Exploring Arab Folk Literature

By Pierre Cachia | Go to book overview

12
Of Loose Verse and Masculine Beauty

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 the tercets by the addition of a fourth line with a distinctive rhyme shared by the closing line of what are now quatrains, so that the arrangement may be represented as:

bbbA cccA dddA… zzzA

Such a song may (but need not) also have a refrain that shares the binding rhyme.

The resulting pattern is one often encountered in the Andalusian zajal, or even earlier in the musammaṭ with which >Abū-Nuwās (d. 813) and some of his contemporaries experimented and of which the murabba< version has the same rhyme scheme, now a favourite in a great variety of songs.1

Yet the trend appears to be for the leading or most ambitious folk singers to turn increasingly to the mawwāl with its elaborate rhyme schemes, and their taste for zahr is such that some try to expand every rhyme to a multi-syllabic paronomasia achieved by distortion of the normal pronunciation. It is rather refreshing therefore to find that the Hilālī poets of Upper Egypt remain faithful to the quatrain form, as in a version of the story of Yūnis and Abnūdī. The rhymes are straightforward, with no attempt at zahr; indeed, they sometimes amount to little more than assonance, for if the final syllable of the line has a long vowel, the accompanying consonants may differ, and there are occasionally lines that do not rhyme at all. As for the binding rhyme, it is merely a long ‘oo’, easily realisable since such is the plural marker in all verbs, and the shorter ‘u’ which stands for the third person masculine singular attached pronoun can also be arbitrarily lengthened.

The story line is sometimes jumbled, and one result of this is that the chorus’s commentary is not always synchronised with the sequence of events. The song is sung with zest and energy, however, and in places produces a powerful effect.

-140-

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