Exploring Arab Folk Literature

By Pierre Cachia | Go to book overview

16
Social Values Reflected in
Egyptian Popular Ballads

My subject needs to be approached with much circumspection. The whole of Arabic popular literature has suffered not only from neglect, but also from contempt; and now that a handful of scholars have turned their attention to it, some significant issues are being obscured rather than clarified by premature theorising, in which selected facts are made to fit into a preformed frame of literary or social reference. Yet the more closely one looks at this literature with its great diversity and many ramifications, the more difficult it becomes to formulate its distinctive features or delimit its true territory.

In the hope of establishing a reasonably firm foothold, and because I am all too aware of my handicap in trying to study such a subject from a distance, I have limited myself severely to a comparatively small but easily definable genre within popular literature, namely, the narrative told entirely in song or verse, to the exclusion even of such epic cycles as the Hilālī stories that are partly in prose.

The evidence I have come across regarding the origination and transmission of the texts is far from clear-cut or uniform. For the art is indeed practised by men and women who conform with the conventional image of the wandering minstrel carrying songs part remembered and part improvised from one rural festival to another. But there are also men of some education and who may be city-based who are better at composing pen in hand than they are at singing; these may sell their compositions directly to singers (one of them, Azhar-trained Muṣṭafā >Ibrāhīm 1 has been known to deliver an ijāza in time-honoured fashion to whoever memorised 200 quires of his work), or they may publish them in cheaply printed booklets. Yet if–as does happen–their names are held in reverence by the itinerant singers and some of their compositions are remembered a generation after their death, is it not arbitrary to exclude them from the canon of popular literature? It is reasonable to assume that the heart of this literature is in the countryside rather than the city, but how strongly is the contrast to be made? The itinerant singers who travel from one mūlid to another do not give the city a miss. Indeed, the most popular–or the greediest–of them find it rewarding to give regular performances throughout Ramadan in cafés or specially erected pavilions in the vicinity of the Husaynī mosque in Cairo. But there they may find themselves next to a state-sponsored group using the same art forms to put forth political propaganda. The more fortunate of the popular singers may themselves receive state patronage. They may also be invited to cut a record or appear on television where they have to adapt to unaccustomed conditions if only

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