The Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive is designed as an open access resource for the preservation and dissemination of audio recordings, written texts, photographic images and other materials related to the “Epic of the Bani Hilal tribe” (Arabic: Sīrat Banī Hilāl سيرة بني هلال ). The site is dedicated to the epic singers of al-Bakātūsh (Egypt) for their willingness to share their knowledge and performances of this thousand-year-old epic poem.


The Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe originally lived in the Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula, but in the 10th century C.E. they migrated first to Egypt and then onward across North Africa as far as eastern Morocco.  For about one century (mid-11th to mid-12th centuries) they were the dominant political and military force in what are now Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.  They were eventually subdued, however, by the Moroccan Almohad dynasty in major battles fought in 1153 and 1160, and the Hilali tribal confederation thereafter disintegrated.  There are historical references to surviving remnants of the tribe in later centuries, as well as modern communities who claim descent from the Bani Hilal currently located in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Chad, and this geographic dispersion may be part of the reason that the tale of the Bani Hilal has become so well known throughout the Arab world.  Poetry of the Bani Hilal tribe was first set down in writing by Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) in his Muqaddima (Prolegomena), and by the 18th century thousands of pages of Arabic manuscript indicate that the tradition had expanded enormously and that the various fragments of poetry and narrative material had been worked into one coherent epic narrative.  Ethnographic evidence indicates that the history of the Bani Hilal tribe was recounted throughout the Arab world until the 20th century in a variety of forms: epic poem, oral folktales, popular written versions (“chapbooks”) read aloud by professional storytellers in cafés, and even in riddles, proverbs, and jokes.  The epic poem itself, the most highly crafted of these forms, however, was of more limited distribution and by the late 20th century was found only in Egypt as a sung, versified tradition.  There it flourished in two distinct regional variations: in Southern Egypt it is recited in rhymed quatrains with short verses of 8-12 syllables, and in Northern Egypt it is sung in mono-rhymed odes in long verses of 24-30 syllables.  Though the two poetic forms are distinct, the overall narrative is virtually the same.

In the village of al-Bakātūsh in northern Egypt there were in the early 1980’s fourteen households of hereditary professional epic singers, families in which epic-singing was the sole occupation of the menfolk, though females supplemented the family income with a variety of odd jobs such as selling vegetables in the marketplace or weaving baskets from palm fronds.  They constituted the largest known community of professional epic singers in Egypt.  The form of performance practiced in this region is prosimetric (alternating passages of spoken prose and sung poetry) in which the poet accompanies himself on the two-string coconut-shell spike-fiddle (rabāb or rabāba), occasionally with a second rabāb-player accompanying the main singer for larger performances.  It was widely recognized that the poets were of different quality and only a handful of epic singers in this community were considered to be “master poets,” primarily because they were believed to have learned the entire repertory of the epic.  The epic appears never to have been performed from beginning to end, however, but rather in episodes which could last anywhere from four to twelve hours depending upon the complexity of the narrative and the amount of detail given by the poet.  Thus the “length” of the epic as a whole is a purely theoretical construct; in reality, there are only different versions of the epic narrative sung by different poets in front of different audiences.  On the other hand, the poets had been taught and maintained a clear ordering of the episodes within the full narrative even if they never performed the complete story from beginning to end.

The version of the epic which forms the first stage of this digital archive was recorded by Shaykh Ṭāhā Abū Zayd, who was widely regarded as the best of the poets of al-Bakātūsh.  I worked extensively with Shaykh Ṭāhā during my sojourn in the village in 1987, but when I returned in the summer of 1988 to work on translating his recordings, he had already passed away.  I therefore had to seek the advice of other poets to help explain obscure passages on the audio recordings.  This version was recorded in somewhat special circumstances.  I had lived in the village for over six months and had already recorded several samples from Shaykh Ṭāhā when I proposed the idea of recording a special set of  performances to be written down, translated, and made into a book, a project to which he readily agreed.  Over a period of two months (June-July 1987) we recorded these performances in a private home with small audiences of one to two dozen men.  Shaykh Ṭāhā deliberately avoided adding other types of poetry (such as madīḥ, praise poetry to the Prophet Muhammad, or mawwāls, a short lyrical genre) or engaging in extended repartee with the audience (both common features of larger public performances).  Although he was unlettered himself, he had strong opinions about what version of the epic should be written down in a book.  At times he was unsatisfied with a performance for one reason or another and instructed me not so use that recording for “the book” and would instead sing that portion of the story again on another evening.  The final result was a rather concise, stripped down version of the epic tale totaling 54 hours of performance.  Shaykh Ṭāhā did not perform the episodes in order, but when we had finished he reviewed the episodes and put them in their proper sequence.

