The Hilali epic

Sayyed al-Dowwi

The Hilali epic stems from the 11th century AD, and recounts the story of the Banu Hilal or “Sons of the Crescent Moon”, driven from their homeland. The early adventures take place in the Yemen, the birthplace of the hero Abu Zayd, followed by the exodus of the Hilalis, spurred by famine to migrate towards the highlands in the centre of Arabia. At this point the hero and his ally become rivals over women, with Abu Zayd the final victor. Finally there is the long transhumance of the tribe towards the west, and the love uniting the daughter of one of the tribal heads and an officer from the enemy camp.

Sayyed al-Dowwi, the last poet to have memorized almost the whole epic cycle in its entirety, (no mean feat, since it represents 500 hours of narration) performs in a dialect of Upper Egypt. This recording presents two episodes from the epic: how the hero’s parents met, and remembering  the triumphant return of Abu Zayd’s children after a long period of exile in faraway lands.


Part 01 – Rizq and the noble Khadra
1 – Introduction to the Hilali epic – 4’20
2 – Rizq’s lament – 10’38
3 – The journey to Mecca – 7’37
4 – The meeting with Khadra’s father – 6’35
5 – The marriage proposal – 7’45
6 – The wedding – 7’38
7 – Desperately awaiting a son – 10’49

Part 02 – Le livre des orphelins
1 – Introduction to the Hilali epic – 4’47
2 – The pregnant women escape – 12’50
3 – The hospitality of the king of Tawayif – 11’15
4 – The bravery of the orphans – 8’59
5 – The tiumphant return to Hilali lands – 18’27

Interpreters andinstruments

Maître Sayyed al-Dowwi (singing)
Gamal Mossad (percussions)
Mubârak Muhammad (rabâb)
Hammâm Muhammad (rabâb)


“ Here’s the epic of the Arabs in times past
A nation that watched over its honour
Their hero was a lion, an untameable wildcat
Abu Zayd al-Hilali… ”

For a long time the epic of the Banu Hilals, the “sons of the Crescent tribe” was only a matter of concern for the peasants of the Nile region or a preoccupation of the folklorists. The first descriptions of modern Egypt, those of Villoteau during Bonaparte’s campaign or that of the Englishman Lane in 1833, did indeed mention these popular bards who were listened to religiously, from the cafés of Alexandria to the rural evening gatherings in Aswan. They recounted the tragic epic of Arab tribes driven away from their peninsula from hunger, who ended their voyage in Tunisia, where they turned against each other. From the end of the 19th century, classical Arabic versions of this epic were published in Egypt; but this unimaginative language could in no way convey the fascination that this tale held over the public at large: the multiple intrigues can only make sense in the interaction between a “poet”, usually illiterate but endowed with an instantaneous creative eloquence in dialectal language, and a demanding public expecting both a faithful account of the events and inventiveness of expression. It is to Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi, an intellectual and poet of Cairo, of peasant origin, that the Egyptians owe the rediscovery of this treasure of their popular culture. Abnudi was intent on finding the legends that had coloured his childhood and during the ’60s to the ’80s, he patiently sought out the last authentic authorities of the tradition, but found only two: Gabir Abu Husayn (1913 – 1980) and Sayyed al-Dowwi. This is because no rhapsodist narrating the epic of the Hilalis is worthy of the title of sha’ir, poet of the epic. This supreme title can only be bestowed by the public and the community of “those who are mad about the Hilalis” to people who fulfil two conditions: on one hand, knowing the entire epic cycle with its thousands of characters, battles, retorts, misleading appearances and secret intentions, and on the other hand, being capable of improvising novel rhymed quatrains for each performance, based on the factual framework. He who only contents himself with reciting snatches of the epic learnt by heart is just a rawi, a second-hand narrator whose limits are known to the experts…

