Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 July 2009
Issue No. 957
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

There was once a man

Jenny Jobbins takes a new look at some old tales, and ponders on the unchanging face of literature and the human experience

Click to view caption
Ahmed Marei in Shadi Abdel-Salam's The Night of Counting the Years

It has recently been making something of a comeback, but generally speaking the performance art of storytelling has been on a slow decline ever since the invention of the printing press and the consequent rise in literacy enabled the average person to grow closer to the written word. Yet storytelling, the art of retelling an often well known and much loved poem, fable, cautionary tale, love story or heroic epic, has enthralled and entertained audiences in every corner of the globe since mankind first realised the profound power and consequence of imagination.

English folk and fairy tales begin with the words, "Once upon a time..." In ancient Egypt, a phrase commonly used was "There was once a man..." Egyptologists have discovered many of the stories, often written in poetic form, that were widely known in ancient Egypt. How, though, were these tales disseminated amongst a population of which few knew how to read?

Fortunately, history has bequeathed to us a rich literary heritage that includes not only the poems and stories themselves but also visual descriptions, most of them from coffin paintings and tomb models and reliefs, of private and public recitals. Most of these images -- but by no means all -- are of recitals being given by lector priests whose sacred words were suitable for the after world. The reciters were professionals, whether these lector priests reciting liturgical texts or entertainers called in to perform at public festivals or private banquets. Presumably many of them were the celebrities of their day, and like actors in our time they knew how to pull a crowd.

When and where were these recitals performed, and who made up the audience? R. B. Parkinson conjours the scene in his erudite and entertaining book Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry: Among Other Histories, published this Spring by Wiley-Blackwell and available through the American University in Cairo Press. Parkinson invites us to imagine a recital at the Middle Kingdom garrison town of Abu, on the edge of Lower Nubia, which is taking place at the palace of Sarenput, the mayor of the town and the "Confidant of the king". "As modern onlookers, we can never recover a sense of 'being there'," Parkinson writes. "But an imaginative attempt can reveal the extent of our own limitations." Citing attempts at reconstructing Shakespearean drama as performed in Elizabethan days, or modern perceptions of early Western music. Setting oneself among the ruins at Abu makes it "relatively easy" to imagine the reciter "walking towards the performance. He would go along the main street, past the broader space of the walled festival courtyard of the temple of Satet with its public drinking place... In five minutes, he walks along this processional street, sweating slightly as he goes steeply uphill, straight into the late afternoon sunlight. He skirts the back of the temple of Khnum and, turning left, reached the street with the mayor's palace."

Parkinson describes the scene within the palace, where Sarenput is seated on a dais surrounded by elite guests and officials. The reciter stands and strikes a posture with his right arm outstretched. Perhaps, like a lector priest, he holds a papyrus roll to add authenticity to his words, although he may not refer to it and will probably extemporise a text he knows from memory. The author speculates on how the performer might have vocalised the text. The word for literary discourse was often simply dd, "to speak", or ödj, "to read out" or "recite". He writes: "This latter word might suggest a formalised and declamatory method of delivery suitable for the written registers of language, and the elaborate style and metrical form of the poems were apparently far removed from every day speech."

Or perhaps the poems were sung? Parkinson suggests that a similarity to modern mawwals, performed with an accompanying musical instrument, "should not be excluded". He also looks at how one performance might have differed from another. "The ancient poems are tightly structured texts that do not obviously evoke an improvising performance, and so extensive improvisation and repetition, variation and embellishment of the words are perhaps unlikely for ancient performances. However," he goes on, "this assumption of 'text' as basic, 'performance' as contingent, may be inappropriate, and the variations between compositions in contemporaneous manuscripts might have paralleled a certain interpretive freedom in performing." Umm Kolthoum, Parkinson points out, "was admired for never singing a song the same way twice. "

To what extent did the audience interact with the performer? Parkinson quotes Winifred Blackman, a general medical practitioner in rural Egypt, who in her seminal cultural study The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, published in 1927, recorded "ejaculations of appreciation" during the performances of local story tellers.

Yet, Parkinson writes, with the passage of 130 generations since the Middle Kingdom "we can scarcely hope to recapture the habits and meanings of ancient Egyptian poetic culture with any certainty." He conjectures, however, that: "There is no reason to suppose that ancient performances were any less dynamic than modern ones. The manner in which the sequence of tales... moves forward might well correlate with how performers were dependent on their patron's reactions; the interludes and interruptions of The Eloquent Peasant 's petitions can be interpreted to similar effect."

Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry features three poems written on 12th-Dynasty papyri that Parkinson translated and published in previous works. The three poems are The Tale of Sinuhe, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, and The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul. Parkinson writes in his preface: "This book was written for fun, and it is in a sense a love letter to these three poems and the places that produced them." In the first poem, The Tale of Sinuhe, Parkinson takes us through the reciter's narrative, the rise and fall of his voice, the way he pauses for effect, or expresses his sorrow, relief or other emotions through his tone of voice, changes of accent, facial expressions and gestures as he brings each character in his tale to life. For anyone not familiar with this or the other two poems, Parkinson has provided his translations in an Appendix so that the reader can follow the plot much as an opera goer can read a simultaneous translation or recap the storyline in the programme notes.

