Readers of Edward Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians will remember his account of the traditional storytellers that drew large crowds to Cairo’s street cafes when the book was first published in 1836. These storytellers, often half-chanting their stories to the occasional accompaniment of a rebab, a traditional stringed instrument, kept audiences on the edge of their seats with their tales of the heroic deeds of the ancient Arabs.
The “reciters of romances frequent the principal kahwehs (or coffee shops) of Cairo and other towns, particularly in the evenings of religious festivals, and afford attractive and rational entertainment,” Lane wrote.
“The reciter generally seats himself upon a small stool on the mastab’ah, or raised seat, which is built in front of the coffee shop; some of his auditors arrange themselves on the mastab’ahs of the houses on the opposite side of the narrow street, and the rest sit upon stools or benches made of palm sticks, most of them with pipe in hand, some sipping their coffee, and all highly amused not only with the story, but also with the lively and dramatic manner of the narrator.”
The al-Sira al-Hilaliyya was a particular favourite, the story of the Bani Hilal people whose conquests it celebrates, focusing on the exploits of the hero Abu Zayd. Another story that drew the crowds was that of the early Mameluke sultan Al-Zahir Baybars, victor over the invading Mongols at the battle of Ayn Jalut. Then there was the Sirat al-Antar, the story of Antar, the epitome of masculine virtue. In each case, the reciter would tell the story after learning it by heart, sometimes adding or subtracting material depending on the audience. Dialogue was used to dramatise the material and poetry included to heighten it.
No two performances of the stories were necessarily alike, and their relation to the written versions of the stories could be approximate, one of the reasons why audiences came back for more. Lane enjoyed the performances he attended, but he can be sniffy about their quality. The story of the Bani Hilal has “little merit as a literary composition,” he says. “But as illustrative of the manners and customs of the Bedawees [Bedouin], it is not without value and interest.”
Copies of the Sirat al-Zahir Baybars “have become so scarce that I have only heard of one existing in Egypt,” he adds, “which I have purchased.” He says that this copy “is written in the most vulgar style of modern Egyptian Arabic… but it is likely that copyists may have altered and modernised the language” originally used by its anonymous author. Even more difficult to obtain were copies of the Thousand and One Nights, sometimes also performed by the reciters. “The great scarcity of copies… I believe is the reason why recitations are no longer heard.”
The same thing was true of the Sirat Zu-l-Himmeh, or Dhat al-Himma, unusual because a heroine, Fatima, nicknamed “Dhat al-Himma,” the “possessor of nobility,” “is the chief character of the work.” Lane says that “after a long search, all that I have succeeded in procuring of it is a portion consisting of the first three volumes and another portion consisting of the forty-sixth and forty-seventh” out of a notional 55 volumes.
He gives an account of the opening episodes, which play with the idea of the mistaken identity that can occur when Dhat al-Himmah, a warrior woman, appears in traditionally masculine fighting garb. At one point in the narrative, as recounted by Lane, the emir Gundub’ah (Jundaba) comes across a Bedouin tent and challenges its owner to a duel.
“They fought until their spears were broken and their swords were jagged. At length El-Gundub’ah seized hold of the vest beneath his antagonist’s coat of mail and heaved its wearer from the saddle to the ground. He uplifted his sword, but a voice, so sweet it would have cured the sick, exclaimed, ‘have mercy on thy captive, O hero of the age!’ ‘Art thou a man,’ said El-Gundub’ah, ‘or a woman?’ ‘I am a virgin damsel,’ she replied, and, drawing away her veil displayed a face like the moon at the full. When El-Gundub’ah beheld the beauty of her face and the elegance of her form, he was bewildered and overpowered with love.”
Fortunately, English-speaking readers no longer need to engage in the kind of search described by Lane, since the epic story of Dhat al-Himmah, previously only available in the kind of summaries or part translations he provides, has now been translated into modern English. While translator Melanie Magidow’s version, appearing in a readily available paperback edition from Penguin Books, is still only a fraction of the whole, it gives readers more than a taste of what they have been missing in a highly approachable English version.
She has provided English versions of a dozen episodes taken from the 450 or so in the Arabic edition, which runs to seven volumes and 6,000 pages. “This is the most extensive rendition of the epic into English to date,” Magidow says, adding that in the mediaeval Arab story of Dhat al-Himma modern readers will find “an old and largely forgotten tale of a woman who dazzled, persevered, and succeeded against the odds.”
Warrior woman: Lane’s selections from the story give a fair idea of its characteristic features, including in the exhausting one-on-one duel between the protagonists, a test of martial virtue as well as of physical strength, and the beginning of a love story between the leading male and female characters.
The stories as a whole are full of such material, usually recounting the extraordinary birth of the main character, his martial training, and then his extraordinary exploits. Very often, the hero leads his people towards their destiny, as Abu Zayd does in the al-Sira al-Hilaliyya, which recounts the expansion of the Bani Hilal people from their origins in what is now Saudi Arabia across Egypt and towards North Africa. There are often references to historical events, as when the hero fights off hostile tribes or defeats the forces of the Byzantine Empire.
