Neglected Voices in Arabic Literature

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

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

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

Another set of verses about a group of shepherds is so heavy with puns that it is difficult to translate. Puns are made between the 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 poet even makes a pun on his own name. All the punning is an elaborate game of word play. The use of two main rhetorical figures is found in classical poetry as well, but it is not nearly as expansive as the word play in this poem. Folk ballads often have very elaborate puns. They are presented in villages, and often affirm the cohesiveness of the audience; i.e., the villagers. 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 poet is educated, and pitches his poetry to the level of his audience.  The result is popular poetry - wholly colloquial poetry - that can be enjoyed by all.

In the 20th Century there are still folk ballads that have enjoyed great popularity. One particular ballad grew up around the story of a thief who was pursued by the police and shot in 1921. The story became the subject of a modern soap opera in the 1980s, however the subtleties that would have been present in a 14th century rendition, became very straight forward in the modern version. The story begins when the protagonist is 13. At the age of 18 he is still in school. His uncle is killed and he goes to the home of the perpetrator of the crime, and “ripped him open with his bare hands”. He is sent to prison, where his co-prisoners are all killers of one variety or another - each one confined for some crime of honor. He kills a fellow prisoner and is confined in solitary, from which he succeeds in escaping. He finds a group of Bedouins whom he resides with and teaches them languages, Disguised as a policeman, he gathers together a cache of weapons which he gives to the Bedouins. He sends a letter to the government telling them to come for him. He and his Bedouin cohorts kill many of the government soldiers, but he is unscathed. He again writes to the government telling them to come for him, and this time disguises himself as a girl, a foreigner, but this time he is given away by his best friend and is shot by a soldier. The moral apparently is that one cannot trust even one’s friends. There is a clear evocation of community sentiment.  Each stage of the story is associated with an aspect of the personality of a man among men. Clear mockery of the authorities and a portrayal of them as neither honorable nor very smart is intended. The protagonist comes through as being the honorable man. The satire is very explicit and anti-establishment. Very sparing use of word play is incorporated, thus the viewer/listener can’t help but get the point. No reference is made in the story, it was noted, to the fact that the government in power in Egypt at the time was the British government.

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

  • Nancy Corbin
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