The Prophet’s Shirt: Three Versions
of an Egyptian Narrative Ballad
Long neglected and indeed despised by the Arabs themselves, literary compositions in colloquial idioms are now beginning to receive serious attention from Arab scholars. Not surprisingly, for the field is vast, so specific a genre as the narrative ballad has been touched on only in the context of broader studies.
The subject is both hedged and criss-crossed with theoretical and technical questions. How distinctively ‘folk’ are these compositions? How do they relate to the better known recorded literature that has so far been called ‘Arabic’ without further qualification? How ancient, how ‘pure’ a tradition do they perpetuate? Into what metrical and musical forms do they fall, and where do these derive from? To what extent do intellectuals contribute to them, or interfere with them? How stable are the texts? How are they composed and transmitted? How reliant are the practitioners on the techniques of oral composition? How local is their art? What conventions do they observe?
There is no scope here to do more than state that I have come across such a variety of forms and techniques as can be fitted into only the most elastic of theories. I have also been impressed by a number of linguistic features: the extent of the vocabulary; the inconsistencies in vocalisation and even in gemination; and the fact that the same performer will sometimes combine features of what are generally held to be different regional dialects.
I can do no better service here than present–as raw material for the folklorist, the literary critic or historian, and the linguist–and therefore with a minimum of comment, a meticulous collation of three versions of the same ballad. The sample is particularly suitable for such treatment, but it must not be regarded as typical of the entire genre where contemporary themes abound and where much in honour is a kind of interpretative freesong which makes light of regularity of metre or rhyme. Here the theme is traditional but so far untraced to a specific source. The authorship is unknown, but the arrangement in quatrains with a rhyme scheme similar to that of Andalusian zajal and the overall similarity in wording bespeak both a common origin to the text and no small reliance on memory for its transmission. Yet there is also–in differences of substance and of wording, in irregularities of patterning, in strains to maintain the rhythm, in the transposition of formulae of praise applicable to the Prophet–evidence both of intentional variation and of improvisation, perhaps coming to the rescue of faltering memory.