Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Hilali epic: Awadallah sings of Abu Zayd

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About the scene and clip:
This video shows performances drawn from the Egyptian epic devoted to the hero of the Hilali tribe,Abu Zayd, sung by a traditional Hilali performer and recorded by the ethnographer Susan Slyomovics. The performer sings the epic, accompanying himself on a drum and interacting frequently with the audience. He performs as storyteller, with great emphasis on wordplay and punning; there is relatively little attempt to impersonate the characters. In the video, we first see Awadallah in the town square, surrounded by his audience of men. Then, he begins to speak to his listeners, telling them that he is a “merchant of art.” The singer continues the performance in his home, singing about Abu Zayd, frequently holding his drum against his ear. Medieval epics like Old French The Song of Roland were probably performed in quite an analogous manner: sung by solo professional performers to instrumental accompaniment, with only modest levels of character impersonation, and with substantial interaction with (at least originally) a largely male audience.

About the work:
A vast epic tells the history of the Bani Hilal tribe of Bedouin Arabs of Egypt. The earliest parts of their story go back to the 8th and 9th centuries when they moved northward out of the Arabian peninsula, eventually settling in Egypt. The original stories were developed and augmented over hundreds of years, transmitted through performance and in written form; they are still performed in Egypt today by professional singers in cafés and marketplaces. In this part of the epic, the Hilali hero Abu Zayd rescues the royal family of Iraq from their oppressors.

About the genre:
The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

About the edition/translation:
The video, The Merchant of Art, accompanies a book by Susan Slyomovics, The Merchant of Art: An Egyptian Hilali Oral Epic Poet in Performance, University of California Press, 1987.

About the performer/ensemble:
The performer, Awadallah Abd aj-Jalil Ali, is a professional singer of Hilali epics in Aswan, Egypt (1983).

About the production:
The video The Merchant of Art was filmed in 1983 in Aswan, Egypt, by Prof. Susan Slyomovics, a member of the faculty of the Anthropology Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2004). A copy of this video is available at the Avery Fisher Center at Bobst Library at New York university. This video is also available on line at