We are mere acolytes
The Sira is a book and an amulet
A record and a password
A forest and a flower
Its quatrains like squares
With circles in the middle
Running forever like a Bedouin desert
With embers burning under the sand
Where the storyteller marches without stumbling
And the onlookers yearn for fire
He scatters the sand
And burns with the embers
Every single time
This poem, written by Hoda Eissa, sums up our enchanted rapport with the Sira Helaeyya, the poetic oral history of Medieval times, a work of such astounding proportions that one can only aspire for a glimpse of its mysterious magic.
To approach the Sira, one must proceed with the humility of a disciple preparing for an exceptional endeavour. The gurus in this case are the Sira poets, one of whom is Sayyed Al-Dawi, who has been working closely with the Warsha Theatre Group for years.
The story of Al-Dawi and the Warsha is worth telling, for both have two different approaches to the same source of inspiration. Al-Dawi is master of tradition, an accomplished poet, and one of the greatest Sira singers alive; whereas the Warsha is a multi-faceted group focusing on storytelling, music, singing, and dramatised performances.
The two overlap, and all aspects of the theatre in which the Warsha specialises are present in the Sira. And yet the Sira is bigger than the theatre, for it is a bond of affection, bordering on the spiritual, between the storyteller and the tales he recounts. As Sayyed Al-Dawi once said, “Sira has no theatre.” By which he meant that Sira was too special to be confined to the conventional boundaries of the theatre. Its magic, as the Warsha has learned through years of cooperation with Sira singers, transcends theatrical norms.
And yet, the idea of collaboration between the two, the conventional Sira and the experimental theatre, was too tantalising to resist. A dual show was born, one in which Al-Dawi and the artists of Warsha merge their acts into one. The result was utterly breathtaking.
The combined performance that the Warsha organised in its tiny theatre for five days ended with a concert fusing old tradition with the talent of modern performers
The Warsha group has been working on the Sira for years, exploring its various arts of singing, storytelling, and dramatisation. A performance titled The Weaving of Times staged in the late 1990s, enabled the group to experiment with the art of storytelling and brought it face to face with the enchanted world of conventional Sira poets.
At first, the Warsha tried to memorise the stories and mimic the storytellers’ style. But with time, the group felt the need to explore the mysterious worlds of which the Sira is but an expression.
The Weaving of Times was thus able to focus on the dimensions of the Sira characters and the dramatic web of connections within the story. The performance eventually abandoned the attempt to follow the story in chronological order and instead brought forth the web of passions and ideals that inspires its characters.
In the recent five-day performance, Al-Dawi told the story of the daughters of the nobility. The performance began with a Warsha actor telling a story. Al-Dawi then provided a snippet of a tale, paving the way to the actor to recount the scene involving the killing of one of the Sira’s main protagonists, Al-Zanati Khalifa
When the tale reached the point where another Sira character, Diab Ibn Ghanim herded camels, seven or eight centuries ago in Libya, the two-string violin known as rababa comes in to back up the quatrains sung by Al-Dawi.
As Dina Al-Wadidi told the story of the King of Iraq, a shift occurred in the pace of singing, from the mertah, or leisurely, style of Al-Dawi to the malfouf, or energetic, style of Bedouin singing. Then another singer, Fatema Adel, threw in a folksy and dramatic song that brought the Sira’s colourful imagery into full swing.
The actress and storyteller Arfa Abdel Rasul sang the tale of Khadra Al-Sharifa (another Sira character) with just the right dash of theatrical performance. Sira is more often than not sung by male singers, but Al-Dawi recalls a few female singers who excelled in the art, including the late Atia Bint Atallah of Naga Hammadi.
Rabie Zein Ibn Al-Sheikh, the son of a major professional Sira poet, then gave a powerful performance with an authentic southern accent.
Al-Dawi then took centre stage with the following quatrains:
I am a believer in One God
He who created all people
Created Muslims and Christians, He did
Created people who sleep comfortably in bed
And those who suffer without end
A few moments later, the story had moved on:
Life is what you make of it
Look with your own eyes and think of it
The sheep when they are all grown
Attack their shepherd with their horns
The Sira, this epic of grand proportions that has been threatened by extinction still lives, albeit it is now taking refuge in the theatre, the wilderness of its folk past no longer offering it the nourishment on which it had survived for centuries.