Of Loose Verse and Masculine Beauty
There are many verse forms to which the Egyptian folk singer may resort for narrative purposes. The most demanding is the mawwāl, with its set rhyming patterns and elaborate punning rhymes. At the other extreme is the singing to a repetitive tune of mono-rhyme stanzas usually consisting of three lines, but sometimes stretched to four or five if the performer needs space to round off the information he wants to convey. Each of these stanzas is then followed by a refrain in which the accompanists usually join the soloist.
A slight elaboration of this strophic arrangement is the expansion of the tercets by the addition of a fourth line with a distinctive rhyme shared by the closing line of what are now quatrains, so that the arrangement may be represented as:
bbbA cccA dddA… zzzA
Such a song may (but need not) also have a refrain that shares the binding rhyme.
The resulting pattern is one often encountered in the Andalusian zajal, or even earlier in the musammaṭ with which >Abū-Nuwās (d. 813) and some of his contemporaries experimented and of which the murabba< version has the same rhyme scheme, now a favourite in a great variety of songs.1
Yet the trend appears to be for the leading or most ambitious folk singers to turn
increasingly to the mawwāl with its elaborate rhyme schemes, and their taste for zahr is such that some try to expand every rhyme to a multi-syllabic paronomasia
achieved by distortion of the normal pronunciation. It is rather refreshing therefore
to find that the Hilālī poets of Upper Egypt remain faithful to the quatrain form,
as in a version of the story of Yūnis and
The story line is sometimes jumbled, and one result of this is that the chorus’s commentary is not always synchronised with the sequence of events. The song is sung with zest and energy, however, and in places produces a powerful effect.