Al-Hilaliyya: Performing an ancient epic

October 18, 2003 12:00 AM

When it comes to unwritten oral poetry, performance becomes part of the text. This is true regarding short love songs and incredibly long epics. Yet, performance is especially important in Al-Hilaliyya, the long colloquial epic telling the story of Bani Hilal’s journey to the west, and Al-Hussainiyya, the epic telling the story of the martyrdom of Hussain, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson in Karbala, Iraq. In this article I shall discuss the performance of bards telling Al-Hilaliyya.

Al-Hilaliyya is actually sung. The bard is usually accompanied by a band of five; two men with drums and two men as well as the bard himself, playing the rababa, one of the oldest musical instruments, believed to have been developed by ancient Iraqi civilizations such as the Sumerians, Acadians, Babylonians and Assyrians. The rababa has two forms: An older one consists of a coconut shell fixed at the end of a long wooden neck. Two strings stretch through the neck to the furthermost end of the shell, usually called the rababa’s “belly.” This form is still common in Iraq, Egypt and Sudan.

In the second form, the coconut shell is substituted with a rectangular box of deer leather stretched around a wooden frame. This form is common in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the western parts of Iraq.

 There are a number of melodies among which the bard switches according to the mood dominating the scenes described. Yet the epic is not a collection of songs. The melodies are simple, repeated so often that the listener may forget there is a melody being played. After 15 minutes of listening to Al-Hilaliyya, one gets the impression that these melodies were in-built in the nature of human speech. This is done intentionally by the bards to draw the audience’s attention to the words being said, to the story and the poetry, which are the essence of the whole performance.

However, this monotony is broken every time the bard changes subject, taking the listener by surprise and keeping him or her alert for major events in the story. When a war scene is being described, drums beat more loudly and the bard uses short, repetitive rhythms. Afterward, the bard ends with lines of wisdom, which are repeated out loud by the band’s other four members, to show that the meaning of this section is complete. A rough translation of some war lines in the epic would sound like this:

“Abu Zaid (the hero of Bani Hilal) said: ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great ­ and also a war cry), and his sword was bare in his hands.  Horses attacked and retreated, and death was like a ball of strings entangling those who come near it. Blood boiled in their veins. Their anger was a heavy burden, one that would break the shoulders of 100 camels.

“Whatever they do, no one takes more that what God has promised.”

The last line is repeated by all members of the band, before changing the melody signaling the end of the scene.

It is also worth noting that Al-Hilaliyya is made of two epics, with one imbedded inside the other.

The whole story is told in praise of the Prophet Mohammed. Every section starts with parsing the Prophet and telling a miraculous story about him. The mother of the epic’s hero, Khadra, is a descendent of the Prophet. Thus the epic that gives glory to “Abu Zaid the son of Khadra” is dedicated to the great grandfather of the epic’s hero.

The listener is always reminded of that fact by the bards, who start each section by praising the Prophet and telling a story about him, before delving into the events of the epic, and by mentioning the phrase “praise the Prophet” to signal that they are going to stop singing for that day.

The stories told about the Prophet are not necessarily true; they are not taken from his biography. Their function is to express emotions of love and gratitude to him “for if it weren’t for Mohammed, none of us would have been here,” as the epic goes.

One such story says that the Prophet, during his trip from Mecca to Medina, found an infidel tying the legs of a deer he had hunted. The deer was alive, but tied tight. The Prophet told the infidel that the deer had offspring and that he must let her go to feed them. The infidel refused, saying that unless the Prophet bought the deer, he did not have authority to let it go. The Prophet told the infidel, the story goes: “Put the rope around my wrists, and take me in her place.” The infidel, happy with the bargain, did so. The deer went away, and after a little while came back again, and started chewing the rope. At this point the infidel bore witness that there was only one God and that Mohammed was his messenger. All through the bard’s tale, the rababa becomes an independent performer; he can hold it with one hand like a sward or pat on it like a mother does to her child.

While there have been efforts, notably by the Egyptian poet Abdul Rhaman al-Abnoudi, to record some of the texts of Al-Hilaliyya, I think that the whole experience should be recorded by video and held in National libraries as a precious human heritage.

Read more: 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::