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Oral Poetry, Storytelling, and Folklore

Oral Poetry, Storytelling, and Folklore



Oral Epics . An abiding, popular form of colloquial poetry is the epic form produced spontaneously along particular story lines by illiterate poets. Arabic epics bear comparison with the Greek Iliad and Odyssey of Homer in length, form, and content; indeed, the Arabic epics are longer than Homer’s. All such epics have three principal characteristics: they are heroic, poetic, and narrative. While they have well-known story lines like folktales, these oral epics do not have fixed texts. Rather, they are told differently every time they are narrated, even by the same poet on different occasions. In his recitation the oral poet makes use of various stock phrases called “formulaic language.” The classical Arabic oral epics include Sirat ‘Antar (Romance of Antar), which dates as early as the twelfth century; Sirat Abi Zayd al-Hilali (Romance of Abi Zayd al-Hilali), including a fictional elaboration of certain events of the eleventh century; and Sirat al-Zahir Baybars (Romance of al-Zahir Baybars), on the heroic Mamluk sultan Baybars (ruled 1260–1277). Poets tended to specialize in singing only one such cycle, and each had its own rules. Although all these epics survived into the nineteenth century and have been recorded in written versions, it is mainly Sirat Abi Zayd that continues to be sung today, with a complete version consisting of as many as two hundred thousand lines of rhymed quatrains. When performing an oral epic, the poet usually sings the verses of only a single episode to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, often a ribab (rebec), a small two-stringed instrument that looks somewhat like a violin. It is played with a bow and held vertically like the cello.

The Thousand and One Nights . The stories called Alf laylah wa-laylah (The Thousand and One Nights) were collected gradually in the Middle Ages. Originating in a Persian storybook that was in turn based largely on stories from India, an Arabic work with this name was documented by tenth-century writers and by a ninth-century papyrus fragment. The stories seem to have existed in Arabic in the eighth century, but the collection was later greatly expanded, in Iraq and in Egypt from about the twelfth to the fourteenth century, by which time it was nearly complete in its present form. Although Westerners often think of Alf ‘laylah wa-laylah as representative Arabic


Persian poet Shams al-Din Muhammad Shirazi (circa 1325 –circa 1390), known as Hafiz wrote mainly in the ghazal form, creating mystical works whose meanings were both secular and religious. In Ghazal 38 he wrote:

I cease not from desire
till my desire Is satisfied; or let my mouth attain
My love’s red mouth, or let my soul expire,
Sighed from those lips that sought her lips in vain.
Others may find another love as fair;
Upon her threshold I have laid my head,
The dust shall cover me, still lying there,
When from my body life and love have fled.
My soul is on my lips ready to fly,
But grief beats in my heart and will not cease,
Because not once, not once before I die,
Will her sweet lips give all my longing peace.
My breath is narrowed down to one long sigh
For a red mouth that burns my thoughts like fire;
When will that mouth draw near and make reply
To one whose life is straitened with desire?
When I am dead, open my grave and see
The cloud of smoke that rises round thy feet:
In my dead heart the fire still burns for thee;
Yea, the smoke rises from my windingsheet!
Ah, come, Beloved! for the meadows wait
Of thorns, the cypress fruit, and desolate
Bare winter from before thy steps has fled.
Hoping within some garden ground to find
A red rose soft and sweet as thy soft cheek,
Through every meadow blows the western wind,
Through every garden he is fain to seek.
Reveal thy face! that the whole world may be
Bewildered by thy radiant loveliness;
The cry of man and woman conies to thee,
Open thy lips and comfort their distress!
Each curling lock of thy luxuriant hair
Breaks into barbed hooks to catch my heart,
My broken heart is wounded everywhere
With countless wounds from which the red drops start.
Yet when sad lovers meet and tell their sighs,
Not without praise shall Hafiz’ name be said,
Not without tears, in those pale companies
Where joy has been forgot and hope has fled.

Source: Gertrude Bell, The Teachings of Hafiz (London: Octagon Press, 1985), n. pag.

and Muslim literature, it is really more comparable to Grimms’ Fairy Tales than to other kinds of Arabic and Muslim literature, and it does not have an especially high reputation in the Muslim world. The stories come from a great variety of sources, including ancient Sumer, Assyria, and Egypt, as well as India, Iran, and Arabia, and have delighted many over the ages. Although some of its stories filtered individually into medieval Europe, the first western appearance of The Thousand and One Nights as a large collection came in 1704 with a French translation that seems to have have augmented the original Arabic collection with stories from other sources.


Michael Zwettler, The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Poetry: Its Character and Implications (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978).

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