The undying legacy of a Sira poet

Doaa Hamza, Sunday 25 Mar 2012

The words are his, and yet they are older than himself, for the Sira Helaleyaa is an accumulative verbal tradition, adapted by each poet to the imagination and sensibilities of their audience


I often saw him with poet Abdel Rahman Al-Abnoudi. Like an ancient poet, he plays the two-string violin called the rababa and sings. The words are his, and yet they are older than himself, for the Sira Helaleyaa is an accumulative work, adapted by each poet to the needs of the audience and their imagination and sensibilities. Off stage, the poet-singer is given to long spells of silence, the kind of silence that is designed not to keep you away, but to invite you to listen to what will come next.

Sayyed Al-Dawwi has followed in his father’s footsteps. El-Dawi El-Kabir, his father, was among the greatest Sira singers of all time.

"Sira was our only source of income," says El-Dawi, whose mother used to punish him if he forgot his Sira lines.

When he performs, El-Dawi takes you into a magical world of intrigue and battle, of love and broken hearts, of reckless valour and contemplative prudence. Basically, the Sira is a medieval epic, but there is something about it that makes it private and personal, as if everyone has to internalise it, poet and audience, you and me.

El-Dawi, who was born in Qus in south Egypt (known as Upper Egypt because the Nile starts in countries south of Egypt) says that the real audience for the Sira are the southerners.

"The Sira was born in south Egypt and still resides there. Take, for example, the story of Amer’s triumph and his subsequent murder. This story will take me four hours to tell in Said [Upper Egypt] but in Bahari [north Egypt], I tell it in half an hour."

The Sira tells the story of a clan, the Helaleyyas or Bani Helal, who emigrated from the Hegaz (now Saudi Arabia) to north Africa between in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

El-Abnoudi, who wrote a two-volume book on the Sira, likens El-Dawi's writing style to a gypsy; for he keeps the vocabulary simple to suit an illiterate audience, and yet manages to keep the language enticingly vibrant. Other Sira poets follow a different path. For example, Gaber Abu Husein doesn’t offer the whole gamut of poetic colour that El-Dawi brings into the performance, but his attention to detail adds substance to the epic.

“In El-Dawi’s version of Sira we are moved by the poetry and enchanted by the action and its connotations. We also get to know characters and become involved in their lives. In Gaber’s version, however, the epic is told in more detail, something that the poetic approach of El-Dawi cannot always lend itself to.”

When Abu Zeid’s nephew is killed in Tunis, Abu Zeid threatens to destroy the whole city. Here is what he says, in the poetic words of El-Dawi:

Your city, I swear, I will raze

To build, in its place, a mausoleum

For Marei, whom you killed, whom you threw to the vultures

Your city, mark my words, I will raze

To  build, in its place, a memorial

For my nephew, whom you killed, you will suffer

Your city, I swear, I will raze

To build, in its place, a tower

For the knight you killed, the knight you threw to the circling eagles


Sira has gone out of fashion. Fewer people listen to it, and even fewer perform it. But El-Dawi says that its legacy will never die

"The Sira cannot be forgotten because the older it becomes the sweeter it grows. It is and epic of courage and pride, of honour and loyalty. It gets better with time. But the audience is dying out. The economic hardship is also taking its toll. A man would say: Why bring Sayyed El-Dawi [to sing] and pay him 500 pounds. Better bring someone to recite the Koran."

El-Dawi had been grooming one of his children, Hamdi, to become a Sira poet. But Hamdi died. This leaves El-Dawi short of disciples from his own bloodline, but with many who cling to his every word: Salib, Basem, Fatema Adel, Dina El-Wadidi and Rabie Zein are all his children now. They sing his words and record his music, and generally make sure that Sira will survive.

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