Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Museum honours Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi

In less than two months since Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi passed away, a museum recording the poet’s thirty years collecting the epic Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya has been inaugurated in his hometown near Qena, reports Nevine El-Aref

Museum honours Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi
Museum honours Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi
Al-Ahram Weekly

In the small Upper Egyptian village of Abnoud in the Qena governorate, dozens of intellectuals, artists, and authors, as well as journalists, photographers, and TV presenters, gathered last week in front of a one-storey, off-white edifice on which was written in green letters the “Al-Abnoudi Museum of Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya.”

Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya is an Arab folkloric tale relating the Banu Hilal’s journey from Najd in the Arabian Peninsula to Tunisia via Egypt and the conquest of Tunisia. It is built around concrete historical and political events that took place in the 11th century when Zirid Tunisia broke away from the Fatimid Empire based in Cairo and the Fatimid caliph sent the Banu Hilal to the Maghreb to punish the Zirids for rebelling.
The epic has come to represent a foundational myth for Arab identity in North Africa, as well as the spread of Islam across the Sahara and its influence on the cultural heritage of countries as far south as Sahel states such as Mali and Niger.

It relates the story of Hilali leader Abu Zeid Al-Hilali’s rival Al-Zanati Khalifa the hero of the tribe of Zenata. The war between the Arab Banu Hilal and the Berber Zenata is the main theme of the Sira, an oral epic that was handed down from generation to generation by traditional story-tellers.
The story was never written down until 30 years ago when the late Egyptian poet Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi made an exhaustive collection of variants of the Sira, travelling from Egypt to Libya and Tunisia to document the epic that was once narrated by story-tellers in folkloric cafes and in the courtyards of rural houses. In 2003, UNESCO declared Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya to be one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

“We are celebrating the opening of the Al-Abnoudi Museum for Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya not only in recognition of the poet’s role as one of Egypt’s most important cultural figures, but also for the role he played in collecting and documenting Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya, one of the most important folkloric tales in the Arab cultural heritage,” minister of culture Abdel-Wahed Al-Nabawi told attendees at the opening gala held at the museum in Abnoud village.

He went on to say that the museum was one of a kind and it had put on a display of 67 art works, 14 texts of Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya and 132 audio tapes of sections of the Sira by story-tellers. The tapes also included the voice of Al-Abnoudi himself reciting parts of Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya while giving his comments to the Sira tellers.

“This is the minimum that we could present in recognition of the great role that Al-Abnoudi played to collect this unique human heritage over 30 years, in addition to his huge cultural, social, and political contribution that has given him a special place in the heart of Egyptian and Arab society,” Al-Nabawi said.

Hamdi Abul-Maati, head of the Plastic Arts Department at the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Al-Abnoudi had the credit for documenting the great work. He said that Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya was the greatest literary work of the Arab folk heritage and included thousands of verses relating the story of the Bani Hilal, an important Arab tribe that once lived in the Arab region.

The museum is a one-storey building displaying a large collection of photographs showing Al-Abnoudi during his trips to collect the Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya. In one he is shown with the Sira tellers while playing the rababa, a traditional instrument. In another he is shown dancing with a cane in his hands along with a folk group reciting a section of the epic and sitting on a wooden bench in front of a Sira teller writing and taping the verses he is reciting. Personal photos depict Al-Abnoudi at different stages of his life and with colleagues, family and state officials.

Modern paintings depicting section of the epic are also on display. Another hall is dedicated to the tapes that Al-Abnoudi made to document Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya including recitals by the poet accompanied by poet Gaber Abul-Hassan. Documents in Al-Abnoudi’s handwriting are also on show.

A hall of the museum is dedicated to Al-Abnoudi’s personal belongings, including the clothes he wore and the pen he used to write with. There is a display of the many awards and honours he received.

Neighbouring the museum is a library containing nearly four thousand books for adults and over a thousand books for children. It has reading, drawing and lecture halls, and Abdel-Maati said that almost 400 authors had contributed books to the library, among them novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani who had offered one thousand books from his own collection.

During the opening ceremony, Al-Abnoudi’s wife Nihal Kamal described the ceremony as “the harvest” of Al-Abnoudi’s efforts to collect the Sira over 30 years with very little money and only a cassette recorder given to him by the late Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez.

“This museum will help to bring together the generations, helping them to know more about and to understand Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya,” Kamal said. During the ceremony, Al-Abnoudi’s daughter Aya recited a poem from his collection “Faces on the Coast.” The museum is now welcoming visitors not only from Abnoud but also from other villages and cities around Egypt.

 Poet Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi passed away on 21 April in Cairo at the age of 77 after a long battle with illness. His stirring poem Al-Mawt Ala Al-Asfalt (Death on the Asphalt) was nominated as one of Africa’s most significant books of the 20th century at the 2001 Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Dubbed “Al-Khal” (uncle) by those who knew him, Al-Abnoudi was the voice of the poor and of a huge number of Egyptians whose voices are otherwise rarely heard.    

He wrote and recited his poetry in vernacular Upper Egyptian dialect and hardly ever used classical Arabic. This literary stance was associated with a militant political engagement, and Al-Abnoudi and other writers of his school sought to make their literary production part of the process of development and the movement towards popular democracy in Egypt after the 23 July Revolution.

He wrote the lyrics for Arab and Egyptian singers such as Sabah, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Warda Al-Jazairia, Mohamed Mounir, and Majda Al-Roumi. He wrote the script and the songs that featured in two classic films that tackled sensitive social and political questions and won him numerous accolades, Al-Tawq Wal Eswera (The Collar and the Bracelet) and Al-Baraee(The Innocent). More recently, he wrote children’s books.

In addition to being a poet and a creative writer, Al-Abnoudi was a political activist, and his poetry expresses strong political views. He continued to express his sceptical political beliefs during the 25 January and 30 June Revolutions. Before his death, he advised president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to free the incarcerated revolutionary youth of the 25 January Revolution and jail their elders instead. He urged Al-Sisi to stand by the poor and disadvantaged.

Al-Abnoudi was awarded prizes by several Arab countries. In Egypt he received the Egyptian State Award for the Arts in 2000, making him the first Egyptian dialect poet to receive the honour. In 2010, he received the Mubarak Award for the Arts, now called the Nile Award, which is considered to be the most prestigious nationwide.

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