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Exploring Arab Folk Literature

Exploring Arab Folk Literature

Pierre Cachia
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Exploring Arab Folk Literature
    Book Description:

    The character and range of Arab folk literature are investigated by Pierre Cachia in this collection of his pioneering essays in the field.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-5405-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Clive Holes

    It is a signal honour to have been invited to write the Foreword to this collection of papers by the doyen of Arabic folk literature, Professor Pierre Cachia, the ‘honorary Sa‘īdī’. Although now well into his eighties, Professor Cachia still continues to produce perceptive editions, translations, commentaries and analyses of folk literature as practiced in his beloved Egypt. All who toil in this and related fields sincerely hope that, despite the infirmities of age, he will continue to do so for many years to come.

    The present collection gathers together some of Professor Cachia’s most important journal-length contributions to Arabic...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xix)

    I was born and grew up in Egypt as a British (colonial) subject. This made me part of the privileged European community which – especially in its largest concentrations in Alexandria and Cairo – could function largely in isolation from Egyptian society. Not so my own family: my father’s occupation as a bank official entailed residence in provincial towns where European families were counted by the tens rather than by the thousands, and by disposition both he and even more my mother were open to friendly relations with Egyptians; and as far as I have been able to ascertain they...

  6. Part 1. Fact Finding

    • 1 Arabic Literatures, ‘Elite’ and ‘Folk’ – Junctions and Disjunctions
      (pp. 3-18)

      The pre-Islamic Arab’s strongest loyalty was to a tribe. This was essential to his everyday concerns; but already before Islam he was aware that he and his fellow tribesmen were part of a wider entity. What was the mainstay of this entity? It was not a geographic unit: there is no single word for Arabia in Arabic; instead, one speaks of bilād al-, ‘the settlements (in the plural) of the Arabs’. If not territory, what? Ethnicity, no doubt, as is indicated by the fact that not only tribes but also some tribal groups claimed a common forefather. But I hold...

    • 2 The Egyptian Mawwāl: Its Ancestry, its Development, and its Present Forms
      (pp. 19-41)

      One of many tantalising passages in al-Bayān wa t-Tabyīn comes in the context of the discussion of the superior eloquence of the Arabs, and proclaims the need to examine ‘how the Arabs came to tailor measured tunes to measured verses, combining measured with measured, whereas non-Arabs distort words – now contracting, now stretching them – in order to fit them into the measure of the tune, so that they combine the measured with the unmeasured’.¹ Alas, the ebullient but undisciplined author never gets round to elaborating or illustrating his statement, and one is left with little more than an indication...

    • 3 The Nahḍa’s First Stirrings of Interest in Alf Layla
      (pp. 42-50)

      On 3 September 1948, Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889–1973) published in al-Ahrām an article titled ‘Šahrazād’. It was one of the regular pieces he contributed to the newspaper even while vacationing in France. It seems to have been occasioned by accounts in the French press of two plays sharing that title.¹ But it is his broader observations which reveal, by what is said or by what is implied, the cultural climate in which he and his contemporaries reacted to Alf Layla. So let me give you the gist of the article in Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s own words:

      Was I on a tryst...

    • 4 The Career of Muṣṭafā >Ibrāhīm
      (pp. 51-58)

      For about a thousand years, perhaps even longer, Arab creativity has found outlets not only in lofty compositions retaining the syntax (if not always the vocabulary) of the language in which the Qur>ān was revealed, but also in the coining of proverbs, the singing of songs, the recitation of poems, the telling of tales and the presentation of rather rudimentary playlets and puppet shows, all in the local dialects. Yet the immensely powerful and constant attachment of Arab intellectuals to their ‘classical’ language was such that only texts couched in this idiom were deemed worthy of serious attention, and it...

  7. Part 2. Single or Related Items

    • 5 The Prophet’s Shirt: Three Versions of an Egyptian Narrative Ballad
      (pp. 61-88)

      Long neglected and indeed despised by the Arabs themselves, literary compositions in colloquial idioms are now beginning to receive serious attention from Arab scholars. Not surprisingly, for the field is vast, so specific a genre as the narrative ballad has been touched on only in the context of broader studies.