Shaykh Ṭāhā was uncertain of his exact age but by his own reckoning was in his early 80’s at the time of these recordings.  His apprenticeship with his father and grandfather therefore probably took place around 1910-20, and they in turn had been trained by their fathers sometime in the second half of the 19th century.   Traditionally epic poets had sung  in a wide variety of contexts including harvest festivals, saints’ festivals, weddings, in private homes, cafes, and other public spaces, but by the 1980’s they were surviving almost entirely from performances at weddings and in private homes.  Electricity had arrived in the late 1970’s and televisions followed only a few years later, greatly diminishing the demand for evening performances of the epic.  During my visits to the village in 1982-83 almost none of my acquaintances had televisions; when I returned in 1986-87 almost no household in the village did not have on.  Public schools were also providing new opportunities for the children of epic singers and made it impossible for young boys to spend years as apprentices traveling to performances with their fathers or other male relatives in order to master the extensive narrative repertory.


My first visits to the village occurred while I was studying Arabic in Cairo on a Center for Arabic Studies Abroad II fellowship (1982-83) and were a result of independent study courses I took with folklorist ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Ḥawwās and poet ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Abnūdī.  In addition, my close friend and colleague, Susan Slyomovics, was already preparing to do dissertation fieldwork research in southern Egypt.  Additional advice and encouragement, particularly about music, came from ethnomusicologist and composer Muḥammad ‘Umrān.  A Fulbright-Hays dissertation grant in 1986-87 allowed me to spend nearly a year in residence in the village, and it was during this period that most of the recordings in this archive were made.  A Junior Fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows (1986-1990) allowed me to transcribe and analyze hundreds of hours of recordings and helped me return to the village in the summer of 1988 to work on the Arabic transcriptions and English translations of Shaykh Ṭāhā’s 51-long version of the epic.  In 1993 Joan Mandell made a video titled Tales from Arab Detroit: Abu Zayd comes to America which featured two Egyptian epic-singers, one from al-Bakātūsh and one from another village, giving a series of performances to Arabic-speaking audiences in the area of Dearborn, Michigan, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.  In 1994-95, an “editions and translations” grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed further work on the translations, and a trip back to Egypt (with additional support from the American Research Center in Egypt) to work extensively with ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Ḥawwās on remaining difficulties in translation.  None of this material would now be available were it not for the hospitality of the poets and other residents of al-Bakātūsh and the continued assistance and support of the above-mentioned individuals along with dozens of other teachers and colleagues.


The epic as it is sung in Northern Egypt is built upon the basic historical facts about the Bani Hilal tribe: their migration westwards from the Arabian Peninsula, their conquest of North Africa, and their eventual destruction.  It has been greatly embellished, however, with stories of love, battles, rivalry, treachery, and even magic, over centuries of oral transmission.  Some episodes are reminiscent of tales from the 1001 Nights, other consist of little more than lengthy battle scenes strung together, while others have convoluted psychological dramas at their core. 

The epic as it was known among the poets represented here begins with the births of the heroes Abū Zayd and Ḥasan, and then progresses through a cycle of wars between the Bani Hilal tribe and their rivals in the Arabian Peninsula, the ‘Uqayla.  This first section of the epic consists of three distinct episodes referred to by the poets by the following titles: The Birth of Abū Zayd, Mushrif al-‘Uqaylī, and Ḥanḍal al-‘Uqaylī.  In the third episode of these episodes, the fathers of the young heroes are treacherously killed during a night raid on the Hilali camp, effectively moving the narrative forward one generation.  The young heroes now become the leaders of the Bani Hilal tribal confederation and are the main figures for the rest of the story.

