Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic

This long poetry which has been passed on by oral tradition, also known as al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic, recounts the legendary migration story of the Bani Hilal tribe from the Arabian Peninsula across North Africa in the 10th century AD. This legendary tribe once dominated a vast territory in central North Africa for over a century before being annihilated by Moroccan rivals.

From the middle ages to the 19th century, 12 major oral epic poems developed within the Arabic folk tradition. However, al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah is the only one which remains alive and continues to be performed in its original musical form today. Moreover, this artistic form, once widespread throughout the Arab Middle East, has survived to the present day in only Egypt.

Since the 14th century, the epic has been sung in verses by master poets who provide their own musical accompaniment on a percussion instrument. Traditionally, performances take place at weddings, circumcision ceremonies and private gatherings and can last between 50 and 100 hours.

Epic singing a unique literature and musical form which combines Arab folk history, customs, beliefs, symbolism and traditions. To this day, proverbs and puzzles related to the epics are still prevalent in Middle East. In addition, many regions are named after heroes in the epics.

In the past, poets were trained within their family circles and performed the epic as their only means of income. These professional poets began their apprenticeships at the age of five and persevered at least ten years. In the course of this arduous training, poets develop memory skills and perfect their singing and instrument playing; they must also learn to inject improvisational commentary in order to render traditional plots more relevant for contemporary audiences.

Translated by Jiang Yilingzi