Al-Hilaliyya: the greatest and most popular epic

August 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Many of those concerned with Arab poetry in Europe and the US focus on lyrical poetry. It is commonly believed that Arab poetic heritage is short on great narratives and epics. This might be true regarding standard Arabic poetry. Yet there are many great epics in the different dialects of Arabic, such as Al-Hilaliyya, Al-Hussaiyniyya, Seerat Al-Zaher Baybars, Seerat Adham Al-Sharqawi, and Seerat Antara Ibn Shaddad. Most of these epics have no single author. Like the Karnak Temple in Luxor, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Hussein’s shrine in Karbala and most of the great architectural structures in this land of many conquerors, these epics are built one layer after the other with the contributions of many poets from different generations.

With the exception of Al-Hussainiyya, which tells the story of the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of  the Prophet Mohammed and a holy figure to Shiites, the greatest and by far most popular of these epics is Taghreebat Bani Hilal, (Bani Hilal’s journey to the west), also known by its simpler name, Hilaliyya.

History tells us that in the 10th century, Tunisia broke away from the Fatimid Empire. The Fatimids, decedents of Fatima the Prophet Mohammed’s older daughter, and the great builders of Cairo, ruled over modern day Palestine, Jordan, parts of Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, the eastern coasts of Arabia and parts of Algeria. Al-Mustanser, the Fatimid caliph of the time, did not have enough resources to raise an army and regain Tunis. A famine had hit Egypt for seven years, and whatever food there was could not be spent on an army that had to travel through the North African desert. A similar famine had also hit Arabia, and masses of tribes started to move north into the Levant and then southwest into Egypt. The greatest tribal mass consisted of Bani Hilal (the son’s of Hilal) and their allies Bani Zughba (the son’s of Zughba). Mustanser realized that one problem could just be the solution for the other. Rather than allowing the tribes to settle in Egypt, he directed them to regain Tunis. The fact that they were traveling along with their women and children, meant that they could temporarily settle many times in the way. The tribes would take much longer time than a regular army to reach their destination, because they would have to settle long enough at every oasis or town for food and water. Yet precisely because of this fact they would not need any food or water from the hungry capital of the Fatimids. Mustanser expected that these tribes would cause havoc in every township they passed through, and he was right. Yet he also knew that his subjects would be angry at the tribes not at him. Had he sent his own army, he would have risked gaining Tunis at the cost of loosing all the provinces leading to it, and so started Bani Hilal’s journey to the west.

This is what history tells us. But poetry has another account. The genius of Hilaliyya is that it turned this crude political act in history into a living epic that deals very delicately with human life in its individual and collective forms. The bards singing Hilaliyya would tell you how “sorrow escapes no one ­ even the sails of boats and the bowing dates on palm trees know it. ­ They would tell you that the world is full of wonders that are passed by as common, like the smile of the defeated to the victor.”

The story in Hilaliyya starts in Najd, the original home of the Hilalis. But in the epic, there are seven Najds (Najd literally means a plateau), the one in the middle is Najd al-Kubra (the greatest Najd), on which lies Rajouj, the Great Drum whose sound,  shakes all seven plateaus to warn them against an approaching enemy. The main figure in the epic is Abu Zaid al-Hilali, son of Rizq the greatest knight of Arabs. He was black “like Noah’s crow” yet his parents were white.

The bards would tell you that his mother, who stayed childless for 10 years after marriage, went to the Pond of Birds near Medina, to make her wish. With her, went the wife of Sarhan, the king of the Hilalis.

The pond was full of birds, fighting to get to the water. In the end there were two great birds, one white and beautiful and the other was black and strong. As they were fighting, the king’s wife wished that her son be as beautiful as the white bird. The moment she made the wish, the white bird was defeated and flew away. Abu Zaid’s mother-to-be, said, “I need a boy that can protect his people in the days of doom, not a white vase, pretty but easily broken,” and she wished to have a boy like the triumphant black bird.

Abu Zaid’s blackness is a central theme in the epic of Bani Hilal; his father denied him, accused his mother of betrayal, and banished both of them. Later on, when Abu Zaid grows among the enemies of his tribe, and excels in war, he comes to fight his own father, of course without knowing him. However, since he was a true

legitimate son, he could not physically hurt his father; neither could his father hurt him. Their hands would freeze in the air as they try to hit one another.

To Rizq and the Hilalis, this was enough proof that his wife was innocent. As

an apology, her camel walked on pure silk until it reached home.

It takes three years to tell the Hilaliyya. The above little story, takes place 20 years before the journey even starts. And it fills one whole volume. The reader can imagine how every moment of the journey was recreated in the epic.

Hilaliyya, in my own judgment, is one of the finest poetic texts in Arabic, and even world literature.

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