An Uncommon Use of Nonsense Verse
in Colloquial Arabic
In 1893, M. Urbain Bouriant, then Director of the French Archaeological Mission in Cairo, published a volume entitled Chansons Populaires Arabes en dialecte du Caire d’après les manuscrits d’un chanteur des rues.1 The book consists of 160 pages of carefully edited and very well printed texts, with no comment or study of any kind. A note from the publisher, however, refers to the ‘stroke of good fortune’ that brought the manuscripts into M. Bouriant’s hands and announces that the selection presented then was only a forerunner of a translation and study to appear later. Sadly, M. Bouriant was struck down by ill-health in 1895,2 and as far as I have been able to ascertain never fulfilled his intention of following up on a very promising beginning.
More recently, Muḥammad Qandīl al-Baqlī has published a volume3 which, though he makes reference in it to a ‘booklet’ by Bouriant, he claims to be the result of painstaking independent research and a careful confrontation of texts. The truth is, however, that al-Baqlī has drawn solely on Bouriant’s material, which he reproduces almost in its entirety, even to incorporating the Frenchman’s conjectural emendations. And without mentioning that this material came from the hands of a street singer (indeed, he speaks vaguely of sources accessible only to the wellinformed), he builds round it what he claims is a survey of ‘dervish’ literature. In assigning such a label to these twice-published texts, al-Baqlī seems to have relied heavily on his intuition; his discreditable methods ought not, however, to turn us away from the possibility that, despite their immediate provenance, some of the texts may indeed reflect the once pervasive influence of the Sufi brotherhoods in Arab life, although, of course, the issue will have to be decided on the strength of internal evidence and for each piece on its own merits.
Bouriant’s collection will indeed repay close examination, and it is a reflection of the lack of regard for compositions in the colloquial at the time it was published that it went virtually unnoticed by Arab scholars and by Arabists alike.
All but six of its thirty-four pieces follow the most common pattern for the zajal: first, an introductory couplet setting what will be the binding (AA) rhyme of the entire song; then, a variable number of stanzas almost always rhyming bbbaa, cccaa, etc., sometimes incorporating the introductory couplet or part of it (e.g., bbbaaA, or cccaAA), and the final stanza virtually always ending with the initial couplet (zzzAA). Furthermore, the penultimate stanza usually consists of praise of the Prophet, and in the last one the poet often names himself amid expressions of