Sirah: Larger than life

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 2 May 2022

“The ‘sirah’ (‘life story’) of a person outlives them,” goes the Egyptian proverb that highlights the importance of the legacy one leaves behind.

photo: Amira Noshokaty


This proverb captures the essence and great importance of sagas and epics in the Middle East and Egypt and might explain the survival of such traditional art for centuries. 

Sirah of Bani Helal and El-Warsha Troupe

April witnessed an exceptional performance at the premises of the El-Warsha Theatre Troupe in Downtown Cairo, where for four successive days, the ‘Sirah of Bani Helal’ was recited and hand painted live.

This is a fresh approach to the revival of the legendry oral rhymed saga that recounts the migration of Bani Helal Bedouin tribe from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the 10th century.

Listed by Egypt in 2008 on UNESCO’s representative list of intangible cultural heritage, the Sirah of Bani Helal has always been a hit in the story-telling repertoire of El-Warsha Troupe. 

Since it was founded in 1987 by director Hassan El-Geretly, the independent theatre troupe has been focusing on reviving classic gems from folk heritage, including story-telling, sirah recitation, stick arts, folk singing, and classic musicals.

El-Warsha collaborated with the last and late sirah poet Said El-Daw, whom they learnt the authentic technique of sirah reciting from.

“‘Ghazl El-Aamar’ (‘Weaving Lives’) was one of the music plays that followed the Bani Helal saga after their downfall. It tells the tale of the return of Abu Zeid Al-Helali to his origins in Mecca, and his lamenting of the passing of his days of glory until he dies out of thirst,” explained El-Geretly as he introduced the performance, which included a live sketching of the events as they were being told onstage. 

5,800 pages of illustrated sirah

Stationed in the background of the theatre, young Egyptian illustrator Mohamed Wahba was the artist sketching the scenes from the Sirah of Bani Helal throughout the performance.

This talented artist first fell in love with sirah after he studied the basics of the art of comics under the tutelage of one of Egypt’s renowned artists in this field — Hani El-Masry. 

“For six years, I learned from him Japanese and French comic techniques. But most importantly, learned to look around and create illustrations that reflected our own identity,” Wahba said.

“The search for the Egyptian identity piqued my interest in studying intangible heritage texts; I started out by reading several versions of ‘Arabian Nights.’

“It got me more acquainted with the art of storytelling, as it was one of the core art scenes of the ‘moulids’ (‘Carnivals of faith’) in Sharqiya, where I grew up,” he added.

“Researching the Sirah of Bani Helal made me realize that my own family’s roots extend back to one of the four tribes of Bani Helal — the only one that settled in Sharqiya,” he noted.

After concluding his artistic residency in France in 2020 and collaborating with El-Warsha Troupe, Wahba began his long-term art project to illustrate the Sirah of Bani Helal.

“So far, I have illustrated 5,800 pages of the sirah that is based on true events of the migration of this tribe to Egypt during the Fatimid era.”

One out of 10 more sirahs 

“Out of 10 sirahs, that of Bani Helal remains the most popular and the one that stood the test of time,” explained Abdel-Rahim El-Hegrawi — a heritage researcher whose upcoming book and PhD thesis traces back the origins of sirahs and how they were dramatically adapted from storytelling to theatre, television, and radio art forms in Egypt between 1967 to 2011.

“Among the first sirahs was that of Fayrouz Shah, which was created during the Umayyad caliphate and illustrated the conflict between the Arabs and the Persians, focusing more on the Persian side of the story,” he said, adding that in reaction to Fairouz Shah’s sirah, Arabs drafted the ‘Sirah of Hamza Al-Bahlawan’, which covered the victories of the Arabs over the Persians.”

“And so, one sirah led to another until 10 sirahs were created, including ‘Zat Al Hemma’, ‘Seif Ibn Zi Yazan’,El-Zaher Beibars’, ‘Al-Zeir Salem’, and ‘Ali Al-Zeibaa’. 

“The oldest sirah is that of Antara Ibn Shaddad, which was written in the fourth century of the Hijri calendar during the Fatimid era. However, the Sirah of Bani Helal was still the most popular, and hence the most represented in Egyptian theatre,” El-Hegrawi explained.

“Between the year 1847 and 2022, 122 plays were written on the Sirah of Bani Helal in Egypt,” he added, noting that this popularity relates to the fact that it was the longest and among the few sirahs that were recited and dramatised and broadcasted on national radio back in the day.  

“During the 18th century in Egypt, there were specific local coffee houses that would feature specific sirahs” he said.

Is it based on True events?

“Sirah by definition means that it is a long fictional folk story that is a result of the collective imagination of the masses and is divided into epics. Such a lengthy story unfolds the string of triumphs and defeats of renowned protagonists whose narratives can change from one country to another, yet their portrayals as extraordinary individuals remains a constant, However, such fiction could be inspired by true events or real life characters, for instance, the character of Barakat was mentioned in the writings of Ibn Khaldoun — the father of sociology,” El-Hegrawi explained.

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