The stories also often contain extraordinary mother figures, responsible for the hero’s miraculous birth, as well as wives and consorts who are given prominent roles because of their responsibility to produce the next generation of heroes. Sometimes these outstanding women are given a share in the martial virtues exemplified in heroic men. This is particularly true of Dhat al-Himma, who manages to defeat or outmanoeuvre many of her male opponents.
Magidow begins her translation with an episode from the beginning of the Arabic edition describing the extraordinary birth of Jundaba, an emir of the Bani Kilab people to which he and later Dhat al-Himma belong. “Based upon my knowledge of the holy books of all the great peoples,” a local sheikh tells al-Harith, father of Jundaba and leader of the Bani Kilab, “this woman [al-Harith’s wife al-Rabab] will give birth to an extraordinary child, unmatched in his time for his greatness, ethics, and good looks. Yet, I fear the mother will die when he appears safely in the world.”
After various heroic episodes involving Jundaba, Magidow takes up the story again with the birth of Fatima, the future Dhat al-Himma, some 500 pages later in the Arabic edition.
“After a while Mazlum’s wife Salam gave birth to a girl as magnificent as the full moon, with strong arms, broad shoulders, and fine features,” her translation says. At first, Mazlum, a leading figure in the Bani Kilab, is disappointed that the girl is not a boy, apparently seeing a boy as a more appropriate future leader. A local midwife intervenes and suggests a substitution plot, hiding Fatima away and claiming the child has died.
Later, Fatima more than repays the trust invested in her when she helps to defeat the Bani Tayy, hereditary enemies of the Bani Kilab. Riding off to right various wrongs, she “travelled for seven days, and on the eighth day she came upon a vibrantly green land filled with herbs, flowers, and plants, as well as birds calling to one another in all their languages. Off to one side roamed great herds with their herders. There was such plentiful water that the camels alone numbered more than one thousand. The horses, sheep, and goats were not few, and the servants were living a life of ease.”
“This wealth belonged to an Arab warrior named Darma. He had moved to this land by himself with one thousand warriors in his service. When Fatima saw all this abundance, she rejoiced… She overcame the servants and seized the livestock, driving them all before her. The servants all thought she must be a man, not to mention one of the greatest heroes of the time.” It is at this point that Fatima acquires land and livestock of her own, along with the title of princess and the moniker of Dhat al-Himma.
In her introduction to her translation, Magidow discusses some of the characteristics of the stories, describing them both as a species of epic, “a narrative of heroic journeys that cohere into the formation of a nation or community,” and as a kind of saga, “a popular epic… created and passed down in oral performance” and combining “historical persons and events with imaginary characters and situations.” She says that the story of Dhat al-Himma is unusual in that while it “was composed and retold by male storytellers,” presumably also predominantly for male consumption, “its imaginary world and characters reflect the patriarchy and hegemonies of the mediaeval Arab region at the same time as they appear to upend them.”
“Dhat al-Himma highlights women warriors more than any other extant Arabic [epic] work,” Magidow says, adding that it expresses the “anxieties” of the society that produced it in terms of “marriage and sexuality, the social stigma of having only daughters, and the fascination with the appeal of domination and dominant women.”
Dhat al-Himma, hidden away at birth and not celebrated as would have been a son, has a double test ahead of her in proving her fitness to lead the Bani Kilab in that not only does she have to prove her martial virtue, she must do see while disguised as a man. Later, though she does everything possible to avoid marriage to her cousin Walid, explaining to her father that “even if he came with all the riches on the face of the Earth – all the armour, livestock, horses, swords, spears, gold and silver – I still would not want a husband,” she is obliged to accept him through the intervention of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansour.
The latter is swayed by his advisor’s argument that “Walid wants to marry his cousin. An unwed woman can cause a great deal of strife and unrest in any community. It is in the interest of all, therefore, to see her happily provided for and the community thereby strengthened in unity and purpose.” Dhat al-Himma later gives birth to a son, the next-generation hero Abdel-Wahhab, with his suitably extraordinary birth guaranteeing the continuation of the Bani Kilab.
Some readers might be pulled up short by some of the choices Magidow makes in seeking what she calls a contemporary voice for her translation. “My son is crazy about you,” Zalim tells Dhat al-Himma when pressing her to marry his son. “What a creepy guy,” is Dhat al-Himma’s first thought on seeing Walid. Later, her aunt intervenes, asking “honey, why are you in such a hurry?” Sometimes, the bathos is merely comic, at other times it can obscure the meaning.
On the whole, though, Magidow has done a remarkable job in making the mediaeval Arab story of Dhat al-Himma available to English-speaking readers, even if, as she would be the first to admit, her selection only represents a small proportion of the whole. Perhaps one day this and other epics will be translated in their entirety, helping international readers gain a better sense of the Arabic originals and the tradition from which they come.
The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman, translated by Melanie Magidow, New York: Penguin, 2021, pp167
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.