Al-Hilaliyya: Excerpts from the famous epic

October 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Very few of those specialized in Arabic literature know about epics in colloquial Arabic dialects, let alone students of literature or ordinary people who happen to like poetry.

This series of essays is to introduce those literary masterpieces to non-Arabs. While discussing the historical conditions that produced the epic, the meaning and function of its form and structure, and the way in which it is performed can shed some light on it, telling some of the stories in the epic is the best way to describe it.

Al-Hilaliyya, the story of the Bani Hilal tribes’ journey from Arabia to Tunis, is probably the most popular and representative of Arabic colloquial epics. I present the first episodes of it in hopes they will be representative of its atmosphere.

The hero of the epic, Abu Zaid al-Hilali, was a black child born to two white parents, because his mother prayed that her son would be as strong as a big black bird she saw overcome all other birds at the “pond of wishes” near Medina. Abu Zaid’s father accuses his mother of adultery and banishes her along with her son away from the tribe. Later on, Abu Zaid, who has grown up away from his family, and who does not know his father, comes to fight his own tribe. When father and son duel, neither can hit the other: Miraculously, their hands freeze in the air every time they try. This is enough proof of the innocence of the hero’s mother, for, the epic goes, only a bastard would be able to hit his father, and only a true son would be unable to do that even in self defense.

As an apology, Abu Zaid’s mother requests that her camel walk on pure silk from Hijaz to Najd. The tribesmen are dazzled by such a request, there not being  enough silk in the world to cover that area. Jazia, Abu Zaid’s cousin and daughter of the king of Bani Hilal, suggests that silk be spread in front of the camel, then rolled from behind and spread again in front after it steps over it.

Abu Zaid, who returns to his tribe at the age of 11, grows up to be the best knight in all of Arabia. Jazia grows up to be a beautiful, witty woman; her hair may be knotted ninety times, and her vote counts as a third of all the votes when the tribe must make a decision. The king of Bani Hilal dies leaving Hasan his son, Jazia’s brother as heir to the throne.

Here begins the story of Abu Zaid’s marriage.

Abu Zaid, following tribal custom, asks his cousin Jazia for marriage. She claims to have sworn not to marry at all. Yet, on the same day, a handsome blond prince from Syria comes and asks Jazia for marriage, and she accepts!

Outraged by his cousin’s trick, and before the marriage ceremony takes place, Abu Zaid, holding his sword up high for every one to see, claims his right by tribal custom to marry his cousin. The Syrian prince makes a degrading remark about Abu-Zaid’s black color, calling him a slave, and claims that the law does not apply, because a freewoman like Jazia cannot marry a slave.

At this point Abu Zaid challenges the Syrian prince for a fight; of course the Syrian prince dies.

Abu Zaid never actually falls in love with Jazia. Tribal custom ruled that he should marry his cousin and he, like an honorable tribesman, respected the custom. He gets married to Jazia, yet, partly because he doesn’t love her and partly to punish her for her trick, for seven days and seven nights he never comes near her. On the seventh day, Abu Zaid divorces Jazia, who never gets married again.

A complex relation of love and hatred governs Jazia’s behavior toward the star and hero of the tribe ever since.

A bard then comes to the court of Hasan, Jazia’s brother and king of the Hilalis. In one of the most beautiful songs in Al-Hilaliyya, he starts describing the places he has been to, until he starts describing the court of the king of Tehran. In the song, the bard says that the princess of Tehran is more beautiful than Jazia.

The moment he mentions that, Hasan, who was listening to the song, angrily asks the bard “how can you tell that one woman is prettier than the other? Where did you see the women in the first place? You must have sneaked into our Harem.”

The bard is sentenced to death but is allowed to say another poem in which he makes fun of Hasan and cries for Abu Zaid’s help.

Abu Zaid, who has been possessed by the description of the Persian princess, saves the bard, in return for another poem exclusively describing the Princess’s beauty:

“Like a white pigeon, or a threatened deer she looks so innocent when she turns around.”

Abu Zaid goes to Tehran to marry the princess.

In the meantime, in faraway Tunis, the hero and head of the tribe of Zanata, known as Al-Zanati Khaleefa, takes the city over from Al-Ashraf and kills them all while in Friday prayers.

Abu Zaid’s mother was a descendent of the Prophet, which makes the defeated Ashraf of Tunis his distant maternal uncle.

Jazia, insulted again by Abu-Zaid’s marriage to the Persian princess (who is prettier than her by a poet’s judgment ­ and that’s a lot), influences her brother to command Abu Zaid to take his revenge and go to Tunis.

Thus Jazia incites the whole tribe of Bani Hilal to start a war with the Zanata and the Tunisians, a war described in the epic as “a market, where the prices of death are negotiated with swords.”

The moment Bani Hilal start moving, Zanati’s daughter, a princess of Tunis, has a dream: Seven minarets fall and a sea, which is to the north of Tunis, will overcome the city from the south. Then wolves will hunt lions in the streets of the city!

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