Neglected Voices in Arabic Literature

Dr. Larkin opened her remarks by stating that most ofArabic literature is not part of the canon.  Most is written in thevernacular of the period in which it was created. Both standard Arabic,as well as colloquial Arabic, are spoken every day at all levels of thesociety yet the literature of this genre has been little studied. EarlyArabic poetry served as poetic propaganda in which the Caliph or provincialrulers are given poetic qualities - being portrayed as rulers with “divine”sanction, like those attributed to early Medieval kings. It was officiallysanctioned, of course.  For example, an AD 838 poem written for theCaliph regales the hearer with the glories of his battles. In about themiddle of the 9th century, some colloquial poetry began to appear, andby the 12th century, poetry dealing with the “7 Arts” was generally foundin the popular literature. Most of it comes from urban centers.

Dr. Larkin noted that colloquial poetry is always talkedabout as separate from the “high” poetry, and commented that Arab scholarsare just beginning to acknowledge such work as worthy of study, but itis still not considered “Classical Poetry”. Why, then, should we concernourselves with this genre, and what can we learn from it?  The answer,of course, is that popular literature gives us an idea of the thoughtsand concerns of peoples, other than the elite and ruling class, in Arabicsociety. Another question of interest is: where do these two sets of poetryintersect? Dr. Larkin commented on some of the rhymed, stanzaic poetryfrom the 14th Century.  Little is known about the specific poet otherthan that he was educated.  He lived during the Mameluke era - whichis the best documented period,  related to poetry, until the currentera. The Mamelukes were slaves who overthrew the government. One had tobe a slave to serve in the government under the Mamelukes. If a man diedand his son succeeded him, the son who was born a free man could only serveuntil another slave came from Syria to take his place. These first-timerulers didn’t take to Classical Arabic, or even Standard Arabic, for thatmatter. They only used colloquial Arabic. The veil of book learning wasso unimportant that colloquial poetry was able to come into its own. Suchpoetry was usually sung.

Poetry from the Mameluke era used themes similar to thosein classical poetry but did not follow the classical structure. For example,one poem contains a first verse about a beautiful woman of Syria. Beginningin line six, however, a long response by the woman appears. This is quitedifferent in structure from classical poetry.

Another set of verses about a group of shepherds is soheavy with puns that it is difficult to translate. Puns are made betweenthe poultry man and an egg, the fruit seller and certain fruits, etc.,and another section contains a wine song. In the very last line the poeteven makes a pun on his own name. All the punning is an elaborate gameof word play. The use of two main rhetorical figures is found in classicalpoetry as well, but it is not nearly as expansive as the word play in thispoem. Folk ballads often have very elaborate puns. They are presented invillages, and often affirm the cohesiveness of the audience; i.e., thevillagers. Often there is a satirical tone which is certainly intended,frequently moving from the concrete to the abstract.

The social class that produced this poetry and its audience- the small shopkeepers - are of the lower middle class in Cairo. The poetis educated, and pitches his poetry to the level of his audience. The result is popular poetry - wholly colloquial poetry - that can be enjoyedby all.

In the 20th Century there are still folk ballads thathave enjoyed great popularity. One particular ballad grew up around thestory of a thief who was pursued by the police and shot in 1921. The storybecame the subject of a modern soap opera in the 1980s, however the subtletiesthat would have been present in a 14th century rendition, became very straightforward in the modern version. The story begins when the protagonist is13. At the age of 18 he is still in school. His uncle is killed and hegoes to the home of the perpetrator of the crime, and “ripped him openwith his bare hands”. He is sent to prison, where his co-prisoners areall killers of one variety or another - each one confined for some crimeof honor. He kills a fellow prisoner and is confined in solitary, fromwhich he succeeds in escaping. He finds a group of Bedouins whom he resideswith and teaches them languages, Disguised as a policeman, he gathers togethera cache of weapons which he gives to the Bedouins. He sends a letter tothe government telling them to come for him. He and his Bedouin cohortskill many of the government soldiers, but he is unscathed. He again writesto the government telling them to come for him, and this time disguiseshimself as a girl, a foreigner, but this time he is given away by his bestfriend and is shot by a soldier. The moral apparently is that one cannottrust even one’s friends. There is a clear evocation of community sentiment. Each stage of the story is associated with an aspect of the personalityof a man among men. Clear mockery of the authorities and a portrayal ofthem as neither honorable nor very smart is intended. The protagonist comesthrough as being the honorable man. The satire is very explicit and anti-establishment.Very sparing use of word play is incorporated, thus the viewer/listenercan’t help but get the point. No reference is made in the story, it wasnoted, to the fact that the government in power in Egypt at the time wasthe British government.

Thus one can see that popular literature has undergonea watering down. Unfortunately for all of us, little work has been doneon Arabic poetry in this rich colloquial genre.

  • Nancy Corbin
For a membership packet either write
ARCE Northern California Chapter
P.O. Box 11352
Berkeley, CA 94712-2352

or email Membership Director,Betty Bussey

Contact Joan Knudsen by email at pakhet@uclink4.berkeley.edufor further information on ARCE/NC events or by mail at P.O. Box 11352,Berkeley, CA., 94704-2352.

GoBack to Archives

GoBack to Homepage

Page Design and Content by Al Berens. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2001 by Suredesign Graphics