      The subject is both hedged and criss-crossed with theoretical and technical questions. How distinctively ‘folk’ are these compositions? How do they relate to the better known recorded literature that has so far been called ‘Arabic’ without further qualification? How ancient, how ‘pure’ a tradition do they perpetuate? Into what metrical...

    • 6 An Uncommon Use of Nonsense Verse in Colloquial Arabic
      (pp. 89-95)

      In 1893, M. Urbain Bouriant, then Director of the French Archaeological Mission in Cairo, published a volume entitled Chansons Populaires Arabes en dialecte du Caire d’après les manuscrits d’un chanteur des rues.¹ The book consists of 160 pages of carefully edited and very well printed texts, with no comment or study of any kind. A note from the publisher, however, refers to the ‘stroke of good fortune’ that brought the manuscripts into M. Bouriant’s hands and announces that the selection presented then was only a forerunner of a translation and study to appear later. Sadly, M. Bouriant was struck down...

    • 7 An Early Example of Narrative Verse in Colloquial Arabic
      (pp. 96-101)

      >Abū l-Maḥāsin ī s-Sinbisī, known as Ṣafiyy ad-Dīn al-Ḥillī, who was born in Ḥilla in 677/1278 and died in Baghdad probably in 750/1349, is notable for his ventures in the highways and byways of verse composition. He not only had a solid reputation as a poet in the late classical manner, but also initiated the badī genre with a poem in praise of the Prophet which illustrated every rhetorical device known in his day; he composed a qaṣīda sāsāniyya, which expounds the ways, and uses the jargon, of the underworld of vagabonds, beggars and thieves;¹...

    • 8 An Incomplete Egyptian Ballad on the 1956 War
      (pp. 102-111)

      In the course of the field work which eventually led to the publication of my Ballads,¹ I made it a practice to ask as few leading questions as possible in order to let my informants reveal their own priorities. What emerged was that among the ballad-mongers who did not specialise in the epic cycle of the Hilālīs, by far the most popular themes were accounts of ‘honour crimes’ in which fierce retribution is visited upon women who offend against the strict (if unequal) code of conduct still prevalent among the masses. Closely allied were other feats of bravery and violence,...

    • 9 An Honour Crime with a Difference
      (pp. 112-118)

      The entire field of Arabic folk literature has long been neglected, not least by Arab scholars whose concern until very recently has been almost exclusively with texts composed in the classical language. Understandably, Western Arabists too have largely confined themselves to material they encountered in Arab written sources. Some interest has finally been awakened in humbler aspects of Arab creativity, the most solid work being done mainly on the folk epic cycles, especially the one that is still alive today: the Hilāliyya.

      No less important and no less indicative of the perceptions, priorities and artistic potential of the common people...

    • 10 Pulp Stories in the Repertoire of Egyptian Folk Singers
      (pp. 119-129)

      When I was collecting Egyptian narrative ballads,¹ mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, by far the most popular were accounts of ‘honour crimes’, so-called because they celebrated violent deeds committed to avenge the murder of a kinsman as in the story of l-Adham iš-Šar>̃āwī,² or to punish a woman’s offence against sexual ethics as in the many versions of Šafī>̃a w Mitwalli and of Ḥasan u Na<īma. It was these that one performer after another sang, each in his own words. It was these that the folk singers most commonly offered if the choice was left to them. Even national...

    • 11 Karam il-Yatīm: A Translation of an Egyptian Folk Ballad
      (pp. 130-139)

      Egyptian narrative mawwāls are so long that they seldom lend themselves to rounded treatment within the confines of an article, and I have myself turned to the same texts more than once to develop different points of interest in them. Even then, I remained aware that I had left in readers’ minds questions unanswered, or even unformulated. Among the most basic of these must be questions about the priorities and the skills – perhaps also the inherited conventions – displayed in the poet’s gradual unfolding of the narrative.

      It eventually occurred to me that I could render a substantial service...

