Al-Hilaliyya: three years long and rich in form

September 06, 2003 12:00 AM

Arabic poetry is very rich in forms. There are 16 original rhythms in standard Arabic poetry; the number almost doubles when the derivative rhythms are taken into account. But it is very difficult to count the forms of poetry in Arabic dialects. In both cases, form always means something. It is conductive of the poem’s function.

In classical Arabic poetry, many war songs are written using rajaz, a short and repetitive rhythm. In most dialects love songs are shorter than requiems. In folk poetry the rhyming scheme is always correspondent to the meaning: If two lines rhyme, then it means the image, the idea, or the message that is expressed in the lines between them is complete. This applies to epics too, and especially to Al-Hilaliyya, the colloquial epic that tells the story of the tribes of Bani Hilal’s journey from Arabia to Tunis in the 9th century.

Al-Hilaliyya is known for its exceptional length. It takes almost three years to listen to the epic, allowing for great variation in the poetic forms used to tell the story. Al-Hilaliyya had many versions; almost every place Bani Hilal passed through in their great journey has one. The fact that the epic has been orally told for centuries with very few attempts to record it resulted in losing great parts of its various versions. Except for an “abridged” version that remained in Tunis, the Egyptian version is the most complete.

Its richness in form and content is unparalleled in any other surviving Arabic epic. Due to its incredible length Al-Hilaliyya had to be a mixture of memorizing and improvising. The bards telling the story would know the plot, the contents of the conversations that take place among the protagonists of the epic, the descriptions of places, battles, emotions and persons, they would also memorize when to use which rhythm, when to go sad and slow, when to go fast and angry, but they are free to change the words. Thus, you cannot hear the same passage of Al-Hilaliyya twice. Every time a bard tells it, it changes.

Each section of the epic starts with parsing the Prophet; this usually takes place using two forms: one is called Al-Mawwal, which consists of seven long and slowly read lines all ending in words having the same pronunciation but different meanings. A translation of the first two lines of a Mawwal, while trying to keep the pun would be:

Praise him, whose soul was as clear as the morning dew

Mohammed who will come to save you when the time is due

Such puns need much attention and concentration from the audience trying to decipher the Mawwal’s meaning; by the time it ends, the bard has all the attention he needs to start telling the story. The other form is the classical form of the old Arabic poem called Qaseed. This is also a form that consists of long lines, each line is divided into two halves, the first half of which has no meaning unless followed by the second. This too needs attention from the audience to understand.

After praising the Prophet, the bard goes on telling lines of wisdom:

Not everyone who owns the stallion rides it,

And not everyone who opens the book reads it,

Not everyone under a vale is a woman,

And not every mother has a child

There is no good in a mean man’s money,

And no good in any one who would ask for it

And if all of them lived in a fortress with guarded gates,

On a mountain that is unreachable to men,

Or if they were all imprisoned in a lion’s den,

Still God’s promise will come to those who deserve it.

The bard then switches to the most common form in the epic: Al-Murabba (the quatrain). This form consists of four lines; the first rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth. Like in the case of Al-Mawwal, rhyming lines end in words pronounced in the same manner but have different meanings. Again a rough English translation of a Murabba would sound like this:

Sorrow was known even to dates and Palms,

To sails of boats when the north wind blew

It was all written inside our palms,

The gray sky never stays gray, nor does the blue sky stay forever blue.

The difference between Al-Murabba and Al-Mawwal is the former is much shorter. This form facilitates; it is short, so it could be easily memorized, and the similarity between the words that end each line help the bard improvise. As soon as he gets the first two lines, he definitely knows what he will say in the remaining two corresponding lines.

Whenever a chapter starts or ends, or whenever the poet wants to emphasize an event, he switches from one form to another. This diversity of forms makes listening to Al-Hilaliyya a truly unique and exciting experience.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::