Category Archives: Folkarts

Arabic Epics

As I talk with people about my current translation project, more and more people want to know about Arabic epics. These epics (Arabic: سيرة / sira) are long adventure tales that recount the exploits of a group of heroic characters and villains. Siras draw on historical events, although they are not to be considered conventional accounts of history. Peter Heath* has observed that heroic cycles cover almost all of recorded pre-Islamic and Islamic history:

  • Early Persian history (Sīrat Fīrūz Shāh)
  • Alexander the Great (Sīrat Iskandar)
  • The Sassanid dynasty (Story of Bahrām Gūr)
  • Pre-Islamic South Arabian history (Sīrat al-Malik Sayf Ben Dhī Yazan)
  • Pre-Islamic North Arabian history (Sīrat ‘Antar and the Story of al-Zīr Sālim)
  • Early Islamic history (Sīrat Amīr Ḥamza)
  • Tribal feuds and holy wars of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates (Sīrat al-Amīra Dhāt al-Himma, Ghazwat al-Arqaṭ, Al-Badr-Nār, Sīrat ‘Alī al-Zaybaq, Sīrat Sayf al-Tījān)
  • Conquests of North Africa (Sīrat Banī Hilāl) (this is my own addition to the list)
  • Fatimid and Mamluk history (Sīrat al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allah and Sīrat al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Baybars)

These epics are the product of oral storytelling traditions. Today they are available in printed editions in Arabic. There are not many translated into English. Probably the most comprehensive English version is the scholarly The Arabian Epic by M.C. Lyons (2 volumes). The most accessible is The Adventures of Sayf ben Dhi Yazan by Lena Jayyusi. In my current translation project, I am beginning to produce a similar edition of Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma. My primary source text is the most common printed edition (ed. Maqanibi et al., published by Al-Maktaba al-Sha’biyya, Beirut 1980). It consists of seven volumes, and each volume is about one thousand pages long. The length is one reason why no one has attempted to provide an English edition of this epic before. However, fortunately the genre of epic includes the repetition of clichés and a limited number of types of scenes. I would like to prepare a rendition of selected episodes, chosen for their importance to the overall storyline and for their appeal to a general audience. I hope that it will appeal to a broad audience, as it features fight scenes, love scenes, warrior women, and vibrant storytelling.

* See Peter Heath, The Thirsty Sword: Sīrat ‘Antar and the Arabic Popular Epic (Salt Lake City: U of Utah, 1996) xv.

Arts of the Arab World II: Popular Culture & Verbal Art






Image of Bayad playing his oud



Some of my favorite contemporary Moroccan artists:

See here for a concert of psalms sung in Arabic, performed by Lebanese Catholic nun Sister Marie Keyrouz.

 Poetry and Oral Compositions

The oldest extant example of Arabic literature is poetry, composed and performed orally. Here is a 9th century poem in English translation.

See here for James Montgomery’s translations of “Horse, Hawk, and and Cheetah: Three Arabic Hunting Poems by Abu Nuwas” (from the early 9th c.)

Check out this post for spoken word of the present day.


The most influential example of Arabic literature is the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, and it too was recited orally. German scholar Angelika Neuwirth has written of the Qur’an as a “late antique text” that emphasizes knowledge. See here for more on the implications of her work.

Note: Qur’an Manuscript photo from l-Jaami‘ l-Kbiir of Meknes, Morocco.


 Public Culture

In addition to poetry, aphorisms, and tales, oral culture can also include rumors that mold public discourses.

Broader than oral culture, public culture can include almost any art. Here are more resources on public culture in specific areas:


Moroccan Malhun (Sung) Poetry

(more to be added later).

Arts of the Arab World I: Material Culture

I have read a lot about the glorious accomplishments of “the Arabs” or “the Muslims” in the distant past. Instead of focusing on some mythic golden age, this site includes any material culture that I find beautiful and noteworthy. So while some examples are historical, some are contemporary.

For some incredibly beautiful historic art and architecture photos and information on patterns, see here.

Photo by Radwa El Barouni, carving in Fes


One of my favorite pieces of art is a blue and white lamp from the sixteenth century. For some contemporary ceramics that I think are well worth checking out, see the work of Myriam Mourabit (Rabat, Morocco).


