An Incomplete Egyptian Ballad
on the 1956 War
In the course of the field work which eventually led to the publication of my Ballads,1 I made it a practice to ask as few leading questions as possible in order to let my informants reveal their own priorities. What emerged was that among the ballad-mongers who did not specialise in the epic cycle of the Hilālīs, by far the most popular themes were accounts of ‘honour crimes’ in which fierce retribution is visited upon women who offend against the strict (if unequal) code of conduct still prevalent among the masses. Closely allied were other feats of bravery and violence, mainly motivated by revenge. Following at some distance were ballads of a religious character, either embroidering a Qur>anic story or recounting the deeds of a holy man.
Not once was I volunteered a song celebrating some national event and reflecting the kind of loyalty to the state that is very much in honour among the educated modernists–what Albert Hourani has defined as ‘territorial nationalism’ to distinguish it from pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism.2
One of my informants was Muḥammad Ramaḍān Sayyid Aḥmad, known as Abū Đrā<, that is, ‘the One-Armed’. He was of peasant stock. His first home had been with his mother and stepfather, but when he was about five years old his father– whom he had not known before–claimed him and took him to Uṭūr in the district of Kafr iš-Šēx near ṭanṭā in the Delta. There he worked in the fields along with his father, and it was when trying to oil a waterwheel while it was turning that he lost his arm. At the age of nine, enamoured of song, he went–without his father’s knowledge–to the greatest mūlid in Egypt, the one com memorating the birth of as-Sayyid al-Badawī in ṭanṭā, and there he chanced to meet an uncle of his and persuaded him to take him to Cairo; but fearing that he would be returned to his father, he took to the streets where he made a living as a newspaper vendor. He then attached himself to a succession of folk singers and musicians until he could strike out as a performer on his own. Because the main outlet for folk literature is at the festivals of holy men whose burial places are scattered all over Egypt, most of his career involved travelling about the countryside, but in time he achieved such popularity that he transferred most of his activities to Cairo, where the pickings were greater.
It was there that I had several sessions with him. That was in 1972, during the month of Ramaḍān when Muslims who had fasted all day sought relief and entertainment well into the night. Abū Đrā< and his troupe, which included several musicians and at least one female singer, occupied the stage in a temporary pavilion