Everybody understands eloquence in his own dialect.
—IBN KHALDUN,  THE MUQADDIMA, 1377 ce

Then the poet would begin to recite in a wonderfully sweet tone the doings of Abu Zayd, Khalifa and Dhi’ab, and his hearers would remain silent except when ecstasy enlivened them or desire startled them.
—TAHA HUSSEIN, THE DAYS: AN EGYPTIAN CHILDHOOD, 1932

These words come at the beginning of Taha Hussein’s auto-biography, where he tells us how he would creep out of his parents’ house to listen to tales that had held audiences across the Arab world spellbound for centuries: Sirat Bani Hilal—the Romance of the People of the Crescent Moon. For Hussein, living in a village in Upper Egypt and blind since childhood, the adventures of the tribe that had emigrated from Arabia 1,000 years before opened up a new and wonderful world. He was to become one of Egypt’s most influential writers and educators.

Sadly, this centuries-old oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next, is now almost at an end. The café and market-square patrons, who once listened enraptured, have found new entertainments, and the few remaining rawis — reciters—are very old and have no successors.

To a limited extent—as with the Arthurian legends—the old stories have transferred to new media. There have also been efforts to preserve and record versions of the epic in the Arab world, and in 2003 the United Nations declared it one of the masterpieces of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Like most of the great Arab epics as well as those from Eu-rope and the Byzantine Empire, there is a loose historical basis for these stories. Minor characters from the original sources were often promoted to heroes, and actual events were modi-fied to suit the narrative or resonate with a particular audience.

Yet in a world of widespread illiteracy, the recitation of these epics gave ordinary people a sense of history while inculcating virtues such as courage, pride and—when necessary—vengeance. Cunning was valued, in the sense of outwitting one’s opponent, much like “wily Odysseus” in Homer’s Odyssey—in contrast to European chivalric romances in which cunning was often a villain’s mark.

The Sirat is divided into three parts: the tribe’s origins and journey out of Arabia, its time in Egypt and Syria, and what is often called “the Westering of the Bani Hilal,” that is, the tribe’s invasion of North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic. Many versions of the story describe a prolonged drought in Najd in Central Arabia, in which herds died, bringing famine. Tribes cast lots to determine which would stay and which would go in search of new grazing lands. Over time there were in fact several waves of migrations, but for the purposes of the romance, they were all attributed to the Bani Hilal. What began as a struggle for survival turned gradually into politics: Early sources say that when the tribes reached Egypt, the Fatimid ruler loosed them on the Zenata Berber dynasty of Tunisia. This ridded Egypt of what the Fatimids regarded as a dangerous and destructive presence and punished allies who had become rivals.

Three main characters who reappear in almost every ver-sion are Abu Zayd, Khalifa and Dhi’ab. Khalifa al-Zanati at least is a known historical figure, chief general of the Berber ruler of Tlemcen (now in Algeria), although he appears in different guises in different versions of the epic in order to appeal to the local audience. Ibn Khaldun, who in the 14th century wrote down the first surviving passages from the Sirat that are very similar to versions collected in the early 20th century in the same region, commented on the wide variations in plot, setting and style.

In addition to these three, the Sirat has a huge cast, which also varies—and sometimes the same name is used in different places for different characters. Al-Khadra, for example, can variously be Dhi’ab’s prized white mare, Abu Zayd’s mother or a slave girl. None of this would have been confusing to listeners, because they would have been listening to one coherent, local tale. It only becomes complicated when discussing the Sirat as a whole. 

Extremely popular in North and West Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, the Sirat Bani Hilal does not seem to have traveled east—unlike the Iskandar Nama (The Story of Alexander the Great), which was a favorite in Iran, Afghanistan and as far afield as Malaysia and Indonesia, or the Sirat Hamza, the legendary adventures of the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Nor does it seem to have entered the Ottoman repertoire: Considering the Turks’ protracted political problems with the Bedouin, stories of Bedouin conquests may have held scant appeal.
 

1836, Cairo

Edward Lane, in his An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, first published in 1836, devotes three chapters to “Public Recitations of Romances.” 
The number of these Sho’ara [poets] in Cairo is about fifty; and they recite nothing but the adventures related in the romance of Aboo-Zeyd…. The Sha’er [poet] always commits his subject to memory, and recites without a book. The poetry he chants; and after every verse he plays a few notes in a viol which has but a single cord, and which is called “the poet’s viol,” or the “Aboo-Zeydee viol” from its only being used in these recitations.
The geographical spread produced some truly exotic variants, for example, one episode from Sub-Saharan Africa in which Abu Zayd battles a giant crocodile. Tales collected in Bornu, Nigeria, are so far from the originals that they are hard to recognize apart from some of the names. Individual reciters took the story in whatever direction they felt would appeal. In one Syrian version, the Sirat is set in the 14th century, the time of Amir Timur (known in the West as Tamer-lane), and the Bani Hilal go on to conquer India. In another version from Egypt, they ex-change letters with the King of China.