The next “cycle” is a series of tales that recount how the young heroes go out and accomplish daring feats of chivalry, saving young maidens, protecting the weak, and aiding Muslims who are under attack from armies of other religions, and so forth. During these adventures they also frequently win themselves beautiful maidens (often the daughters of thankful kings) whom they bring back to the Bani Hilal camp, marry, and with whom they later bear the children who later become the next generation of heroes.  These tales, referred to by the rather poetic names of their main female protagonists, include: Badr al-Ṣabāḥ (The Maiden Full-moon-of-the-Morning), Fullat al-Nadā (The Maiden Jasmine-bud-of-the-Dew), Shamma malikat al-Yaman (Beauty Mark, the Queen of Yemen), Nā‘isat al-Ajfān (The Maiden of the Langourous Eyes), and Badlat bint Nu‘mān (The Bejewelled Garment of the Daughter of Nu‘mān [which is in effect a continuation of the tale of Nā‘isat al-Ajfān].

The cataclysmic event that shapes the larger narrative of the epic is a seven-year drought in the Arabian Peninsula during which “neither drop of rain or dew did fall,” forcing the Bani Hilal to seek a new homeland and pasturage for their livestock.  A reconnaissance team consisting of the hero Abū Zayd and his three nephews are sent out to find the tribe a new home. This cycle of tales is referred to as al-Riyāda (The Reconnaissance).  They travel through many countries including Iraq, Ethiopia, Cyprus, Palestine, and Egypt before eventually arriving at “Tunis the Verdant” which they decide would be a perfect home for the tribe.  Through various misadventures Abū Zayd is forced to return to the Bani Hilal alone, without his nephews.  There he convinces the tribe that they must travel to Tunisia to find a new home and to rescue the three nephews who are being held prisoner there.

The tribe sets out on the great “Westward Journey” [Ar. al-Taghrība] which takes them on a long circuitous route to Tunisia.  Each stop along the way becomes a full episode in the epic. Finally they arrive in Tunisia, but the city of Tunis is fortified and is held by a fearsome, villainous warrior by the name of al-Zanātī Khalīfa.  The siege of Tunis, the rescue of the nephews, and the deaths of several of the central figures during the prolonged war form another cycle of tales.  In this section the markedly episodic nature of the earlier portions of the epic disappears to some extent, that is, the events are not separated into clearly demarcated episodes each of which take one to two evenings to perform.   Shaykh Ṭāhā took nearly 13 hours to sing this part of the story and although he named certain segments such as “The Hilali Women the Marketplace,” “The Rescue of Yaḥyā, Mir‘ī, and Yūnus [the Three Nephews],” “Manṣūr the Gatekeeper,” “The Death of ‘Āmir al-Khafājī,” and so forth, the events flow into each other such that stopping points are determined more by the context of the performance than by the logic of the narrative.  In the end, however, the Bani Hilal do indeed conquer Tunis and take it as their new home.  In al-Bakātūsh, the epic poem ends here with the story of “The Death of al-Zanātī Khalīfa [ruler of Tunis].”

There are tales that recount events that happen both before the birth of Abū Zayd and after the fall of Tunis, but these are not sung in poetry by the al-Bakātūsh poets.  The tales are known and some of them can be recounted in prose, but they are not performed in verse.  One example of this has been included here in the English texts and titled “Prologue” – it was narrated in prose in 1995 by Shaykh Ghānim (the poet featured in the 1993 video) who is related to the poet families of al-Bakātūsh by marriage.  He, too, knew the story, but could not sing it in verse, never having been taught it in his youth.


