Sīrat Banī Hilāl : introduction and notes to an Arab oral epic tradition
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This poetic tradition which Egypt’s preeminent literary scholar, Ṭaha Hussein, recalls at the outset of his autobiography is one familiar through much of the Arab world—the sīra of the Banī Hilāl Bedouin tribe which chronicles the tribe’s massive migration from their homeland on the Arabian peninsula, their sojourn in Egypt, their conquest of North Africa, and their final defeat one hundred years later. The migration, the conquest, and the defeat are historical events which took place between the tenth and twelfth centuries A.D. From this skein of actual events Arabic oral tradition has woven a rich and complex narrative centered on a cluster of heroic characters. Time and again Bedouin warriors and heroines are pitted against the kings and princes of towns and cities. The individual destinies of the main actors are constantly in a fragile balance with the fate of the tribe itself. Finally, with the conquest of North Africa, the Banī Hilāl nomads themselves become rulers of cities, a situation which leads to the internal fragmentation of the tribe and their eventual demise. Stories of the Banī Hilāl tribe have been recorded from oral tradition since the fourteenth century in regions located across the breadth of the Arab world: from Morocco on the shores of the Atlantic to Oman on the edges of the Indian Ocean, and as far south into Africa as Nigeria, Chad, and the Sudan. It is quite probably the single most widespread and best documented narrative of Arabic oral literature. We know far more about the historical development, the geographical distribution, and the living oral tradition of Sīrat Banī Hilāl than, for example, the 1001 Nights, which owes its fame almost entirely to the enormous amount of attention it received in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe.1 Though Sīrat Banī Hilāl is little known in the urban centers of the Arab world, in rural areas it has been recorded in prose, in poetry, and in song. The most famous versions are those sung by epic poets in Egypt who perform for nights at a time their versifi ed narrative while accompanying themselves on the rabāb (spike-fi ddle), the ṭār (large frame-drum) or western violin (held vertically on the knee). The folk sīra tradition is one familiar to most scholars of Arabic literature, but it has for the most part escaped the notice of epic scholars, folklorists, and anthropologists in the West. This is certainly due primarily to the dearth of translations into European languages and in particular into English. Over the past two decades, however, Sīrat Banī Hilāl has sparked new academic interest and even a few translations. This article, then, is intended as an introduction for non-Arabists to the tradition of, and recent scholarship on, Sīrat Banī Hilāl.
Oral Tradition, 4/1-2 (1989): 80-100
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