Oral tradition: c. 14th century CE
First transcriptions: 1986-90



Sirat Bani Hilal



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, others consist of little more than lengthy battle scenes strung together, while others have convoluted psychological dramas at their core.

Sheikh Taha Abu Zayd (al-Bakatush, Egypt, 1987, photo by Dwight Reynolds)

The epic as it was known among the poets represented here [i.e., in the Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive] 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 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].”

Dwight F. Reynolds, (from the Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive)
University of California, Santa Barbara




Critical studies

Reynolds, Dwight F.  “Epic and History in the Arabic Tradition.” In Epic and History. Eds. David Konstan and Kurt A. Baaflaub. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. 292-410.

—. Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes: The Ethnography of Performance in an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition. Cornell UP, 1995.

The Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive is devoted to preserving and making accessible to scholars and the general public original recordings and other documentation concerning the Arabic oral epic poem Sirat Bani Hilal. The Archive contains Arabic texts, English translations, audio recordings, virtual performances, an extensive bibliography, a photo gallery, as well as a list of online resources.