper Egypt. In the process he not only learned the complete epic but also came to realize for the first time the difficulty of the mission he had set for himself.

“I used to think that the Hilaliyah was only what I had heard from Jaber Abu Hussein and Al-Dawi and Shawqi Al-Qenawi, I didn’t know it was so great and diverse! Al-Abnoudi states.

After gathering a comprehensive collection of the Hilaliyah in Egypt, Al-Abnoudi decided to travel to Tunisia to listen to the other side of the story, the version told by the people who were attacked.

“I traveled to Tunisia 22 times and during some of these visits I stayed between four and six months in order to complete a comparative study between the Hilaliyah of Egypt and that of Tunisia. There I met the famous poet Al-Taher Giga, who was the deputy of the Culture Ministry at the time and whose father Abdel Rahman Giga was the first to gather the Sirah from Southern Tunisia. We sat together and carried out our research, explains Al-Abnoudi.

Al-Abnoudi dedicated more than 30 years of his life to the difficult mission of collecting Egypt’s most popular folklore epic.

“If I was a rich man or had been supported financially by the state or any organization it would have taken me less time, but what happened is that I would work [on the project] for a while and then stop and then when I had enough money I would continue, says Al-Abnoudi.

The end result of his project was a five-volume book with transcriptions of the Hilaliyah in addition to the broadcasting of the recitation of the Hilaliyah by folklore poet Sayed Al-Dawi, the son of Hajj Al-Dawi and student of Jaber Abu Hussein, on the then-famous radio station, Ezaat Al-Shab (People’s Station). The program was broadcast for a very long time during which it became extremely popular among the rural and lower urban classes.

However, the public has never heard all that he accomplished. “What I have recorded is 50 times the size of what I have published and broadcast, says Al-Abnoudi proudly.

Ironically, UNESCO is currently funding a project in collaboration with the Egyptian Society for Folk Tradition to gather and preserve the Hilaliyah, even though it is common knowledge that Al-Abnoudi has already gathered an extensive collection of Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyah. According to Akhbar Al-Adab the first installment of the fund is an estimated $250,000.

According to Al-Abnoudi, the entire idea is ridiculous, not only because he has already gathered the Hilaliyah but because the last generation of bards who knew the whole epic by heart have died, leaving only Sayed Al-Dawi, who has already recorded his version of the epic.

“The folklore poets now remaining are those who know only bits and pieces of the Hilaliyah – they cannot be considered original sources, he states.

This being said, only time will tell if this new project will have some contribution to make.

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