Exploring Arab Folk Literature

By Pierre Cachia | Go to book overview

4
The Career of Muṣṭafā >Ibrāhīm A Giant of Egyptian Popular Literature

For about a thousand years, perhaps even longer, Arab creativity has found outlets not only in lofty compositions retaining the syntax (if not always the vocabulary) of the language in which the Qur>ān was revealed, but also in the coining of proverbs, the singing of songs, the recitation of poems, the telling of tales and the presentation of rather rudimentary playlets and puppet shows, all in the local dialects. Yet the immensely powerful and constant attachment of Arab intellectuals to their ‘classical’ language was such that only texts couched in this idiom were deemed worthy of serious attention, and it is these alone that Arab scholars and Orientalists alike habitually call ‘Arabic literature’ without further qualification. Anything expressed in the colloquial, when not openly scorned, was looked upon as mere entertainment; more often than not the text went unrecorded, the artistry unrecognised, the author unremembered. Modern Arabs have altered their attitude to the language quite substantially in some respects, but–per haps for the very reason that they are caught up in momentous social and intellectual changes–only a handful of scholars among them have begun to give serious attention to this ‘popular literature’, which they are used to treating with more familiarity than respect.

The character of this literature, and above all the lines of demarcation between it and the literature of the educated elite, are not as easy to determine as may seem at first sight. Its reliance on the colloquial as the medium of expression is probably its most distinctive trait, but it cannot be identified by this alone since the colloquial has also come to be used in some plays, novels and poems which are undoubtedly elite. It has some of the features associated with European folk literature in that the bulk of it is orally transmitted by rural artists of little or no formal education, addressing crowds at religious festivals; but that it excludes neither city dwellers nor pen-andpaper compositions is obvious from the career of Muṣṭafā >Ibrāhīm 1

About the man we have only scraps of information. His full name was Muṣṭafā ibn >Ibrāhīm ibn Muṣṭafā ibn as-Sayyid aš-Šarīf al-Xaššāb, but he was known as aš-Šayx Muṣṭafā >Ibrāhīm 2 By singers who still remember him,

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