Go to Eric Miller's homepage

Go to epic


[Approximately eight pages.]

In _The Merchant of Art: An Egyptian Hilali Epic Poet in Performance_,
Susan Slyomovics presents a transcript of a 3/10/83 performance by
Awadallah Abd aj-Jalil Ali.  The performance is of a story from the
Hilali epic, which tells of how the Bani Hilal tribe, in the eighth
and ninth centuries, moved northward from the Arabian peninsula,
traversed the Levant, moved westward across the Sinai peninsula,
and eventually settled in Egypt.  According to Slyomovics, the entire
epic cycle is composed of three sections: 1) the birth of the hero,
2) the scouting mission, and 3) the actual migration.  Slyomovics says
the entire cycle takes about 35 hours to tell; it is never told

The story told in this 4-hour performance is a very popular sequence
from the scouting mission.  It tells of how the hero Abu Zayd and his
three nephews came upon Amir Khafaji, the king of Iraq, and helped
him defeat the wicked Jew, al-Tash al-Khorasani, who would have
enslaved the Iraqi king and taken his daughter.

The performance context was a private home, with Slyomovics the
only woman in attendance: the other people there were seven or eight
men, all of whom had known the performer for many years.  The owner
of the home was the sponsor of the performance: the occasion was the
return of one of the men from an extended journey.  Slyomovics was
in the midst of a multi-year study of this particular performer, whom
she says was the finest she had came across.  Slyomovics notes that
in intimate private performances for connoisseurs such as this the
epic-singer uses many more puns than he would for a more public
performance, in which he would concentrate more on enabling all to
follow the storyline.

This is a basic form of epic-singing: Awadallah, the epic-singer,
performs alone, playing a drum to accompany himself perhaps
half of the time.  Audience members do not join in songs or dances:
all sit throughout the performance.  Slyomovics does not say very much
regarding gesture, movement, or melody (the rhythm of a typical line is
represented).  However, she does a superb and meticulous job of giving
a line-by-line annotated translation of the verbal text, including
interjections by audience members.  These interjections include:
elaborations on, exclamations about, and commentary about what
has just been said;  repeating the last word of what has just been
said; exhortations to the epic-singer, and to characters, to continue;
praise of the epic-singer; praise of Mohammed and Allah; and
role-plays on behalf of characters.

The Hilali tribe has to some degree maintained its image of a nomadic,
outcast people.  The epic-singer, Awadallah, is dark-skinned, as it
seems are Hilali people in general.  The birth of the hero of the epic,
Abu Zayd, came about in the following way (not recounted in this 

The Hilali journeyed from their home territory of Njad to Mecca and
were welcomed by Sharif Gurda of Mecca.  He agreed to give his
daughter, Khadra,  to the leader of the Hilali, Rizg, bestowing a
sumptuous dowry and predicting that their son would be a great
warrior.  The marriage took place, but for eleven years, Khadra
was barren.  One day, Khadra descended with ninety maidens
to the river.  There she saw a powerful and victorious black bird
scattering all the other birds from the river.  She made a wish for
a son exactly like that powerful black bird, so that the son might
one day rule over Tunis.  Nine months later she gave birth to the
hero, Abu Zayd, who was as black as that bird.  (49)

Abu Zayd is a warrior, poet, and magician: he is capable of
changing his form and he can call upon a magical savior,
al-Khidur, the legendary "green man" of the desert.  Awadallah,
the epic-singer, in recounting the story of the epic hero, clearly
embodies Abu Zayd, the epic hero.

Awadallah has Abu Zayd say,

"We are poets in every place,
men in the caravan marching,
poets and praise-singers,
each night a different diwan."  (52-5)
["diwan" can be transalted as hall, reception room, or sofa].

Awadallah himself says,

O dark nights,
with art my mind is at ease.
I sing, I tell of myself,
about the horsemen, the people of times past.
Were you to trust a poet
then you would cast off your load, you'd welcome solace.

At one point during the performance, an audience member

Abu Zayd is the expert on the road,
it is he who knows the places.  (138)

Mobility and the knowledge of all places are qualities that
contribute to  the power of the epic hero.  He "flings paths
and doors wide open" (270).  Abu Zayd is also a "healer of
wounds" (139).    In sum, as Awadallah puts it, shifting
back-and-forth between first and third person:

First, this old man is a healer.
I heal all the sick.
Secondly, this old man is a preacher.
I read all the a's and d's.
Thirdly, this old man is a poet,
I make art and bring forth poems.
Fourthly, this old man is a horseman,
my spirit is young in my spear thrust.  (353-60)

I believe the healing power of the epic-singer is derived from his/her
ability to put people in touch with their social, historical, and spiritual
roots.  A certain radical sense of determination seems to be an essential
component of the character of the epic singer and hero.