The Banu Hilals : legend and facts

The Hilali epic is made up of three parts: the first narrates the Yemenite phase of their adventures and the birth of the hero, Abu Zayd al-Hilal, the black-skinned son of the beautiful Khadra, daughter of the sharif of Mecca and of prince Rizq. The second phase evokes the departure of the Hilalis, driven by hunger toward the Najd. Affairs about women drive Abu Zayd apart from his ally, Diyab, and end in the victory of the former. The last section evokes the long transhumance of the tribe toward the West and the love uniting Sa‘da, daughter of Khalifa, the chief of the Zanati tribe, Berbers opposed to the Hilali Bedouins, with one of Abu Zayd’s lieutenants. After their victory over the Zanatis and the death of Khalifa, the Hilalis start turning against each other and Diyab assassinates Abu Zayd, thus provoking a round of vendettas. It should be noted that in the Egyptian accounts, the Zanatis are depicted as an Arab tribe whose animosity toward the Hilalis existed well before the migration. But the Tunisian poets accentuate the antagonism between a local tribe and the conquerors from the Levant. This plot is embroidered upon with countless intrigues, creating an epic that requires endless nights to be recounted in full.

The real migration of the Hilali Bedouin tribes lasted for several generations. It started in the beginning of the 11th century from their native Yemen toward the Najd, the Hijaz and the northern Arabian peninsula, then turned toward the West and the Sinai peninsula, up to the Nile valley. This movement of population is not considered as a major event in history books. The deportation toward Southern Egypt in the 10th century, by order of the caliph al-Aziz Ibn al-Mu‘izz, followed by the final migration to Tunisia in the 11th century, must be placed in the context of the attempts made by the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty to rid themselves of unwelcome plunderers and to weaken the rulers of Kairouan, the Zirides, who had decided to betray Cairo and swear allegiance to the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad… But even though the Hilalis owe a special debt of gratitude to Ibn Khaldun for not being forgotten by official history, the memory of these Bedouin hordes devastating everything on their trail remains in the popular consciousness.

In spite of the short time that it took the Banu Hilals to cross Egyptian territory toward the Delta and then Upper Egypt where they’d been relegated after the exactions they’d committed, the misadventures of these Arabs, disrespectful of laws governing the rural communities but the bearers of values of honour and unfailing loyalty, were transformed into a popular epic. Paradoxically, it is not their ravages on the ever-peaceful fellaheen community, but the exaltation of their Arabness that has filled the collective memory, shaped by centuries of rhapsodies. The epic projects a mythical and atemporal moral ideal on these men of the past; the contemporary Egyptian “poet incorporates current reality into the past and the past into the present” (B. Connelly).

The Arabic term sira, which can be translated by epic or epic cycle, is also the term designating the sacred biography of the founder of Islam: the sira par excellence is that of the Prophet… It is therefore no wonder that the popular poets who respect the Hilali epic view it as a continuation of history and consider themselves endowed with a sacred mission. The Hilali emigration was also a step in the process of Islamization and, in both Egypt and Tunisia, the pharaonic or Berber past has been obliterated from memory to be replaced by an often mythical identification with the conqueror’s past. These men who originated from the native land of the Prophet, have perpetuated the “Ayyam al-‘Arab” beyond the peninsula, thus continuing the sacred history of the origins. The narrators of the epic are loathe to reveal the circumstances of their apprenticeship, and quite often insist they have been visited during their sleep, or charged with a mission by the Prophet. The poets transmit the epic from father to son, from master to disciple, but cannot dismiss the supernatural aspect of their training: Sayyed al-Dowwi’s father used to tell Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi that on several occasions he had heard a viola hung on the wall of his house start to play on its own in the last hours of the night; he had thus understood that it was a sign from God recruiting him to become a narrator of the epic of the Banu Hilals…

The poet and his audience

Until the advent of radio, there would be an epic poet-singer in each café and the audience would side with the Zanatis, or with Diyab or Abu Zayd, celebrating and decorating the establishment for the possible victory of their own hero. The narrators, usually of gypsy origins, have disappeared from Cairo cafés but the profession has not died out completely: they are still present at village feasts in the Delta and especially in the Sa‘id region in the south, or in private residences. The radio programs presented by Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi have enough following to have whole villages in the Sa‘id send letters of congratulations or protests when an interpreter foregoes tradition! There is no fixed text corresponding to the epic, each poet having to create his own quatrains, but the succession of events is immutable and the schemes of narration must be respected.