In an episode recorded in the mid-20th century in Dhofar, in southwestern Oman, Abu Zayd has an adventure clearly adapted from “St. George and the Dragon” although, by now an old man, he neither marries the princess he has rescued nor takes over the kingdom: Instead, in some versions of the story, he continues on his way and ends his days as a holy man. Dragons are rare in North African and Arabian folklore, so scholars believe this story most probably crossed from Ethiopia, where St. George is known and much esteemed.

Elsewhere, “modern” elements crept in: muskets, Turkish soldiers, Genoese merchants and even prickly pears, which were introduced from Mexico in the 16th century. In a 19th-century version from Beirut, Abu Zayd was bullied at school for being black and presumably illegitimate: Of course he puts his tormentors in their places. Although chess was known in the Arab world from early Silk Road times, scenes with the heroine Jazia playing chess, or of Bedouin writing letters, show ur-ban norms continuing to modernize the tales.

There are also additional, subtle differences. Giovanni Canova, collecting tales in Yemen in the late 1980s and ’90s, pointed out that distinct from Syrian, Egyptian and North African versions, in Yemen the heroes of the Sirat Bani Hilal were praised more for their shrewdness and wiliness than for their feats of arms. These were themes that harked back to pre-Islamic times, and the noble and chivalric deeds that appealed to the Mediterranean world and that became characteristic also of European folk epics and cycles such as the King Arthur tales were definitely fewer. 

The Birth of Abu Zayd

Recorded by Abderrahman Guiga, circa 1925, Takrouna, Tunisia
From this marriage with Amir Rizq a daughter was born to whom the Sharif gave the name Shiha. Then the young woman ceased to bear children. Desperate, one day she said to herself: “My last hope is to offer a plate of couscous to the birds of the air. Perhaps they will intercede with Allah on my behalf, so that he gives me a male child.” She set down the platter deep the desert and hid herself. The first bird to alight on the plate was a crow. At once, she uttered this prayer:
“Allah, my Lord, you who save the beasts from certain death by making the rain fall Give me a son, just like this bird and with the same virtues So that strokes of his sword will cause the blood of his enemies to flow.”
Her prayers were heard and she gave birth to a child blacker than the night, but with the same features as a white child.
An interesting feature of several of the Arab epics is that the leading hero Abu Zayd is often said to have been “black”—in spite of the fact that the stories evolved in areas where blacks of African origin were a small minority. 

Equally interesting are the portrayals of women. In epic after epic, women participate in tribal councils, decide policy and even lead troops. The main heroine of the Sirat Bani Hilal, Jazia, for example, is not only befittingly beautiful, but she also often shares power with Abu Zayd, and she is considered as “one whose words are worth hearing.” There are episodes in which she takes up weapons to defend the tribe and even, in one version, to revenge herself on Dhi’ab for divorcing her, by challenging him to a duel—in which she dies. 

Other popular episodes, however, tended to reinforce the medieval view, shared by the Christian as well as the Muslim world, of women as dangerous. For example, in one episode, a Berber princess seduces Yunis, a young Hilali, and keeps him prisoner in Tunis, “the city of high towers.” In another, Jazia lets down her magnificent hair so that it blows against the thorn bushes because she knows that Khalifa loves her too much to make her cut 
it, and the resulting delay while it is disentangled is enough to give her own people (the Bani Hilal) the advantage in the attack.

Although many of the historical events were adapted to suit local tastes in plot, the basic storyline re-mains fact: The Bani Hilal were Arab Bedouin pastoralists who brought with them Islam—then still a fairly new religion—to an area that was predominantly ethnic Berber farmers, and religiously largely Jewish and Christian. The conflicts that resulted were re-corded also by authors such as Ibn Khaldun. Towns and irrigation systems were destroyed; olive groves and or-chards were cut down for firewood or killed off by goats; and good arable land was overgrazed. Much of the area between Tripoli in Libya and Tunis, and west into Algeria, which was once a breadbasket for the Roman Empire, lay abandoned. The conflict between the original inhabitants, who, at least along the coast, lived in cities or were settled farmers sharing pan-Mediterranean culture, and the nomads seizing land for grazing their herds was reflected repeatedly—although in different versions and from different points of view. 

For example, one episode relates how the members of the tribe are starving—they need water and pasture. Khalifa al-Zanati—in this version the elderly Berber ruler of Tunis—has heard of Jazia’s beauty and demands her as the price for allowing the tribes to enter his lands with their herds. Her husband Dhi’ab is persuaded to save the tribe by divorcing her. Jazia goes to live with Khalifa and bears him two children, but at last her longing for the desert overwhelms her and, by a series of tricks, she escapes and returns to the Bani Hilal.


There is another version of the same story, but told presumably for a Berber audience: Khalifa is a young and hand-some Berber warrior from Tunis who is out searching for lost camels when he encounters Jazia and other young women of the Bani Hilal. She falls in love with him and arranges a meeting place. When he arrives, he is challenged by the men of the Bani Hilal who had also asked for her hand and whom she had refused. Khalifa fights them all, defeats them and flees with Jazia’s help. They marry and have two children. 

