Folk Hero:Al-Zahir Beibars

National Folklore Archive (NFA), Monday 6 Jun 2011

The classic epic of real-life-figure-turned-hero al-Zahir Beibars describes a struggle between the good and the bad during the 300-year reign of the mighty Mamluk generals

El Zaher Beibars1

When the Mongols destroyed Baghdad, many storytellers left the Abbasid capital to Egypt. It was around this time, between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries, that the major epics of Arab literature came into being, and many were flavoured by the ongoing conflicts.

One of those epics, that of thirteenth century Sultan, al-Zahir Beibars (a real figure) was elevated to the status of a cult hero, along with Antara, Seif Ibn Zi yazan, and Zat al-Hemma. The epics were often written in the colloquial language of the time.

The epic describes a period of Egyptian history marred by a power struggle among the mighty breed of Mamluk generals, who were to reign supreme in the country for more than three centuries.

The epic opens with the death of al-Malik al-Salih, the last Ayyubid king. Upon his death two groups vie for power: Aybak the Turkman and Qalawun on one hand; and Shahin al-Afram, al-Zahir Beibars and al-Bahlawan on the other.

The first group is evil to the bones, manipulative and untruthful. Determined to seize power, Aybak the Turkoman and Qalawun feign allegiance to Amir Eissa, the son of al-Malik al-Saleh. Their plan is to turn Eissa against Beibars and then take over.

The second group, led by Beibars, is portrayed as pure of heart, brave in battle and God-fearing.

At first, the conspirators manage to turn Eissa against al-Zaher. But al-Zaher wins Eissa’s trust and ultimately succeeds Eissa as ruler. The righteous win the day.

A main theme of the tale is plotting and betrayal, but it is executed with careless naiveté.

Take, for example Osman, the man al-Zaher sends to be his spy in Eissa’s court. Osman, who is an alcoholic, is asked to refrain from drinking on the job. But as soon as he comes into the presence of Eissa, Osman is unable to contain his urges. Good wine, beautiful female dancers and a lovely party in the garden loosen his tongue and he puts himself and his employer at great risk.

The storytellers weaved fantastical tales around Beibar, creating improbable situations and arranging events in an inaccurate chronological order.

But the powerful epic stood the test of time as a reservoir of collective memory, a tale just as magical and gripping as those of Antara, Beni Helal and Arabian Nights.

(Compiled by Rushdy Saleh)

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