Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 September 2004
Issue No. 707
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The tale of a tale

Once upon a time literary tradition was passed from one generation to another in the form of oral poems. Jill Kamil traces the recognition of an Egyptian epic as an international masterpiece

Click to view caption
Morsi receives the award from Matsura the director-general of UNESCO; Musician plays the rababa

The conservators who laboured to preserve the work of an anonymous mediaeval saga were rewarded last November when UNESCO proclaimed the great oral epic poem Al-Sirah Al- Hilaliya, also known as Al-Hilali epic, as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The poem recounts the story of the Bani Hilali Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the 10th century AD. The legendary tribe held sway over a vast territory in central North Africa for more than a century before being annihilated by Moroccan rivals. Among the dozen or more major oral epic poems that developed within the Arab folk tradition between the Middle Ages and the 19th century, Al-Hilali, once recounted throughout the Arab Middle East, has disappeared from all areas except Egypt, where it is still performed in its integral musical form.

According to Ahmed Morsi, chairman of the Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions (ESFT) and the main author of the epic's candidature file, it took two years to prepare the Al-Sirah Al- Hilaliya file for presentation to UNESCO. " The One Thousand Nights and a Night, better known as The Arabian Nights, only became widely known after it was translated into French and English," Morsi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This is the first time that we, as Arabs, have taken the initiative in proposing an example of our own folk culture for appraisal by an international organisation."

Only recently has the study of oral material become a fully-recognised science in linguistics, ethnology and, even more recently, in oral history. The intangible cultural heritage as defined in the UNESCO Convention is designed to safeguard rituals, expressions, knowledge and skills that have become part of a cultural heritage. The aim is to keep alive the memory of a place, a language, a traditional activity or an oral literature, oral tradition, or verbal arts and performance that has been passed on from generation to generation, but which is in danger of disappearing from people's hearts and recollection. To Morsi, it is important that this extinction should not take place. He feels strongly that the past, the foundation of our culture (in Egypt, our many cultures), should not be forgotten as we move forwards into the age of technology.

The wealth of oral material available, while ephemeral and therefore vulnerable, is enormous. It consists mostly of sayings, teachings, stories, legends, myths, rhymes, and references to ceremonies and festivities, and includes riddles and stories told to children. Oral heritage is unique in that it reflects the social unit, the spirit of the ancestors and other aspects of community life, with details being adapted, renewed and re-woven in every act of transmission. It is a memory of the past carried forward in an ever-elaborated, sometimes distorted or exaggerated form. If some of the tales served a politico-religious or social purpose people may not have been aware of it, but the message was meaningful and powerful enough to hold them together and help build a strong sense of identity. Ancient sages, monks, sheikhs and elders taught, performed or entertained, and many practitioners were trained within family circles and performed as a means of income.

Through them local wisdom and culture were carried forward. The tradition thus formed a link to the past and a guide to the future.

In 1998 UNESCO created the international distinction entitled Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity to honour the most remarkable examples of oral and intangible heritage. The programme distributes extra budgetary resources for the creation of prizes and to fund the protection and revitalising of cultural spaces or forms of cultural expression registered in the list of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

Oral tradition is today receiving increasing attention and support from wealthy institutions. It is the topic of scholarly discussion, workshops, conferences, surveys and educational programmes. In addition to the significance of oral tradition as a unique literary and musical expression, the Al-Hilali epic represents a repository of Arab folk history, customs and beliefs. Numerous proverbs and riddles relating to the poem are still in circulation, and many of regional place names immortalise familiar epic heroes.

UNESCO has four major programmes in the field of intangible cultural heritage. They include the proclamation of masterpieces of oral tradition, endangered languages, and the traditional music of the world. Among the dozen major oral epic poems that developed within the Arabic folk tradition from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, Al-Hilali is the only epic still performed in its integral musical form. Since the 14th century it has been performed by master poets who sang verses while playing a percussion instrument or a two-string fiddle ( rababa ). According to tradition, the performances take place at weddings, circumcision ceremonies and private gatherings, and can last from 50 to 100 hours.

Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliya is not only an extraordinary example of the long existing story telling tradition of communities in Upper and Lower Egypt, but it also includes the most ancient and popular music with songs and dances of the existing tribes. Such a work exerts considerable influence in shaping community vision and determining the possibilities of acceptance or rejection of ideas, innovations and changes associated with development, modernisation and cultural function in society. Today there are very few folk poets who know Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliya in its entirety, and in the light of rapid cultural changes and processes of acculturation, a project is underway to safeguard the epic from extinction by tracing elements of its survival among communities in Upper Egypt. Not only is Al-Sirah built on the notion of courage and heroism, of defending honour and revenge of war and romance, but it places the events in a social and historical context and consequently includes customs and practices, traditional food, clothing and community life.

Morsi says the project will focus on establishing a coordinating body to create a network of strong links between folklorists and relevant community practitioners. The aim is to document the present versions of the epic, and to fund master practitioner poets to teach a number of youngsters to recite Al-Sirah by heart. Workshops will be set up to ensure the dissemination of the Al-Hilali epic through publishing it in book form and translating it into other languages.

Collecting, making known, and preserving oral heritage is a challenge, but Yoshihiro Higuchi, a programme specialist at UNESCO's Intangible Heritage Section, says there should be no concerns about freezing an oral or living heritage by documenting it, although care should be taken to prevent it.

Already 19 masterpieces of oral and intangible heritages of humanity have been proclaimed, including works from Equador, Peru, India, Japan, Morocco, the Republic of Korea, the Russian federation, Uzbekistan, Nigeria and Togo. Others are expected to be added at the Third Proclamation scheduled for July 2005.

There are obstacles to ensuring an accurate systematic and methodological documentation, classification and archiving of Al-Sirah epic and its poetry and puns, which are still performed as an oral folk tradition. However, the first phase of the Egyptian action plan to create a database to include literary and audiovisual material, photographs, accompanying musical instruments and accessories is already underway, and a website will also be launched.

Unfortunately, Morsi says, few scholars and researchers are specialised in this field. "It is costly adequately to equip and support them in their important work, the aim of which is to train and build up a new generation of specialists, to make the epic masterpiece known to a rising generation of school-children, and, hopefully, to train and create a new generation of Al-Sirah poets."

Sheikh Ghassan I Shaker, a UNESCO goodwill ambassador from Saudi Arabia, has made a special contribution of $50,000 to support the Al- Hilali project. Further donations are forthcoming.

Additional reporting by Veronica Balderas Iglesias

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