Legends of martyrdom

Doaa Hamza, Monday 30 Jan 2012

In the spate of festivities marking the first anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, the martyrs - those who gave their life for freedom - should take pride of place

Emad Effat
People at Al Azhar carry the coffin of Emad Effat, a senior official of Egypt's Dar al-Iftah who died in recent clashes, during his funeral in Cairo December 17, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

Recent preparations in the buildup to the first anniversary of the January 25 Revolution raise questions about whether celebrating martyrdom is an integral part of Egyptian heritage. Folk and oral history experts say there are no parallels to be drawn between the nation's current infatuation with martyrdom and its past. The anonymous writers of folk tales appreciate heroes just as much as our contemporaries, but in telling the stories of those heroes, the stress is always on their extraordinary lives, not deaths.

"There are stories involving martyrdom or martyrs," says folk history professor Ibrahim Abdel Hafez, “but not in direct ways. Folk tales deal with resistance and mock the despots, but the issue of martyrdom is not mentioned.”

One possible exception, says Abdel Hafez, is the tale of the hanging of Zahran, one of the peasants the British executed in Dunshuwai in 1906. Folk songs known as mawwals (or mawawil) rarely use the word martyr. But there is one mawwal, written about one of Egypt's great military leaders, that seems to break the mould. Written just after the 1973 war, this particular mawwal is dedicated to one of Egypt's fallen soldiers, and it promises to avenge his death.

According to Samih Shaalan, the president of the Higher Institute of Folk Art, "the word ‘martyr’ is uncommon. Even in the mawwal about Zahran's hanging, it is not used. It seems that the folk writers wanted to focus on victory, not defeat. They are interested in acts of heroism, in champions who defend their own people. Take for example [the oral history heroes] Ali al-Zeibaq and Antara ibn Shaddad. Those men are remembered for heroic deeds. Their subsequent deaths are incidental. It is what they did during their life that matters, not the manner of their deaths.”

Yet this is not the only view. Folklore professor Nahla Imam believes that martyrdom is part of our heritage, Islamic as well as Christian. The Christians glorify their Age of Martyrdom, and the Muslims follow that same tradition. But even before that, in ancient Egyptian lore, the afterlife figured prominently in mythical tales. And the very concept of the afterlife is about death being the gateway to a better life, a proposition which is at the heart of all martyrdom tales.

Shaalan, who has produced a study on funerary wailing, says that wailing is mostly about the life of the deceased and the void he has left behind. The manner of death and the question of martyrdom are almost never mentioned.

However, the vendetta tradition seems to be popular among folk songwriters. Hafez says that revenge was a central theme in the mawwal written about the war hero Abdel Moneim Riad in 1973: “Riad is in paradise and revenge is due/Having defeated the enemy to the east of the canal/You have flown away, Riad, but your name lives on/A first-rate epic/In the clash with the enemy and you stood fast/On the bank of the canal, the news came fast/The oath holds true/By the nation and the Quran/We shall take revenge.”

Still, Egyptian folklore does not seem to explain the current tendency to glorify the death rather than the lives of the martyrs. But is it possible that things will change?

Al-Imam says that it is hard to describe anything as folklore before it has been enshrined in folk tales for 100 years. Shaalan does not rule out the possibility of martyrdom making it into folk songs. He is just not sure that folklore will survive the changes brought about by modernity: "We are in the midst of a revolution that will influence society. But the public have turned their back on traditional folk artists and songwriters. If folk art manages to survive, then the current ideas of martyrdom will be incorporated into tales and songs."

Just as we once sang the praises of al-Zanati Khalifa and Adham al-Sharqawi, the day may come when the martyrs of Tahrir Square will be part of our heritage. Perhaps we have to wait a hundred years for this to happen. But as the poet Amin Haddad has said, "Legends turn to reality in Tahrir Square."

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