Two Perspectives on the ‘Other’ in Arabic
Despite an apparently straightforward title, I have to start with some caveats and reservations, for it is by no means easy to determine what the limits of folk literature are in an Arabic-speaking country. Least of all must it be assumed that it conforms with popular notions of what its European cousins were or are like. Thus, it is only partially true that its compositions are anonymous, or are the creations of illiterate authors, or are confined to the countryside, or are composed and transmitted only orally.
In a book-length study of a single genre in Egyptian folk literature1 I have argued that the least diffuse of the criteria by which a composition may be judged to be genuinely ‘folk’ is the public to which it is addressed. This public is at the opposite pole from the minority who have acquired a Western type of education and who produce the ‘high’ literature too often assumed to be representative of modern Arab societies. The bulk of this public consists of illiterate villagers, but it also includes millions who reside in the poorer quarters of cities, and possibly also a fair number of those who have had a modicum of traditional Islamic education.
An extreme example that I mentioned in my book is that of a prolific versifier who was city-bred, had an Azhar education, made a living as a clerk in the railway yards in Cairo, never performed in public, but either taught his compositions to others or had them printed in cheap booklets. Yet, more than forty years after his death he and many of his works were still remembered with reverence by folksingers of unquestioned pedigree. The secret is that he not only used the language and conventions of an established folk art, but also conformed with the notions of the common people, so that although he was demonstrably knowledgeable about Christianity, he could–in an embroidery on the Qur>anic story–identify the tormentors of Abraham as Christians.2
The fact that Arabic has, on the one hand, a classical form which is still the norm in most of the ‘high’ literary genres, and, on the other hand, a large number of local spoken forms long considered unfit for serious literary expression, is not enough to determine whether a particular text is or is not ‘folk’, for the colloquial is gaining a growing measure of acceptance in the modern literary canon. Complicating the issue is the existence of a number of city poets who are neither members of the establishment nor entirely at one with the masses, and who adopt not only the language but also the verse forms of folk literature mainly for satirical purposes. The most famous of these is Bayram at-Tūnisī (1893–1961), and following in his footsteps is the enormously popular >Aḥmad Fu>ād Nigm (b. 1929).