The Arabic Transcriptions:  The initial Arabic transcriptions of most of these recordings were done by hand by ‘Abd al-Qādir Ṣubḥ, Ḥamdī Jalama, and myself, in spiral-bound notebooks while I was still living in the village.  Fifty-one hours of these transcriptions were later typed in Arabic, edited, and reviewed by colleagues and most particularly by Egyptian folklorist ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Ḥawwās.  Since the epic is sung in colloquial Egyptian dialect, or rather in an elevated “artistic” form of colloquial dialect, there were hundreds of decisions made along the way about how to transcribe the texts in standard Arabic script.  The guiding principle has been to retain colloquial features that would be easily understood by most readers, but retain standard spellings where necessary so that the meaning of the text is clear.  The Arabic transcriptions do not attempt to approximate colloquial pronunciation: for example, a word spelled with ذ [dh] in standard Arabic is spelled that way here even though it is pronounced with the sound ز  [z] and similarly with other letters.  Since the original audio recordings are made available here as well, any question regarding actual pronunciation can be resolved by listening to the passage in question.

The English Translations:  The very first episode, the Birth of Abu Zayd, has been transcribed and translated with all of the audience’s comments so that the reader can get some sense of the typical interaction of an epic performance.  As described above, however, Shaykh Ṭāhā did not engage in as much repartee as usual since he was producing a special version of the epic “for the book.”  In the subsequent episodes only a few interactions with the audience have been included, specifically those that produced some change in the text itself (where the poet, for example, thanks an audience member who has just given him a cigarette, a feat that he does in rhymed verse without breaking the rhythm or musical flow of the performance).

The epic is filled with archaic words and oft-repeated formulae and epithets, and due to the necessity of placing the rhyme word at the end of the verse, normal word-order is often violated (a common feature of English poetry as well).  I have opted to translate rather literally some of the more colorful expressions from the epic rather than produce a blander, less noticeable expression in English.  For example, heroes who are good warriors are often said to be, “the sugar of the skirmish” (sukkar al-karār  الكرار سكر ).  This is an unusual phrase in Arabic and has a lovely alliteration, so rather than render it something such as “strong in battle,” I have chosen to use the phrase “sugar of the skirmish.” Readers may feel that sometimes I have erred by sticking too closely to the Arabic, but I would rather lean that direction than to produce a translation that reads as if it were composed in English precisely because the language of the epic is unusual to Arab listeners as well, and a great deal of the pleasure in listening to these performances comes from savoring of this special linguistic register.

Grounded in the pioneering work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on the role of “oral formulae” in the performance of oral epics, many modern scholars wish to know when words and phrases are being repeated.  This type of study can only really be carried out by working with the text in the original language, but I have worked hard to use specific English words for specific Arabic terms whenever possible.  For example, there are at least 35 different Arabic terms for hero and warriors in Shaykh Ṭāhā’s vocabulary, which sometimes occur as adjectives and sometimes as nouns, and in the initial translations an English term was found for each: ‘abüs (glowering), ‘asrān (unyielding), batal (hero), fāris (warrior), fatā (gallant or gallant one), jabbār;(mighty), miqdām(champion), qirm (courageous), shadīd (staunch), shajī (valiant), and so forth. There another 35 terms for various weapons such as swords, lances, blades, spears, etc., and over 20 terms for desert, openlands, wilderness, and so forth. In later revisions of the translations some of these have been changed at times to better fit a particular context, so when the same word is used in English, it is about 80% certain that the same term occurs in the original Arabic.

In short, where the epic uses strange and unusual language, I have used unusual phrases or word-order in the translation, and where the original is smooth and easily understood colloquial Arabic, I have tried to use similarly familiar phraseology.  Overall, however, the epic is sung in a rather ‘artistic’ form of colloquial Arabic and incorporates various different levels of language.  The poets go back and forth between various forms of the relative pronoun, for example, using allādhī الذي (sometimes pronounced allāzī) and illī (اللي) even in the same passage. They also use a variety of different negations interchangeably: lam…, mā…, and mā…sh (ضربش ما , ضرب لم, ضرب ما); however, they never use the classical form lamfollowed by the “correct” use of the verb in the jussive ( لم يضرب ). The epic also uses some strange and archaic vocabulary that is not well understood by either the poets or their audiences.  One of the difficulties in translating such passages is that there are often conflicting explanations given by the poets, audience members, and scholarly sources.  The ideal would of course be to annotate in footnotes all explanations, but given the size of these texts that simply has not been possible.  In the end, I have followed my own instincts in trying to craft a comprehensible translation adding explanatory footnotes rather sparingly.


Dwight F. Reynolds