One of the most distinctive kinds of woodwork in the Arab World is mashrabiyya, latticed screens traditionally fitted together without any adhesive or hardware. Historically, they developed as a strategy for comfort and privacy so that urban families could enjoy fresh air from the outdoors without exposing themselves to public scrutiny. For contemporary woodwork, I can recommend Nadim (Cairo, Egypt).

(Photo by Ruth B.)

Painting / Drawing

One of the most valued arts throughout the Islamic world is calligraphy. See here for the highlights from a contemporary calligraphy exhibition in Malaysia. This site has featured the work of Moataz Nasr of Cairo here.


Preview: khyamiyya appliqué (Egypt), Tally Art (southern Egypt), embroidery in Palestine and Jordan…


Top-of-the-line Azza Fahmy jewelry (Egypt)

More kinds of material culture to follow…


Photo by Radwa El Barouni


Jews in the Arab World


Here are some sources that I can recommend that relate to Jews in the Arab World:

Medieval Middle East

  • Norman Stillman’s source book is excellent, especially for those seeking an overview of the earliest records regarding Jews and the spread of Arabic culture (from the 7th to 19th century). It gives access to primary sources in English translation, and is very balanced in its representation of societies.
  • Shlomo Dov Goitein’s work is magnificent in adding to historical scholarship on the Mediterranean. His multi-volume A Mediterranean Society is the place to go for details, but this collection of letters is wonderful, I think, for a sense of the daily life of Jewish merchant families in the medieval Middle East region.

Medieval Iberian Peninsula

Maria Rosa Menocal was an outstanding figure in medievalist academic circles because she forged her own path. Her training in graduate school largely excluded Arabic sources and perspectives from medieval historical studies. She sought to revise her field, and to open its horizons toward inclusiveness and broad information. I heard her speak eloquently on her subject. Some find her work too flowery, or too idealistic. But if you’re looking for someone who writes passionately about the shared culture of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who lived in the area that has since become Spain and Portugal, then Ornament of the World is for you.

20th Century Middle East & North Africa

Mark Wagner writes about Jews in Yemen in the early twentieth century. Like Joseph in Beauty is about sung poetry. I have also written about Jewish contributions to sung poetry in Moroccan culture in my dissertation available for download here. For more on Jews in Moroccan history, see Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life in Morocco by Haim Zafrani. (And if you visit Morocco, you may want to see the Jewish Museum in Casablanca. As far as I know, it is the only Jewish museum in the Arab World!)

For an introduction to Judeo-Arabic literature, focusing on North Africa, see Yosef Tobi, “The Flowering of Judeo-Arabic Literature in North Africa, 1850-1950” in Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries, ed. Harvey Goldberg (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996): 213-225.

Contemporary Syria

If you like music, there is also a recent project to present mystical chants from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in Aleppo, Syria. So far, Jason Hamacher has released one album called Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations & Forgotten Songs from Aleppo. I do not see a lot of details regarding his sources, but I’m watching for more. There is also an informative book by Shelemay on Syrian Jewish music and community.

20th Century Egypt

Lucette Lagnado writes the story of her family, focusing on her father and his life in Cairo, in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. (And for the record, I think the Arabic translation is excellent!)

Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary Western Mediterranean and North Africa

This collection (Poems for the Millenium vol. 4) of poetry and excerpts of fiction includes Jewish contributions to Arabic culture throughout history.

I have more sources on my to-read list that I might add later. Feel free to write to me with more recommendations! I haven’t included any films here–yet. Do you have any favorites?


Note Regarding Title of this Post:

Judaism is just one of many cultural facets in the Arab World. I selected this group because political events have contributed to relatively high interest in this topic, but I do not mean to belittle the presence and significance of other minorities (such as Christians, Druze, Bahai, and other spiritual communities), as well as diversity more broadly defined that has come to shape the Arab World (for example, languages such as Aramaic, Greek, French, Italian, Persian, Syriac, and Turkish, and connections to many regions, such as South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe).

Israel-Palestine Sources

This is a list of recommendations for people (especially Americans) who want to educate themselves about the history and politics of Israel-Palestine.

1. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which raised controversy for his description of the situation as apartheid.

2. Classic Fateful Triangle by Noam Chomsky. It can be dense due to so much detail, but if you want lots of facts, this one’s for you.

3. For a summary, see A Synopsis of the Israel/Palestine Conflict. Another site of insights is Tikkun.

4. For cultural history of the area, see Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah. For a humorous and insightful novel, see Imil Habibi’s Pessoptimist. Available as both a novel and a film (and I prefer the film) is The Gate of the Sun by Ilyas Khouri. For more narratives, see Qualey’s list.

5. For a progressive Muslim American perspective, see Omid Safi’s article from Tikkun, titled “A Muslim Spiritual Progressive Perspective on Palestine/Israel.”

6. For a news update from an Israel peace activist, in English, see Uri Avnery’s weekly post.


Art by Abdel Rahmen Al Muzayen.

I did not even know there was a problem until after I entered college–and that’s not because I was absent on the day it was discussed in my school! I began studying Arabic in London in 2000, and one of my teachers (who happened to be Syrian) refused to recognize the state of Israel. I had no idea what that meant, and almost offered to bring her a map to show her that the country existed. I soon realized that it was not she who needed a lesson in geography. It was me who needed a lesson in history and politics.

Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section.

Horses in Song and Tale


As you may know, I’m helping lead a discussion on GoodReads about The Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah. Then my husband recently introduced me to the music of Nolwenn Leroy, a French singer inspired by Breton and Celtic culture. I enjoyed this song so much, that I ended up translating it (video also embedded below). It’s a 15th century song from Brittany, in northwest France.


The mare of Michao

In 10 years I will go

I hear the wolf and the fox singing

I hear the wolf, the fox, and the weasel

I hear the wolf and the fox singing

In 9 years I will go

The mare of Michao passed through the meadow

The mare of Michao and her young colt

Passed through the meadow eating all the hay

Winter is coming guys, winter is coming

The mare of Michao, she’s going to miss it [the weather]

The song repeats, each verse decreasing in the number of years until our anonymous singer goes…where? Why? To war? To sea? Into exile? Hunting? It’s very mysterious!

Some interpret this folksong as a parody of the Latin Dies irae because the repeating line about going sounds like it. That idea made me chuckle because it reminds me of Monty Python singing “Requiem” or Animaniacs chanting “Lamma lamma lamma.” I can see that as inspiring a song about setting out.

But its meaning has changed over time as it has been re-performed by many artists, and no one associates it with Latin anymore. So why do people like it today? It’s cheerful, old-fashioned, reminds us of a way of life that was closer to nature, recalls how time passes and things change…

What do you think??

Original French Text: La jument de Michao

C’est dans dix ans je m’en irai

J’entends le loup et le renard chanter

J’entends le loup, le renard et la belette

J’entends le loup et le renard chanter

C’est dans neuf ans je m’en irai

La jument de Michao a passé dans le pré

La jument de Michao et son petit poulain

A passé dans le pré et mangé tout le foin

L’hiver viendra les gars, l’hiver viendra

La jument de Michao, elle s’en repentira

Note: The horse carving is from 11th century Egypt.

Folkarts in Contemporary Pop Culture

  • Paintings by English book illustrator Arthur Rackham
  • Films by Japanese artist Hayao Miyazaki
  • Fantasy novels and short stories around the world
  • Illustrations by American book designer Thomas Canty
  • Arabic folk hero Antar. Film on YouTube here (in Arabic). Margari Aziza wrote about her discovery of Antar.
  • Egyptian feminist working group, Women & Memory Forum, published a collection of re-tellings and re-imaginings of folktales and old Arabic stories
  • Statues depicting Shahrazad and other characters of  الف ليلة ولية / One Thousand and One Nights by ‘Sculptor of Baghdad’ Mohammed Ghani Hikmat

※ Suggested additions are welcome for the above list. Strong examples of folkarts in contemporary pop culture are easily identified as having clear folk elements and appealing to many audiences through mass media. What does it mean to use old art in new art? How old does old art have to be to work as folk heritage? The answer seems to be pre-modern, though modernity isn’t always easy to define, and even that answer isn’t always satisfactory…

Art by Shahzia Sikander