In the following review of the story, I will concentrate on how the
epic-singer superimposes elements of the story onto the social
situation in which it is told.  For lack of a better term, I am
calling this the 'in-performance transference process' (indeed,
is there a better term?).  This process occurs in all performance
of oral narrative: in performance of epic it involves creating a
flux between, and thus a synthesis of, the mundane present and
the glorious, heroic past.

As Slyomovics states, "a social outcast is created by and is
necessary to a community because he not only defines social
boundaries but also serves as a focus for group feelings" (p. 6).
"It should be recalled that the very performance itself, not just
the plot of the epic tale, evidences a tension between poet and
audience because, whether it is Awadallah singing to an Upper
Egyptian audience or a fictive Abu Zayd singing in a fictive Iraq,
it is only the poet's words, not his person, that command respect"
(p. 76).  In the course of the performance, Awadallah says a good
deal about the hero being mistreated by his host and others:
much of the performance involves Awadallah's scoldings and
teachings on the proper protocol of serving, greeting, and
listening to the epic-singer.  Only over time is Abu Zayd's value
recognized.  In regard to the story's content, this is the theme
that I will trace throughout.

As the story begins, Abu Zayd and his three nephews are riding
across the desert.  They come to the camp of Amir, king of Iraq.

Abu Zayd said, "O sons of Sirhan,
O men of the long-fringed headscarves,
dismount from atop the camels--
politeness, a trait of guests.  (25-8)

In instructing his nephews to dismount and be polite, Abu Zayd
is reminding them to act as proper guests.  If they do so, their
host must also act properly--this is the social contract.  Awadallah,
the epic-singer, is referring here to the contract that he has with
his patron in the social situation of the performance: he is
reminding his patron that  if he tells the story properly, he is to
be rewarded with attention, food, drink, cigarettes, and cash.

The horsemen are welcomed by Dawaba, the king's daughter.

Dawaba tells her servant:
"make coffee--fulfill our duties."
They set forth a tray of high quality.  (73-4)

He gave Abu Zayd to drink afterwards,
the slave did not prepare his duties, did not return his duties.

He considers Abu Zayd a purchased slave.
O people, God's eye was on him, God came to his aid,
O people, God's eye was on him,
he consents not to insults.
Abu Zayd's eyes glared at the slave,
the slave's tray fell to the ground.  (81-6)

Proper protocol is very important to Abu Zayd.  He considers it
a tremendous affront to his honor that the servant serves him
coffee after the others, and here, as throughout the story, Abu
Zayd's fury magically affects the body of the person with whom
he is upset.  The servant runs away in terror.  Abu Zayd
proceeds to question Dawaba as to why she, a female, is
welcoming strangers.  She answers:

War with the foreigner drags on,
it confuses Amir, my father.  (125-6)

Abu Zayd (like the epic-singer of the performance), having little
property of his own, represents actual and potential power.  The
king (like the patron of the performance) has used his power to
acquire and build external material possessions, most especially
his house/compound.  Now, in the story at least, the property
owner is decadent, weak, afraid, in need of revitalization.  It is
the outsider who comes to revitalize the stagnant, spent one.
As mentioned above, by putting the property owners in touch
with God, Mohammed, history, and the future, through the
driving force/energy of the performance itself, the epic-singer
(both in the story and in real life) revitalizes the household.
He puts the property owners in a different frame of mind.

Eventually, Amir, the king of Iraq, comes out to meet the visitors.
Says Awadallah:

Here is the disgrace, O my brother,
here is the great disgrace that takes place:
He gave greetings to Abu Zayd afterwards.  (151-2)

Once again, Abu Zayd's honor has been soiled.  Awadallah
threatens on Abu Zayd's behalf:

whoever opposes him orphans his own children (162)

To oppose Abu Zayd the warrior is to risk physical extinction,
but to oppose Abu Zayd the epic-singer (or, in the social
situation, for the patron to insult Awadallah) is to risk
not being sung about with praise, or not being sung about
at all.  The epic-singer has the power, to some extent, to grant
or deny immortality in story and song.   In one instance, when
an audience member interrupted Awadallah's performance to
ask what character had spoken the previous line, Awadallah
delivered a poem of insult to this audience member on the spot.
Failing to pay attention to the epic-singer (Awadallah) who is
telling the story is a crime as bad as failing to serve and greet
the epic-singer (Abu Zayd) in the story.  As for Amir,

his small fingers dried up,
his two fingers and hand stiffened,
his breath caught in his throat.  (166-8)

Then Amir said to the Arabs  (173)
O Arabs, he is no poet!
That slave of yours is no slave!
When do I go back on my word?
His greetings cut the liver to pieces,
that one is a destroyer of dwellings!"  (177-81)

Amir said, "O coffee maker,
quench the slave's thirst before,
quench the slave's thirst before me,
I see his turn has not yet come."
Only after Rayya's father has drunk
did Amir, the Sultan, drink.  (190-6)

Finally the king has understood the power and value of Abu Zayd,
and he now serves him first.  In addition, he plans to host a feast
and a performance by Abu Zayd the following day.