Sinuhe "Patrician and Count, Governor of the sovereign's domains in the Syrian lands, the True acquaintance of the king", describes the personal upheavals and political turmoil that surround him following the death of this king and his sudden reversals of fortune. The poem tells of the hero's foreign travels and his exile in a country called Iaa, where he becomes ruler of a clan and where "wine was more copious for it than water" and which had "all kinds of fruits on its trees." Here the performer would have made much of the opportunity to captivate his audience. "As he faces the audience, he watches to see how their eyes have been opened by his evocation of other lands and other lives," Parkinson surmises.

While the experiences of Sinuhe might be far removed from those of most of us, we can perhaps more easily relate to, or at least empathise with, the grievances of the Eloquent Peasant. This unfortunate traveller, Khunanup by name, en route from his home in Salt Field (Wadi Al-Natroun) to Nennisut (Heracleopolis), finds himself involved in a petty and trumped up legal issue when the unscrupulous servant of a high official entraps him into forfeiting all his goods in recompense for a mouthful of barley snatched by his donkey. The peasant, although at first he waxes lyrical with his effusive phrases of respect for his superiors, nevertheless soon nears the end of his own tether.

And wax he does. "... Soon this stereotypical example of petty crime in a minor key becomes a witty dialogue between robber and robbed, with an amusing -- if impassioned -- speed of response," Parkinson writes. The performer, he suggests, would have made the most of "this rapidly evolving exchange, contrasting the voices of the autocratic villain and the initially deferential peasant." As the peasant turns for justice to the High Steward, Rensi, the reciter would gradually bring his delivery into an "official" level. Despite the levity of its wit there is deep pathos in the poem: as Parkinson points out, it "trembles on the brink not only of seriousness but of great sorrow." There is an overwhelming sense of righteous indignation in the soliloquies the peasant directs at the High Steward. "You do not repay me for this perfect speech which comes forth from the mouth of the Sungod himself," the peasant tells the official at one point. He is unaware, and would not have been impressed to know, that Rensi, far from being unmoved by Khunanup's petitions, has been so impressed by his eloquence that he has relayed the matter to the king. In fact Khunanup's wife, far from starving at home as he believes her to be, is being provided for by the king while her husband entertains the officials with his beautiful speeches. "The selfish man is free from success; his success belongs to failure," Khunanup pleads meanwhile. "Only the goodness of the good man is good beyond him." Finally he risks all and denounces the power of the authorities. "There is no yesterday for the negligent, no friend to him who is deaf to Truth." Fearing he has gone too far and will be killed, he adds: "Look, I am pleading to you, and you do not hear -- I will go and plead about you to Anubis."

Naturally, as in Sinuhe, Khunanup is eventually recompensed and the villainous servant gets his come-uppance, but as a peasant he is still an underling and it is for his sheer mastery of words rather than the letter of the law that he receives his reward.

Probably the best known rendition of The Eloquent Peasant was the short film of the same name made in 1970 by Shadi Abdel-Salam, starring Ahmed Marei as the peasant. This beautiful film was an Arabic translation of the poem, and won several awards for Abdel-Salam. That the story can still touch hearts and resonate with us today is indicative not only of the literary elements of the poem, which are even surprisingly current in tone and nature, but also of the enduring human character which proves that people living in the 19th century BC thought, struggled, schemed, cajoled, and suffered under similar ethical and emotional considerations to those we ourselves experience in the 21st century AD.

Only one fragment of a copy of The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul has survived. As Parkinson explains in The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems (1940-1640 BC), published in 1997 by Oxford University Press, The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul is inspired by the man's uncertainty about how to view death, which was both respected but also feared by ancient Egyptians. Parkinson writes: "The poem is a poetic discourse on a general theme, and is not a logical analytic argument about a specific aspect of belief, such as the value of funeral rites or the status of a man's soul."

The soul, or ba, was understood by ancient Egyptians as one of the metaphysical aspects of a person that travelled with him or her through life and had a continued existence beyond death. Here, the man and his soul find themselves with opposing views about the death to come. The man holds the view familiar to ancient Egyptians that the afterlife as suggested by the funeral ceremonies is something to look forward to. His soul, however, urges him to make the most of being alive. "Aren't you a man?" asks the soul. "So you're alive, but to what good? You should ponder life, like a lord of riches!" The man, however, longs for death. "Death is to me today like the smell of myrrh, like sitting under sails on a windy day." He clings to the promise of eternal life. "There a man is a living god..." But the soul argues back: "Throw complaint over the fence, oh my partner and my brother."

Parkinson takes us on a journey through the history and development of the poems, the scribes who wrote the texts, and even the mistakes they made, washed out and rewrote. He examines the discovery of the 12th-Dynasty papyri in 1830, the condition they were in and how they were put together and deciphered. He continues with the rewriting of these and other poems as known through later manuscripts.

Interestingly, as Parkinson explains, elements of the poems survived through the Ramesside into the Late Period, and perhaps into Roman times. However, scribes made alterations when they copied the texts, since it seems, not surprisingly, that the passage of 800 years between the 12th Dynasty and the 20th made some of the terms and language difficult for the later scribes to understand. Parkinson writes that from the 26th Dynasty, when the Demotic script began to take the place of the hieratic, classical stories may have been sidelined, although Demotic literature may have continued to draw on Middle Kingdom sources.

"And they all lived happily ever after," goes the end to the English tale. The Egyptians ended on a more literary note: "So it ends, from start to finish, as found in writing." The spoken word endured in the written word, and thank the gods it did.

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