Pulp Stories in the Repertoire
of Egyptian Folk Singers
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 events, including the wars that have wracked the Middle East since 1948, held the folk poets’ attention only for a brief span.3
And yet in my collection is a handful of songs that are placed in a contemporary setting, but are of a more universal and less distinctively Egyptian character. They tell at length of dastardly deeds, of the sufferings of their victims and of the eventual triumph of justice, often through the intervention of the police and the courts.
The performers are unquestionably genuine folk singers, the delivery is characteristic of their style and the texts all display, to a greater or lesser extent, their delight in zahr, literally ‘the flower’ which requires rhymes to be inflated into multiple and usually polysyllabic paronomasias achieved by extensive distortion of the normal pronunciation of words. This involves omitting, adding or altering vowels, semi-consonants, glottal stops, and sometimes even the aspirate consonant hā>, retaining only the consonants in their correct order,4 so that the result may be called a ‘consonantal’ pun. When attempted in every line of a long poem, the effect is seldom achieved without some straining of sense or wording.5
Yet of the ‘pulp’ songs that have come into my hands, all but one are on commercial tapes, produced and marketed by entrepreneurs belonging to, and catering for, a different (or at least a wider) social stratum than the one which is commonly served by Egyptian folk artists; and of all the yardsticks that have been used to delimit Arab folk literature, I have found that the most readily identifiable is the public addressed, consisting mainly of the unlettered and of those who have had a modicum of traditional education without being substantially influenced by Western cultural perceptions.6 The question therefore arises: How truly ‘folk’ are these stories?
For a folk artist to sing into a microphone in a well-regulated studio is a far cry from the image one has of a typical performance in close interaction with a circle of gallabiyya wearers, perhaps at a mlid held in honour of some rural holy man. But occasions for folk celebrations are not exclusively rural. There are well-attended