Amir sent forth letters
to every clan, their leaders:
Tonight there is among us a poet
to entertain all the brave men.
From morning, the folk arrive,
the palace cannot contain the horsemen.  (197-201)

This is proper protocol by the king toward his visitor.  Just as
the feast begins in the story, coffee is served at the performance
event, and Awadallah takes a break.  When the performance
resumes, Awadallah has Abu Zayd protest Dawaba's appearance
at the men's feast, just as earlier he had protested that Dawaba
was the first to welcome him and his nephews.  (Slyomovics was
permitted to attend performances of epic for a number of reasons,
including: she dressed like a man, was a foreigner who had
traveled from afar specifically to study it, had money and
was often paying the epic-singer, and was affiliated with
academic and state institutions.)  At the fictional feast,

Amir said to him, "O poet, divert us.
Your night will be the happiest of times."
Abu Zayd said, "O night," to invoke the Beautiful One,
an invocation to the Prophet, sheltered by clouds.
He drew on the bowstring, sang of the Beloved
until dawn's rays widened into light.  (292-7)

In the song of both the real and fictional epic-singer, love for
Mohammed (the divine), the tribe's victory in battle (the social),
and a female lover (the human), are all conflated.

Just as the morning prayers are completed, a slave messenger
appears.  He has been sent by al-Tash al-Khorasani, a
neighboring Jewish king.  al-Khorasani demands a great
deal of tribute from Amir, including his daughter.  Khorasani
would make Amir his slave.  Thus, just as Abu Zayd has
victored in his battle to gain proper respect from the Iraqi
king, an external villain appears to threaten to enslave that
king: it is Abu Zayd's duty, and in his self-interest, to defend
his patron.

Amir weeps when he hears of the Jew's threats.  Abu Zayd
writes a letter of refusal, which he insists that Amir sign.  When
the slave foolishly asks for an additional sign of the Iraqi king's
intent, Abu Zayd cuts off the slave's nose and ears.

Soon the Jewish army approaches.  Abu Zayd saddles up a tired
old horse and seems about to ride off.

Amir said to him, "Where are you going?"
Abu Zayd said to him, "I go to sing for al-Khorasami,
perhaps he will tip us in cigarettes.
You are greedy, O king,
too greedy about your possessions.  (652-6)

The king immediately apologizes to Abu Zayd, promising a reward
of clothes after the war.  Here again the epic-singer Awadallah is
setting a play model for the relationship between himself and his

Amir goes off into battle and is gravely wounded by al-Khorasami,
receiving gashes in the thigh and belly (both terms are used).
Amir returns home and is confined to bed in a room atop a tower.
Abu Zayd disguises himself as an old man (simply by passing his
hand down the front of his face and body) and attempts to enter
the tower.  The gatekeeper stops him.  Abu Zayd grips his hand,
and the gatekeeper screams in pain and flings open the doors.

He climbed, crawling to the top of the many-pillared castle.
Abu Zayd climbed, crawling.
While climbing he played the rababa.
Midway up he composed a poem.
Amir said, "O Dawaba,
I now hear the sounds of a poet,
now bring him as quickly as possible."  (788-94)

Dawaba goes down the stairs and urges the old man,

"O poet, hurry a little,
my father wants you at the top of the many-pillared castle."
He cried out, he said, "O Dawaba,
I am your 'uncle,' an older man,
I cannot climb up the building.
If your father wants me,
let him come to me here, to this place."
(audience member: That's some hero!)
"Listen, O Dawaba,
does the customer move or does the store?  (799-806)

In comparing himself to a store, from which life-sustaining provisions
are purchased, and the king to a customer, Abu Zayd is reversing the
normal view that it is the patron who is the source of life-sustaining
wealth.  This exchange is once again intended to reflect upon the
relationship between Awadallah and his patron: the insertion of
the mundane and commercial motif, "store," like "cigarettes," insures
that the point is understood by all present.  Amir cannot rise from
his bed, but

Amir sent him emissaries,
they supported him left and right,
they accompanied him to the sultan.
Abu Zayd yelled at Amir, yelled at Amir,
he said to him, "Stop whining
and deceiving--feigning illness.
You abandon four poets
with no coffee or tobacco,
and no one asks after us,
and the days are long upon me."
Amir said to him, "O poet, come see my condition,
from my wounds I pass the night, not sleeping,
here I lie bellowing and moaning
and the world is evil, capricious.
Within me, belly wounds appear,
thus the Divine One desires it."  (808-23)

