Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah epic


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Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)

This oral poem, also known as the Hilali epic, recounts the saga of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the tenth century. This tribe held sway over a vast territory in central North Africa for more than a century before being annihilated by Moroccan rivals. As one of the major epic poems that developed within the Arabic folk tradition, the Hilali is the only epic still performed in its integral musical form. Moreover, once widespread throughout the Middle East, it has disappeared from everywhere except Egypt.

Since the fourteenth century, the Hilali epic has been performed by poets who sing the verses while playing a percussion instrument or a two-string spike fiddle (rabab). Performances take place at weddings, circumcision ceremonies and private gatherings, and may last for days. In the past, practitioners were trained within family circles and performed the epic as their only means of income. These professional poets began their ten-year apprenticeships at the age of five. To this day, students undergo special training to develop memory skills and to master their instruments. Nowadays, they must also learn to inject improvisational commentary in order to render plots more relevant to contemporary audiences.

The number of performers of the Hilali Epic is dwindling due to competition from contemporary media and to the decreasing number of young people able to commit to the rigorous training process. Pressured by the lucrative Egyptian tourist industry, poets tend to forsake the full Hilali repertory in favour of brief passages performed as part of folklore shows.