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The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah, also known as the Al-Hilali epic, is an oral poem that recounts the tale of the Beni Hilal Bedouin tribe's migration to North Africa from Arabia in the tenth century. The Beni Hilal were dominant in central North Africa for over a century before their annihilation by rivals from Morocco. Of the dozen odd major oral epic poems that developed within the Arab folk tradition between the Middle Ages and the 19th century, the Hilali is today the only one that is still performed in its integral musical form. The epic, once widespread throughout the Middle East, is today performed only in Egypt. In 2008 it was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The epic, performed since the 14th century, has been sung in verses by master poets who provide their own musical accompaniment on a percussion instrument. It is a unique literary and musical form that reflects in it Arab folk history, customs, beliefs, symbolism and traditions. Proverbs and puzzles derived from the epic are often a part of everyday conversation in many areas of the Middle East. Some of the prominent characters of the epic include Abu zed al-Hilaliy, El Zenaty Kalepha and Zayab Ibn Ganem and there are several places in the Middle East that have been named for heroes mentioned in the epic. The Al-Sirah Al Hilaliyyah exalts courage and heroism and has in it themes of honour and revenge and of war and romance. It places events from a recalled and orally transferred history in their social and historical contexts and is a record of customs and practices and the food, clothing and lifestyles of these communities across time.
The Hilali performers come from specific families for whom these performances were once used to be their sole source of income. The performers often begin their apprenticeships at the age of five and their training goes on for at least ten years. During the course of this demanding apprenticeship the poets perfect their memory, singing and instrument playing skills and learn the art of extemporaneous commentary to render traditional plots relevant to their contemporary audiences. Traditionally, the Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah has been performed at social and private events such as weddings, circumcision ceremonies and private gatherings and the performances often last between 50 to 100 hours.
The Hilali performances have musical accompaniments mostly of wooden instruments. These include string instruments such as the rababa (the Arabic fiddle) and smsmiyya (tampura), wind instruments such as the salamiyyah, zummarah, mizmar, arghul and nay (an open ended flute) and percussion instruments such as the tabla and the tambourine.
Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliya is a living tradition that symbolises the oral traditions of communities of Upper and Lower Egypt and it blends ancient and modern music with songs and dances of the present tribes of Egypt. The Hilali thus has a considerable influence in shaping these communities’ vision, their acceptance or rejection of ideas and innovations and it helps integrate changes associated with development, modernisation in these societies.
Today there are very few folk poets who know Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliya in its entirety and given the socio economic changes in Egypt and the onslaught of globalisation, the Hilali epic is faced with the prospect of extinction. Documentation, classification and archiving of the epic and its artistic nuances are underway and its listing on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is expected to brighten its prospects of survival. The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah bears resemblance to the T'heydinn of Mauritania, another oral epic on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, both as an oral history and in the source material of the exploits of the Beni Hilal tribe that both these epics derive from.