An Honour Crime with a Diference
The entire field of Arabic folk literature has long been neglected, not least by Arab scholars whose concern until very recently has been almost exclusively with texts composed in the classical language. Understandably, Western Arabists too have largely confined themselves to material they encountered in Arab written sources. Some interest has finally been awakened in humbler aspects of Arab creativity, the most solid work being done mainly on the folk epic cycles, especially the one that is still alive today: the Hilāliyya.
No less important and no less indicative of the perceptions, priorities and artistic potential of the common people (as against the educated elite) are narrative ballads –usually running to about two hundred lines each–many of which are woven round some contemporary occurrences.1 The favourite theme is in fact the ‘honour crime’, the story of a woman who has deviated from the strict code of sexual ethics and thereby placed on a close male relative–usually her father or her brother–the duty of ‘washing the family’s honour’ in her blood. It is three versions of just such a story–the story of Ḥasan and Na<īma–that are presented here.2 They deal with a crime that took place in 1938, and that differed startlingly from the usual pattern in that it was the man and not the woman involved in the scandal who was killed. And no less startling is the treatment by the folk artists, who for once do not glorify the gory deed but are sympathetic to the lovers–or at least to the male. This radical departure from the ethos of the countryside is most probably due not to a revolution in values, but to the fact that Ḥasan was himself a folk singer.
We shall want to find out how this factor affects the judgement of the three poets; but it would be rewarding to consider first some matters of form peculiar to the mawwāl–metre, rhyme and wordplay–which weigh heavily in the way folk poets express themselves.
Egyptian ballads occur in a variety of metrical forms, of which the most rudi– mentary depend on a simple repetitive rhythm and equally simple rhymes, lending themselves to a certain amount of improvisation. Far more sophisticated is the mawwāl.3 Some of the Egyptian ballad-mongers I have met maintained that the essential feature of a mawwāl is that it should not be sung to a set tune; rather, the music should be modulated to ft the sense, and this I hope to illustrate with the last text I shall be quoting in this article. More commonly, it is defined–especially by the more scholarly who rely on written sources–as a composition in the basīṭ metre, but it is observable that a few more variations occur in it than are allowed in