Abu Zayd's words of bizarre self-centeredness are evidently part
of his healing technique--they are perhaps an attempt to rouse
the king to anger, to awaken his sense of self-respect and his
fighting spirit.  The king has wounds that have in a sense made
him a female--gashes in his thigh or belly.  Moreover, Abu Zayd
has already stated on numerous occasions that Amir has been
allowing his daughter too many liberties: from Abu Zayd's
perspective, the female element is dominating the realm.  With
the help of his spirit helper, the "green man," Abu Zayd drugs
the king and tells Dawaba that her father  is dead.  Meanwhile
he has his spirit helper spit into the wound and sprinkle it
with medicine that the spirit helper has brought from afar.
The wound "swallows up the medicine" (899) and shortly
thereafter the wound heals, not even leaving a scar.  This
is similar to how the epic-chanter is dispensing the epic to
his audience: it should have the same "masculizing" effect
on them.

Abu Zayd, in payment, now demands two things of the Amir:
Dawaba has fallen in love with Abu Zayd's nephew, Yunis.
Abu Zayd demands that Dawaba be allowed to go with the
horsemen and the Iraqi soldiers into battle, to sing from
behind them, and so exhort them to victory.

Abu Zayd also demands the king's fierce untamed warrior
horse.  Without waiting for a reply, Abu Zayd approaches the
royal stable

Abu Zayd struck down the door with his fist,
he tore loose a plank from its nail
(audience member: He has his own key!)
The beast bore down on him, baring his teeth,
and may the outcome be sure,
the Hilali came to him like evil, baring his teeth also.
Abu Zayd struck it with his fist,
he struck the steed with his fist,
its mouth snuffled the sands,
the steed began to tremble,
trembling as if cold.
Abu Zayd worked his trick,
he mixed lies, he brought falsity,
he put the saddle horn behind
and placed the seat in front.
Abu Zayd reined the horse in by its tail.  (986-1000)

All the Arabs said, "Distasteful, O Amir,
can it be, your reason has fallen from you?
Ambitious, the poet man,
you mean, he will battle foreigners for you?
Not knowing how to ride a horse,
not knowing how to saddle the beast,
where do you mean to go, Abu Zayd?"  (1004-1011)

Of course, Abu Zayd knows exactly what he is doing, for he
is a trickster.  He proceeds to battle and leads the Iraqi side
to victory.  Dawaba goes along, singing to them from behind
to exhort them as they fight.  This is what epic-singers in
general do: support and encourage people in the battle of
their lives.

Dawaba said, "I am saddled behind men who are horsemen.
Arabs, may God make pure their honor.
When spear clashes on spear,
it is I who chant behind them."  (1057-1060)

It is interesting that here, for the first time in the story, Dawaba
is permitted a public role by Abu Zayd (and Awadallah)--
as a singer, no less--although it is a secondary and supportive one,
as compared to the male warriors in front of her.

Upon victory, Abu Zayd leads the army back towards Amir.  Abu
Zayd falsely announces to the king that Dawaba has been captured.
Amir exclaims

"Come here, O vile black slave,
purchased slave, O you of no family.
Can it be...they won Dawaba from you,
O black crow-face."

Abu Zayd thus intentionally provokes Amir to once again engage
in his old form of disrespectful verbal abuse of Abu Zayd.  Perhaps,
to Abu Zayd this response signifies that Amir has totally recovered
from his illness.  Being a bit rough himself at times, Abu Zayd has
a high tolerance for abuse in others, seeing it as a sign of life.
Moreover, causing Amir to think that his daughter is dead seems
to be part of Abu Zayd's therapy for Amir: it causes Amir to cut
himself off from his perhaps incestuous attachment to his daughter.

The king declares that he will go off and re-win his daughter. The
fact that he is vital enough to want to do this shows that Abu Zayd
has helped him to recover, that his virility has returned, and he is
once again a fighting king.  Abu Zayd's techniques of insult,
challenge, threat of betrayal, and separating the king from his
daughter (including telling each that the other is lost), have

Dawaba soon appears and Abu Zayd's ruse is exposed.  Dawaba has
shifted her allegiance to the horsemen now--she will wed Yunis,
Abu Zayd's nephew--but that loss is a small price for the king to pay,
especially as the horsemen are now a part of his family.  Awadallah,
the epic-singer, may also be thought to have symbolically won the
horse (fierce energy) and daughter (reproductive energy) of his patron
and to have become his spiritual son-in-law.

The story of Abu Zayd and Amir Khafaji, the king of Iraq, ends with
Amir leaving his sedentary life and joining the horsemen on their
mission to conquer Tunis, to the west.