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Muhammad in the Modern Egyptian Popular Ballad.

By KAMAL ABDEL-MALEK. Studies in Arabic Literature, Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 19. Leiden: E. J. BRILL, 1995. Pp. xii + 232. HFI 136.50, $88.50.

At the heart of this book is a valiant, extensive, and groundbreaking investigation of the way the Prophet is represented in present-day Egyptian folk literature. In this endeavor, the author has studied the background of the singers who specialize in this theme; from pulp booklets and from live performances, he has collected, transcribed, and translated a substantial and representative number of texts, often tracing the sources of the material in the writings of what used to be an authoritative elite; and he has attempted a characterization of the literature. No less informative are his accounts of the difficulties which he, a Christian, encountered in his field work, and his personal observations of performances as well as of the behavior of participants in a mulid (pp. 42-43).

The mixing of this rich ointment is not without a few flies. There are untested assumptions, such as that a memorized composition is "produced differently each time it is performed" (p. 9) - a matter on which there is contradictory evidence. The translations are often rather loose. More surprising than occasional English solecisms is that words peculiar to the Arab-Islamic heritage are robbed of their precise implications, as when awliya is explained as "friends [of God]" (p. 22), istagar is rendered as "sought help" (p. 52), bayca as "election" (p. 34), kharra sagidan as "fell on his knees" (p. 80), and a milk-brother is mistaken for a step-brother (p. 56). A tangy expression such as mulid wi sahbu ghayib has its sense of "free-for-all" tamely lifted from the dictionary (p. 41), by-passing the imagery of a celebration at which the honoree is ignored.

These approximations may not seriously vitiate the sense, but along with a sprinkling of minor slips and misprints both in the English and in Standard Arabic - e.g., al-haqqu lana sara wadihhan wa galayya (p. 106) - they compromise a valuable by-product of such studies, for a rigorous transcription of oral texts is a gold mine in which other scholars may test and extend our far-from-exhaustive knowledge of the morphology and syntax of the colloquial. But with so much that bespeaks a slipshod approach, how confident can the linguist or the prosodist be that Abdel-Malek's informant actually lengthened or shortened vowels as transcribed? Did the performer actually utter zikruhu yuhiyy n-nufus (p. 91), with its startling verb formation and its succession of geminated consonants? Can he square the translation "Are my deeds wicked, O Mother?" with the text huwwa na fi li raddi yamma (p. 101)? How reliable or how stable is the vocalization of huli zulli, "my humiliation tastes sweet" (p. 125), which allows Abdel-Malek to contend that huli here is a passive (which the sense does not require) and a marker of Classical Arabic?

One crucial feature of this literature is mishandled throughout this work. It is the zahr, a kind of elaborate punning achieved by such extensive distortion of the normal pronunciation that only the consonants remain stable, whereas vowels may be altered, dropped, or added; gemination may be ignored; and even glottal stops may be added or elided. The result is often so tortuous and the integration of the puns into the text so forced that the first Arabists to come across them read them as mere repetitions of the same word. That this would be a negation of the poet's artistry and a frustration of his audience's expectation has been amply shown in some of the sources that Abdel-Malek cites; yet the instances in which he detects the wordplay are few and far between. One example among many occurs on pp. 9798. He transcribes:

ta alu ya hl-i l-bala nishki l-ba dina halna nu cud ma a ba dina madam balkum wafi halna ya rahib id-der ya qissis ya hanna um iftah lina l-bab il-bab (sic) khallina nishif halna [nshuf halna] ihna nkawena bi l-hawa lamma nishif halna

This he translates:

Come, O love-afflicted people, let us complain to one another about our affliction

Let us sit with one another so long as your affliction [mystical state] is similar to ours

O monk of the monastery, O Priest, O Hanna

Get up and open the door for us, let us tend to our affliction [or reach our mystical state?]

We have been cauterized by love until we have withered.

Here Abdel-Malek has sensed that nishif in the fourth line is to be read as nishuf, but he has taken the rhyme-word halna (literally: "our condition," although it may also mean "our mystic state") to be the same throughout, whereas it may carry this meaning only once. It best fits the second line: "since your condition matches ours," but I take it to stand for helna "our [puny] strength" in the first line, for hall lina "that we may seek a solution for ourselves" in line 4, and for hal ina "until our throats have dried" in the last.

Such misreading can result in worse than literary distortions when coupled with a readiness to rush into sensational inferences. Abdel-Malek makes much of references to Christian priests in such contexts, and he rightly quotes lines expressing a broad acceptance of other faiths by outstanding Sufis of the past such as al-Hallaj and Ibn Arabi; but whether at the level at which this folk literature is pitched the representation of a monk or a priest as a dispenser of wine is evidence of "inter-confessionalism" or part of the conventions of wine poetry as adapted to Sufi purposes is a matter to be approached with much caution. Field workers, in particular, have the opportunity and therefore the obligation to ascertain how their informants understand such loaded texts before indulging in speculation. Yet in another mawwal, metrically so irregular that it is transcribed as a raj (lame, rhyming aaaxa) whereas it is a sab ani (aaabbba), the first line of which reads (p. 97):

hanna fatah han wi fih kasat min barra

Abdel-Malek again takes the rhyme word to be the same in three out of four instances and translates:

Hanna opened a wine-shop which had foreign-made goblets.

Now barra may indeed mean "outside" or "abroad," but in this sense it fits another line better. Here it may be a distortion of a number of other words, the likeliest being bar a, giving the sense: "goblets [fashioned] out of a flash [of light]". Even with the signification Abdel-Malek gives it, the connotation may be no more than that the goblets are of superior quality, foreign products having long been preferred to those of local manufacture. But on his simplistic reading of a single line in a dubious text he bases the breathtaking inference that "the keeper of the wine-shop and the goblets which hold the mystical wine originate outside the realm of Islam."

And loosely draped round the hard core of information in this book but springing into prominence in its closing pages is a thesis that some scholars - virtually all those named are Orientalists - overstate the contrast between popular and "official" Islam. Whether what is intended by the latter is the teaching of professors at the Azhar or the understanding of modernist thinkers and writers is not specified, but in either case not the sketchiest comparison is offered, and with the exception of a couple of popular songs that appear to have been imitated or adapted by maddahin, no "elitist" writing more recent than the sixteenth century is cited, although the secularization of the life of the Prophet by eminent twentieth-century writers is said to have been convincingly demonstrated (p. 4). As for Abdel-Malek's description of a State celebration of the Prophet's birthday (pp. 133-34), it scarcely bears out his contention.

Abdel-Malek gains little and loses some credibility by such tangential speculations. What matters is that because the whole of Arab folk literature is understudied and largely unchronicled, and because it is subject to pervasive forces of change, the most urgent need is that facts and texts relating to it be faithfully recorded, even if they are to be analyzed and evaluated only later. It is by his strenuous field work and the permanence he has given to its immediate results that Dr. Abdel-Malek has earned the gratitude of scholars.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Cachia, Pierre
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Previous Article:Muhammad, the Quran, and Islam.
Next Article:A lam al-adab al-arabi al-mu-asir: Siyar wa siyar dhatiyya. English Title Page: Contemporary Arab Writers: Biographies and Autobiographies.

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