The “poet” may officiate alone with his viola-rababa or be assisted, like Sayyed al-Dowwi, by other instrumentalists and percussionists. Until the 19th century, there existed in Egypt two types of violas with bows, the rababat al-sha’ir (poet’s rababa), with a rectangular body and only one string made of horse hair, and the rababat al-mughanni (singer’s rababa), measuring 90 cm. The rababa consists of a coconut shell covered with a membrane of leather or fish hide (raqma), attached to a neck with two strings tuned to one quarter, the qawwal (“singing string”) and the raddad (“repeater”). It is rare to use more than one octave during the performance although the instrument can go beyond this limited range. The strings are rubbed by a bamboo bow strung with horsehair. The rectangular instrument is still used in the Arabic Gulf and in southern Syria, but has disappeared from Egypt where only the second model is used by the epic singers. The instrument is held at an angle and rests on the player’s lap.

The performance starts with an instrumental improvisation (taqsim), played on the rababa, followed by the invocation of God and prayers to the Prophet. This religious overture lasts for a few minutes and is set to an initial melodic phrase which is not necessarily timed. This is followed by a section in prose summarizing the preceding episodes and then the real narrative starts with a series of quatrains rhymed on the ABAB model and varying for each quatrain. It is now time to use a second melody, played on a more rapid tempo. Certain rhymes are approximate, others, on the contrary, are paronomasias: the same word is used in two different senses, or two joined words rhyme together with the first word. These subtle plays on words are deciphered by the audience who breathes a sigh of relief when it understands them and asks confirmation from the poet.

A final melody is used at the end of the performance and a text with religious connotations is again recited. The range of the melody is much more restrained in the Hilali rhapsody than in most other Egyptian popular songs: the number of melodic phrases used is limited and a beautiful voice is not at all a condition for the performance. For the artist as well as the audience, the value of a narration is placed on the authenticity and exactitude of the account presented.

Two episodes are presented in this record of the “Musicales” series. The first, “Rizq and the noble Khadra” (volume 1), is set at the beginning of the epic, prior to Abu Zayd’s birth. The second excerpt, “The Book of the Orphans” (volume 2), relates the triumphant return of the children of Abu Zayd after a lengthy period of exile in faraway lands.

With many thanks to Hassan el-Geretly and the al-Warsha group, for their priceless assistance.

Frédéric Lagrange
Translated by Mona Khazindar

The recordings

Volume 1 – Rizq and the noble Khadra

Abu Zayd’s father-to-be, Rizq, feels the weight of old age and, after ten unfortunate marriages, is looking for the woman who will finally bear him a male heir. In despair, he goes off hunting in the mountains and hears a voice enjoining him to go and get married in Mecca. The chief of the tribe, Sarhan, suggests that he go there on a pilgrimage, where he may find a noble young virgin. As it turns out, the emir Qurda, governor and servant of the two holy cities, has a daughter, Khadra, who refuses all those who ask for her hand. The same voice that had suggested the pilgrimage to Rizq also proposes the same to emir Qurda and his family. The two groups cross paths in Mecca without knowing each other, but one night in Medina, Khadra catches sight of Rizq who is guarding the pilgrims’ camp on horseback and enjoins her father to invite him to his tent. When Qurda asks Rizq about his children, the noble Hilali refers to God’s will and admits that he is looking for a wife. Thereupon, Qurda proposes his own daughter, the virgin Khadra, more beautiful than a star illuminated by the full moon, hoping that she will consent to the marriage. When her mother comes to tell her about Rizq, Khadra says: “Ever since the Hero’s eyes set on me, my worries have vanished; Mother, my heart is once again serene, it is he who will be the father of my children!” The marriage is celebrated with joy and as a dowry, Rizq offers the bride her weight in pearls, emeralds, corals and rubies, as well as two hundred slaves and two hundred servants, two hundred camels and two hundred mares. Nine months after the wedding, Khadra bears her husband a daughter, Shiha, but no son. The father accepts God’s will, thinking that he will have an heir next time. But ten years later, Khadra has still not given birth again. Rizq is in despair and wonders who will inherit from him. The day of the Aïd, when youngsters receive presents and new clothes, the sight of his friends’ children enflames his anger and jealousy and he goes back home, furious. Khadra enquires about the cause of his anger and he says:

The cause of my tears is you
I took you as a free woman and the apple of my eyes
I asked my heart whether I should repudiate you and it refused
But because of you, I am mocked by the Arabs.

I married you so that you could fill my home
A free and elegant woman
But since your first pregnancy
Why have you brought forth no more?

For ten years I have longed
Not to know the number of my children.”
With clenched teeth, she answered
“You are not to talk of this or that.

You talk too freely of things
Would you dare oppose the Lord’s will?
Where is the field where boys grow?
Tell me and I will bring you back a handful

Where is the market where they sell heirs?
Rizq, the pride of your generation
Your words have hurt my heart
So do you want me to buy you a boy?

I am losing my head and going crazy
But remain patient before the ordeal from the Lord
If God has not given me children
Do you want me to create them with my own hands?”

And it is at this moment, when Khadra’s servant comes in to enquire about the cause of her tears, that the poet decides to end the episode, leaving the audience in a state of uncertainty…

Volume 2 – The Book of the Orphans

This episode of the last part of the epic commences with the death of Hassan, sultan of the Hilals. His cousin Diyab ascends to the throne, taking advantage of the absence of Abu Zayd, the hero. When the latter goes back to the Banu Hilal territory, he is so afflicted by the sovereign’s death that he turns blind. His cousin and sister of the late sultan, al-Djazia, reproaches him for his absence and, aware that he can no longer protect her, she decides to run away with eighty pregnant women of the tribe, all expecting the children of Abu Zayd and the Hilalis. Abu Zayd advises her to go to Mahmud, king of the Tawayif (perhaps the Andalusia of the reyes des Taifas?) and to pretend that she is the wife of the king of Tunis. Along the road, the noble Alya, one of the women in distress, gives birth on her camel’s palanquin. The newborn falls off and, in her haste to flee, al-Djazia orders the mother to abandon the child. King Mahmud makes the eighty women feel welcome and offers them shelter and protection. Once born, the orphans are instructed in horsemanship and the arts of war from a very early age. When a neighbouring prince comes to demand tributes and young virgins, it is Rizq, a young Hilali of around ten, who saves the kingdom by his bravery. The women’s debt having thus been repaid, al-Djazia can now confess her real identity to the king before making the decision to go back to the African lands. On its way, the caravan comes across a fruitful orchard and decides to make a halt. The owner defends his property and a ferocious fight starts out between this stranger and the fiery young Rizq. The fight lasts for three days without either of the two men weakening when, struck with doubt, al-Djazia throws three apples at the stranger who touches them without stopping his duel. Indeed, she is now sure that he really is in fact Alya’s abandoned son, al-Batihi (the Overthrown), also the son of Abu Zayd and brother of Rizq! The tribe is thus reunited and meets up again with Abu Zayd, blind and dishevelled, helping slaves draw water from a well. Al-Djazia enjoins him to order the drums of victory to be beaten that she had buried before her departure. Recognizing his son, al-Batihi, by touch, the blind Abu Zayd retrieves his sight. When Diyab the usurper learns that Abu Zayd is healed and the orphans have returned, he flees.

  • Reference : 321.019.020
  • Ean : 794 881 715 220
  • Main artist : Sayyed al-Dowwi (سيد الضوي)
  • Year of recording : 1996
  • Year of publishing : 2002
  • Music style: Chanson de geste
  • Country : Egypt
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe