Legends of ancient heroes
The atmosphere of Egypt's traditional stories still fills Cairo's older districts even if the storytellers themselves have mostly long departed, writes Mohamed Mursi
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Anti-clockwise from right: the Mouayed Sheikh Mosque; Zuweila gate; Old Cairo's Al-Bayda alley; Haj Sami in front of the Nafisa Al-Bayda sabil
Hanging out at the small cafés scattered in the oldest parts of Cairo, one feels close to the world of legend and intrigue that makes up the bulk of Egypt's oral history. Spend time near Bab Zuweila or Taht Al-Rabaa, around Al-Megharbilin or Al-Khayamiya, and you're likely to hear references to legendary figures handed down through sira, or biographical tales.
In length and sophistication, the story of the 13th-century figure of Al-Dhaher Beibars stands out from all other siras. In the story, Beibars changes from being a historical figure, though one with larger- than-life accomplishments, to being a man capable of feats that transcend human boundaries and a flawless hero who fights tirelessly for freedom and justice.
The person responsible for telling such stories, the traditional storyteller or hakawati, was a fixture of Egyptian and other cafés throughout the Arab world until half a century or so ago. He would sit on a high platform facing his audience, from which he would launch into one tale after another of chivalrous battles and treacherous intrigues.
Among such battles were those from which Beibars emerged victorious, among them the famous battle of Ain Galout between Egyptian troops and the Mongols. In his description of this battle, the hakawati would glorify Beibars's bravery and denounce treachery and cowardice, all in rhythmic prose interspersed with occasional lines of poetry.
As recounted by Egypt's traditional storytellers, the story of Beibars comes from a world in which Muslims are locked in mortal combat with the Crusaders, and Beibars is seen as the unchallenged champion of the Muslim world. A man called Juan in many versions of the story takes on the leadership of the Crusaders, uncharitably referred to as "heathens" in the stories.
At one point in the narrative, Juan succeeds in sneaking into the land of Islam by disguising himself as a Muslim scholar. The plot thickens as one Gamaleddin Shiha, a streetwise Egyptian trickster, gets onto Juan's case. Shiha then becomes a leading figure in the tale, sometimes as high in profile as Beibars himself. While the real figure on whom the character of Shiha is based is unknown, he seems to have been associated with a mausoleum in the city of Damietta.
Another character in the story is that of Marouf, who gets married to Maryam Al-Zennariya (or Maryam of the Sash). The latter was the daughter of a Christian king who meets Marouf while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She later converts to Islam and marries Marouf, having a son by him called Arnous. The son grows up among the Crusaders and at one point fights his father. When the two men discover their bond, they change their ways accordingly.
Other characters in the Beibars tale include those of King Negmeddin Ayoub, his wife Shagaret Al-Dorr, and the Turkman commander Aybak, who marries Shagaret Al-Dorr after the death of Negmeddin. All three are well-documented historical figures who form the basis for the legendary figures in the story.
The story of Beibars opens with his fight against the corruption of various ministers and judges. As part of Beibars's attempts to restore law and order to Egypt, he disguises himself as a tradesman or merchant, roaming the streets incognito, battling outlaws and teaching those who cross him a lesson.
The second part of the tale describes the wars that Beibars launches against the foreign kings of the afrang, literally the Franks, the name the Arabs gave to the Crusaders as a whole.
Whenever a Muslim city or castle is besieged, Beibars comes to the rescue. When the afrang attack Aleppo, for example, Beibars leaps into action. "He orders the bugles to sound, rallying the nation to battle. Word is sent to the Arab tribes and to those manning the city's fortifications. Armies are gathered from all parts of Egypt and Syria. The cannons of departure are fired, sending soldiers and combatants, all those who have volunteered for jihad in the service of God, on their way."
In the story, Beibars places his son Al-Said on the throne during his absence from Egypt, telling him to act fairly and justly. "Then he sets off, making his way down valleys and up hills, praying always to God for victory against the enemies." God listens and makes Beibars triumphant once again, dispersing his enemies and allowing him to capture thousands of them before driving the rest from the land of Islam.
Beibars then sends his army to besiege Arish to destroy the castle of Askalan (today's Ashkelon) and to march on Jaffa before heading north to Antakya (in today's Turkey).
Later, when Beibars has become an old man, he calls his son Al-Said to him and designates him as his successor. "I am an old man now," he says, "and I have no strength to carry the burden of defending the land of the Muslims as a pious combatant would do. Sit in my place on the throne of Egypt and be my successor. Do not for a moment shirk responsibility for defending the Muslims and their land. Fight for God and be truthful in jihad."
The man on whom this tale is based, the historic Beibars, was probably born in 1228 CE near the River Volga, from where he was captured and sold into slavery. He was then bought in Aleppo in Syria by one of Egypt's Mamluks, a military caste of former slaves that ruled Egypt from the mid-13th to the early 16th centuries. After killing Qutuz, a former friend and ally, Beibars became sultan of Egypt in his own right, eventually dying in 1277.
In the folk tales, Beibars is presented as something of a King Arthur, invincible, just, and having legendary powers. Even his early act of killing his former friend and ally does not affect this presentation.
Many people today are fans of the traditional stories, including Haj Sami, a resident of the Bab Zuweila area of Cairo, who likes few things better than such traditional tales. Sami remembers the day when red carpets were rolled out in the backstreets of the neighbourhood to mark a visit by King Farouk who had come to pray at the Sheikh Moayad Mosque.
Almost in the same breath Sami talks about the historical figure of Toman Bey, hanged on Bab Zuweila after he had fought valiantly to defend Cairo against Ottoman troops led by Sultan Selim I in the early 16th century. Toman Bey's body was left hanging for three days on the gate as a lesson to anyone daring to challenge the victorious Ottomans.
According to historian and researcher Nermin Khafaga, the authors of the traditional stories such as those of Beibars were fond of heroic acts, real or legendary, and they tended to mix fact and fiction in a weave of morality tales and romance, all done in a mixture of verse and rhymed prose.
Probably the best known such Egyptian tales are those of Antara bin Shaddad, Princess Zatel Hemma, Seif bin Zi Yazan, Abu Zeid Al-Hilali, Ali Al-Zeibaq and Al-Dhaher Beibars. For novelist and historian Mohamed Gabril, of all the mediaeval heroes of the tales Beibars is the one who seems most to have captured the public imagination. Not even Salaheddin, the 12th-century ruler of Syria and Egypt known in the West as Saladin, can come close to Beibars for his fame in folklore and popular legend.
When a historical figure of this sort acquires legendary status, it is usually because he or she has "understood his role in history and best performed it," comments historian Qasem Abdu Qasem.
Beibars understood his role of forcing the Crusaders out of the land of Islam and of destroying the Mongol invaders, and he performed it successfully. "His actions brought victory to the Mamluks and allowed them to extend their authority across the Arab region," Qasem said.
Other popular figures like Abu Zeid Al-Hilali, whose rivalry with Al-Zanati Khalifa, ruler of what is now Tunisia, offer the traditional hakawati occasions on which to give glorious accounts of battles, plots and romance. Al-Hilali and Khalifa were worthy opponents, and both of them possessed immense chivalry. They appeal equally to the fans of this particular tale.
Toman Bey, hero of Egypt's resistance to the Ottomans, is also glorified in the old tales as having been defeated only by betrayal to the enemy forces. Even today people still say prayers for him as they pass through Bab Zuweila in Islamic Cairo, the site of his execution.
Before dying on the gallows, Toman Bey is said to have addressed the crowds gathered at the site by saying, "people of Egypt, never forget to say prayers for my soul."
It seems that many people never have.