    • 12 Of Loose Verse and Masculine Beauty
      (pp. 140-146)

      There are many verse forms to which the Egyptian folk singer may resort for narrative purposes. The most demanding is the mawwāl, with its set rhyming patterns and elaborate punning rhymes. At the other extreme is the singing to a repetitive tune of mono-rhyme stanzas usually consisting of three lines, but sometimes stretched to four or five if the performer needs space to round off the information he wants to convey. Each of these stanzas is then followed by a refrain in which the accompanists usually join the soloist.

      A slight elaboration of this strophic arrangement is the expansion of...

    • 13 A Zajal on the Mi
      (pp. 147-158)

      Urbain Bouriant (11 April 1849–19 June 1903) was an enterprising self-made Orientalist. After an active military career, his scholarly interests caught the attention of the Egyptologist Gaston Maspéro, at whose behest he became a founder member of the Mission Française d’Archéologie Orientale in 1880, then its energetic director from 1886 until he was disabled in 1898. Between 1883 and 1886 he was also in Egyptian Government service as adjunct curator of the Būlāq Museum. Other publications of his, in what became the Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, are translations of Maqrīzī (1364–1442) titled Description historique et topographique...

  8. Part 3. Cultural and Social Implications

    • 14 Two Perspectives on the ‘Other’ in Arabic Literature
      (pp. 161-177)

      Despite an apparently straightforward title, I have to start with some caveats and reservations, for it is by no means easy to determine what the limits of folk literature are in an Arabic-speaking country. Least of all must it be assumed that it conforms with popular notions of what its European cousins were or are like. Thus, it is only partially true that its compositions are anonymous, or are the creations of illiterate authors, or are confined to the countryside, or are composed and transmitted only orally.

      In a book-length study of a single genre in Egyptian folk literature¹ I...

    • 15 Maltese: Arabic Roots and Sundry Grafts
      (pp. 178-190)

      The vicissitudes of history that made Malta part of the Aghlabid domains for more than 200 years, then for even longer centuries the battered but unconquered bastion of Christendom against Islam, have left it a strangely mixed inheritance. On the one hand, its language has obvious, close and today widely acknowledged bonds of kinship with Arabic. On the other hand, not only is there among the common people a conscious antipathy to the Arabs which makes the very word għarbi a term of abuse, but almost every manifestation of Maltese cultural life other than the language places it clearly in...

    • 16 Social Values Reflected in Egyptian Popular Ballads
      (pp. 191-202)

      My subject needs to be approached with much circumspection. The whole of Arabic popular literature has suffered not only from neglect, but also from contempt; and now that a handful of scholars have turned their attention to it, some significant issues are being obscured rather than clarified by premature theorising, in which selected facts are made to fit into a preformed frame of literary or social reference. Yet the more closely one looks at this literature with its great diversity and many ramifications, the more difficult it becomes to formulate its distinctive features or delimit its true territory.

      In the...

    • 17 Folk Themes in the Works of Najīb Surūr
      (pp. 203-213)

      Najīb Muḥammad Surūr¹ was born in 1932 in the village of >Axṭāb (in the Governorate of Daqahliyya in Lower Egypt) where his father was a tax collector. A poem of his² is cast in the words of a man recalling how as a child he was filled with pride when his father was summoned to appear before the village headman, but was shattered when he saw the representative of authority take off his shoe and use it to beat the man standing defenceless before him. If this is meant to record an experience of the poet’s, the incident must have...

    • 18 Elite Treatment of Honour Crimes in Modern Egypt
      (pp. 214-228)

      The Arab elite has often condemned or even more generally ignored folk literature. Even leading modernists like Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889–1973) looked upon colloquial forms of Arabic as debased.¹ This in itself made the compositions of the common people unworthy of a serious man’s attention except as entertainment. Furthermore, most Arab writers of the twentieth century saw themselves not only as artists but also as agents of cultural and social reform, and shied away from themes that struck them as trivial or reactionary.²

      The resulting gap is indeed wide between the perceptions of the educated, especially those who have received...