Nevertheless, cultural differences eventually lead to quarrels, and she returns to the tribe, where she marries Dhi’ab.

The location of stories also shifts. In the earliest versions, Khalifa al-Zanati is not Tunisian, but a Himyarite from Yemen and, more strangely yet, the offspring of a man and a female djinn (spirit). As such, he can only be killed by a thrust directly into his eyes—a detail that survived even when the story moved to North Africa, where it was a favorite motif in the much later Tunisian prints illustrating the episode. In yet other accounts, on the way out of Najd, Jazia is abducted by a sorcerer and rescued by Dhi’ab, whom she does not initially marry because of his low birth; in North African versions, however, the episode takes place in the Maghrib and the sorcerer is a merchant.

Traditionally, the Sirat Bani Hilal was performed with alternating passages in verse and prose, and often with a musical accompaniment, as described by Edward Lane, who lived in Cairo in the early 19th century. There were two types of reciters: those who sat in cafés and who might use a manuscript, and itinerants who were generally illiterate. Different names are used for the per-formers in different countries: sha’ir in Egypt (or rawi for the more formal storytellers); hakawati in Syria and Palestine; qisa khoun in Iraq; and fdawi in Tunisia.

Although the recitation of stories such as the Sirat Bani Hilal is most often associated with urban cafés or with entertainment on festive occasions such as Ramadan or weddings, the older tradition also persisted: Isma’il Pasha, while campaigning in the Sudan in the mid-19th century, is reported to have had episodes recited to his troops to inspire them to courage and chivalry. 
 

Horses, from Romance to Race Track

In keeping with the Bedouin origins of the Sirat, horses are among the few possessions described. Many feuds and quarrels in the tale are connected to prized mounts. Foremost is Dhi’ab’s white mare, al-Khadra. In some versions, when al-Khadra is killed in the duel with Khalifa al-Zanati, Dhi’ab holds a magnificent funeral for her and orders a barrow raised over her grave.

It is thus fitting that the first translation into English of an episode of the Bani Hilal was the The Celebrated Romance of the Stealing of the Mare, translated in 1892 by Lady Anne Blunt and put into verse by her husband, Wilfrid: It was they who also founded the Crabbet Arabian Stud, and their importation of Arab horses became responsible for most of the world’s top thoroughbred bloodlines today.

Bertrand Thomas, who crossed Saudi Arabia’s great Rub‘ al-khali (Empty Quarter) in 1930 and 1931, made frequent references to the Bani Hilal, both the historic tribe and the Sirat, and he observed Bedouin of that region regarding it to be history. He wrote that episodes were still being told around campfires. Another Englishman, Charles Doughty, noted the same in Travels in Arabia Deserta, published in 1888. He mentioned being shown a rock-cut figure in Najd that was Abu Zayd and “beside him is a lesser, perhaps female figure, which they call ‘Alia his wife.” 

It is very hard for anyone to tell to what extent the Sirat Bani Hilal—or, indeed, any of the famous folk epics—still exist today in oral form. Alfred Bel, who recorded tales in Algeria in 1902, said that the tradition was already in decline and that the stories should be collected as soon as possible. Since then the situation has only deteriorated further. 

In his book The Last Storytellers (Tauris, 2011), Richard Hamilton wrote, “[T]here were 18 storytellers in Marrakech [in the 1970s]; now there are only half a dozen, and they are old men who have almost retired, leaving no apprentices.” And these were not, Hamilton recorded, men who knew the Sirat Bani Hilal by heart, but men who read aloud, over many months, a very long, printed version, translating it into local dialect, for their audience was not only mostly illiterate but also did not understand spoken classical Arabic. 

There are numerous reasons for this decline: the sheer effort in learning one of the long, complicated texts; the insecurity of the work, which traditionally was not prestigious, especially for the wandering storytellers; changes in wedding customs (a popular storytelling occasion); and, of course, the now nearly omnipresent challenge from television in cafés. 
 


 
Indeed, the people who seem most interested in sampling “local culture” are tourists, but they typically do not know Arabic, and their attention span is brief. Some large hotels have hired men to put on picturesque costumes and give 10-minute excerpts of popular episodes with a musical accompaniment and perhaps a translator—but this has little relation to the original art form.

Just as the tales of the Knights of the Round Table are no longer sung to the harp in baronial halls in Britain but are known through books, films, television series and even videogames, so with the Sirat Bani Hilal. They have been preserved in films—for example, in the Egyptian production Abu Zayd al-Hilali, with Jazia played by Omar Sharif’s wife, Faten Hamama; the cartoon strip that appeared in the Tuni-sian newspaper Biladi; or a number of excerpts available on YouTube.

Nevertheless, renewed interest in traditional culture in the Arab world, research by scholars such as the late distinguished Egyptian poet Abdel Rahman el-Abrudi, who collected versions of the Sirat Bani Hilal in Egypt and across North Africa, as well as initiatives such as that of unesco and the Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive at Cornell University in New York state, all ensure that the epic that entertained the Arab world for the better part of a millennium will be, if not continued, at least preserved.