21. The languages of the poets in northern Egypt

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Dwight F. Reynolds
University of California, Santa Barbara  


When I was still a graduate student studying in Cairo in the early 1980’s, my mentor, a renowned folklorist, sent me out into the countryside of the Nile Delta to experience first-hand some of the oral artistry to be found in villages there.  He suggested several sites and I eventually found myself in a village that was known as “the village of the poets” because it was home to so many singers of the epic song of the Bani HIlal Bedouin tribe, known in Arabic as Sirat Bani Hilal.  To my astonishment there were fourteen households of professional, hereditary epic singers, men whose only occupation was to perform this oral epic sing in vernacular Egyptian dialect at weddings, in cafes, at festivals, at private gatherings and other occasions.

On that first visit I recorded some samples no longer than a half-hour each, and, I must confess, I scarcely understood a word of what they sang.  Though I had read written versions of the poetry, I found it difficult to understand the verses when they were sung, and, I soon learned, the versions these poets sang were marked not only by the local dialect, but also by a level of speech that might be termed ‘artistic colloquial.’  It is neither the language of everyday conversation, nor the ‘standard’ or ‘classical’ form of written Arabic, but rather something in between, a linguistic register used primarily in various forms of verbal art.

For nearly 15 years I made repeated trips to visit this village, eventually living there for a year and on other visits sometimes staying for several weeks at a time.  I recorded approximately 75 performances and took notes during many conversations and interviews (the poets, as with everyone else in the village, would under no circumstances allow me to record our casual conversations).  I also took lessons from a singer, Shaykh Taha Abu Zayd, whom many in the village deemed to be the best and most knowledgeable when it came to repertory and history.  I learned to play the rabab (a two-stringed spike fiddle) and to sing a small fragment of the epic.  The poets of this village had repertories that ranged from as little as 20 hours to over 120 hours of material.  And all of them were completely illiterate, unable even to spell their names (they commonly used a thumbprint when a signature was required, as did many of the older villagers).

Over time my understanding of the various unusual turns of phrase in the epic song grew and I was able to follow the story without difficulty.  But I soon stumbled upon a completely different language issue that involved the poets and their families.

The epic singers are from a special, distinct social group, similar to (but not directly related to) the Roma of Europe.  They call themselves the “wilaad halab” or “wilaad halaba,” a term that seems to mean “the children of Aleppo” since Aleppo is ‘Halab’ in Arabic.  But this makes no historical sense and the poets have not preserved any narratives that link them to Aleppo in northern Syria.  Scholars have hypothesized that the word might be a colloquial form of “halaqa” (a ring or circle), since the poets performed in the center of open circles to outdoor audiences, or that it refers to “milk” (‘haleeb’ in Arabic), and indicates a link to grazing animals.  But there is no real evidence that supports any of these ideas.

In any case, members of this social group do not marry outside the group except in very rare cases, and one of the features that sets them apart is their use (only among themselves) of language or argot that they refer to only as ‘ratana’ (gibberish).  Some of the young men in the poets’ community thought that it was fun to teach me to say things in ‘ratana,’ but elders in the community found out and put a stop to this.  This American researcher seemed perfectly nice and respectable, and it was fine that he wanted to record and learn to sing the epic, but as for matters that should be kept within their community (such as speaking ‘ratana’), that was off limits.  Everyone continued to help me with the epic project, but I never heard another word of ‘ratana’ during the remaining years of my research.  By 2000, all of the epic poets I had known had passed away, and none of their children had taken up the craft.  They had instead been sent to schools, learned to read and write, and now held more respectable jobs.  Though the epic lives on in other regions, in this village, the epic has disappeared and now lives on only in the recordings we made between 1982 and 1995.

Audio recordings, photographs, and selected translated texts can be found at: