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The Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the ChasteA bilingual edition and study$

Marlé Hammond

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266687

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266687.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM BRITISH ACADEMY SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.britishacademy.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright British Academy, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in BASO for personal use.date: 14 May 2021

From Fiction to History and Back: The Tale, Its Versions and Its Afterlives

From Fiction to History and Back: The Tale, Its Versions and Its Afterlives

(p.1) 1 From Fiction to History and Back: The Tale, Its Versions and Its Afterlives
The Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste

Marlé Hammond

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the fictional tale by tracing its evolution from its unknown origins in what was probably the seventeenth century to its historicisation and Christianisation in the nineteenth century, to its infiltration of popular culture and the fine arts in the twentieth century. Its adaptations across various media, including literature, cinema and music, are explored. The chapter furthermore shows how the tale inscribes the endemic paradigms of the ʿUdhrī love narrative and the popular epic or sīra with the western model of the damsel-in-distress fairy tale. Finally, the chapter relates the process by which the tale becomes absorbed into Arabic culture to Yuri Lotman’s notion of the ‘boundary’ as the site of artistic innovation and the creation of new genres.

Keywords:   Al-Barrāq, Laylā the Chaste, sīra, ʿUdhrī love, fairy tale, Yuri Lotman, Bāhija Ḥāfiẓ, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Shukrī, Asmahān

The unfortunate, persecuted maiden! The subject is as old as the world …

Mario Praz1


What I call the Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste in fact has no fixed title. Before the second half of the nineteenth century it did not circulate independently as a discrete text.2 Rather it formed a lengthy chapter in a collection of heroic tales interspersing prose and verse passages and set in a pseudo-pre-Islamic Arabian environment. Despite its occasional and almost certainly spurious attribution to the third-/ninth-century transmitter ʿUmar b. Shabba, it is safe to say that the collection of tales has no identifiable author.3 In addition to the legend of al-Barrāq, the collection includes the story of Kulayb and his consolidation of power over the Yemen and (p.2) the story of the War of the Basūs.4 Often it is appended to copies of Abū Zayd Muḥammad b. Abī al-Khaṭāb al-Qurashī’s Jamharat ashʿār al-ʿArab,5 which is a fourth-/tenth-century anthology of forty-nine pre- and early Islamic poems.6 Our tale, which, as a relatively lengthy semi-poetic heroic narrative could variously be described as a short ‘epic’ or ‘romance’ (sīra),7 seems to have originated much later than this anthology, perhaps as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century, and it was widely circulated in the nineteenth century. Thus far I have tracked down ten sources of the tale, three publications and seven manuscripts.8 It is narrated by a certain Dhuʾayb b. Nāfiʿ,9 who remains an obscure and mysterious figure.10

The text itself exhibits many characteristics of what some have called ‘Middle Arabic Literature’, or that literature that straddles the divide between high and low literature. If we look at the ten criteria laid out by Aboubakr Chraïbi,11 we find that the Tale of (p.3) al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste meets several of them. I will not list all of Chraïbi’s criteria here. Suffice it to say that the tale conforms to the profile of Middle Literature by virtue of the fact that it is a medium-length prosimetrical love story which is set in a specific place – Arabia and adjacent lands – and at a specific point in time – before the rise of Islam. On the other hand, it departs from the paradigm in that it is not described as ‘marvellous’ (ʿajīb) or ‘strange’ (gharīb) in its title or content – in other words, it has no fantastical elements, and the hero is not a merchant or a merchant’s son. But perhaps the most striking disqualification of the label ‘Middle Arabic Literature’ is that the tale is not composed in ‘Middle Arabic’. It is composed, rather, in straightforward fusḥā, violating few if any of the rules of grammar apart from its treatment of the hamza. Nevertheless, the language used is syntactically very simple and lexically very repetitive, thus it does not come across as ‘high’ literature.12

Here, in this chapter, I introduce the tale by familiarising the reader with its content and contexts. A short synopsis is followed by an assessment of the discrepancies between two main branches of the tale. I go on to explore the nature of fiction in pre-modern Arabic literature. In a section entitled, ‘From Fiction to History’, having explored the fictional status of the tale by drawing attention to its imaginary components, I explain how it came to be understood as history by scholars in the nineteenth century. Then, in ‘Storytelling and Hybridity’, I consider the generic make-up of the tale and show that it stems from the intersection of three literary matrices – two ‘endemic’ (the popular sīra and the ʿUdhrī love tale) and one ‘western’ (the damsel-in-distress-type fairy tale). I argue that the foreign plotline was one of the reasons for the tale’s misrecognition as (p.4) history. In ‘From History Back to Fiction’, I explore twentieth-century literary and cinematic adaptations of the tale and their reception as historical fiction. I conclude with reflections on what the story can teach us about the nature of Arabic fiction and its historical permutations.


Our narrator, Dhuʾayb b. Nāfiʿ, relates the tale of a young and brave warrior, al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān, who is in love with his first cousin, Laylā bt. Lukayz, and hopes to marry her. Laylā is renowned for her beauty, and an Arab king makes a marriage proposal to her father. Much to al-Barrāq’s chagrin, Laylā’s father agrees to the engagement. When Laylā is sent as part of a convoy to the Arab king, she is kidnapped en route by a half-Arab half-Persian middleman called Burd who plans to pass her on to a Persian king named Shahrmayh. Whilst in captivity, Laylā utters a poem in which she describes the torture and suffering she endures and calls upon her kinsmen to rescue her. It begins:

  • If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see
  • The agony and distress I endure
  • My brothers, Kulayb, ʿUqayl
  • Junayd, help me weep
  • Woe upon you, your sister has been tortured
  • Awfully morning and night
  • They fettered me, shackled me, and beat
  • My chaste surface with a stick (2:105)

Laylā’s poem is overheard by a sympathetic servant who conveys it to al-Barrāq through a series of messengers. When al-Barrāq hears Laylā’s words, he rallies his people to war. Under al-Barrāq’s fearless leadership, the Arab armies come close to defeating the Persians and their Arab allies, but then the Persians call in reinforcements from as far away as India and China, and the vastly outnumbered (p.5) Arab troops withdraw to regroup, leaving al-Barrāq on his own in enemy territory. Through a combination of military prowess and ruse, al-Barrāq on his own succeeds in killing both Burd and Shahrmayh, and he rescues Laylā. Al-Barrāq and Laylā wed, and it is discovered that she is a virgin – she has successfully warded off sexual violation during her captivity – hence she is known as Laylā ‘the Chaste’.

Interestingly, some versions of the epic identify the hero al-Barrāq as a Christian.13 These versions have more complex narrative structures with a stronger story arc. The non-Christian versions begin somewhat randomly with the slaying of al-Ḥārith b. ʿAbbād, an incident which sparks a blood feud amongst the Arab tribes. Hence the action builds on an act of murder and tracks the trajectory of blood vengeance as it spirals out of control. The Christian versions, on the other hand, open with a genealogical introduction of the Arabs, then they introduce the characters of al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān and Laylā bt. Lukayz and gradually develop a portrait of al-Barrāq as a warrior and of his bond with his cousin Laylā. Lukayz’ decision to marry her off to an Arab king is controversial among al-Barrāq’s kinship group and forms the subject of a lengthy polyphonic poetic disputation. The Christian versions also feature the slaying of al-Ḥārith b. ʿAbbād, but it occurs only after the love story has been established. The blood feud is in this sense secondary to the love story. As the non-Christian versions may antedate the Christian versions – it is hard to say exactly because not all of the known manuscripts are dated – and as the Christian version of the tale was propagated by Christian scholars and writers in the nineteenth century, it is tempting to see these additional elements in the Christian version as being a deliberate attempt to Christianise an otherwise non-Christian tale, to claim a Christian legacy in Arabic literature.14 (p.6) However, because the non-Christian version begins rather abruptly, it may be that the opposite occurred – the beginning of the tale may have been chopped off in an attempt to de-Christianise it. It is worth noting in this regard that the Christian content of the tale comes at the beginning of the text and there is no real effort to sustain it. Although the tale is supposedly set in a pagan environment, the characters behave and speak more or less as Muslims and definitely as monotheists. The characters do not pray, but they speak of God and his sanctuary and they go on pilgrimage. The treatment of religion is one of the epic’s ‘timeless’ aspects.

The tale has little if any historical value. There are no dates or identifiable events, no battle names, apart from perhaps one.15 There is hardly even a temporal setting, but for the recurrence of the phrase, ‘the fiery ardour of the Jāhiliyya overtook him’ From Fiction to History and Back: The Tale, Its Versions and Its Afterlives. Days of the week and months, much less years, are never specified. Moreover, the character who should be the most historically identifiable – the Persian king who threatens Laylā with forced marriage or rape – appears to be a figment of the storyteller’s imagination. King Shahrmayh does not seem to have existed. This is very much a narrative that takes place in what Bakhtin calls ‘adventure time’. The heroes do not age, and time is only measured in the context of each individual adventure. Perhaps in this way our tale, especially its Christian version, resembles the ancient Greek novel that Bakhtin describes:

This Greek romance-time does not have even an elementary biological or maturational duration. At the novel’s outset the heroes meet each other at a marriageable age, and at the same marriageable age, no less fresh and handsome, they consummate the marriage at the novel’s (p.7) end. Such a form of time, in which they experience a most improbable number of adventures, is not measured off in the novel and does not add up; it is simply days, nights, hours, moments clocked in a technical sense within the limits of each separate adventure. This time – adventure-time, highly intensified but undifferentiated – is not registered in the slightest way in the age of the heroes. We have here an extratemporal hiatus between two biological moments – the arousal of passion, and its satisfaction.16

Despite its atemporality, it has been suggested that the tale has tremendous value in filling in gaps in our knowledge about the earliest years of Arabic poetry, and that it therefore has much to contribute to our knowledge of literary history. Listen to the editor of Kitāb al-jamhara fī ayyām al-ʿArab, which is the published edition of the collection of pre-Islamic tales based on two (non-Christian) manuscripts at Dār al-Kutub in Cairo:

In this regard, the value of the manuscript we have before us is clear, because it sheds light on a tremendous amount of poetic material that was produced by the Jāhiliyya environment and its associated events. Furthermore, it depicts for us the days and the battles that were tied to this poetry, as if it is the historical element of the literary event.17

This view that the text creates a historical picture is founded perhaps on a naïve acceptance of the attribution of the text to ʿUmar b. Shabba. However, in my opinion, the only literary-historical value the text has relates to its form and not its content: it is a hybrid of written and oral literature. It connects the tradition of the sīrā, as well as that of the ʿUdhrī love tale, to that of the modern novel. It represents an important ‘step’ in Arabic literary history, but it does not relate to the origins of that history but rather to its ‘post-classical’ or ‘pre-modern’ stage. The text represents a ‘young’ epic – one which delves further back in time, showing a predilection (p.8) for ancestors which is known in folklore,18 but one which has yet to accrue elements of the fantastical.19 Our epic is highly formulaic and contains some folkloric motifs, but it by and large remains within the realm of the plausible. Its resemblance to a fairy tale – of the knight-in-shining-armour-rescues-damsel-in-distress variety – makes it, to my mind, obviously fictional. It is not only untrue, but actively made up, even if it is not known by whom. However, the fairy-tale, of this particular sexist type,20 is unfamiliar in Arabic literature; hence it did not strike scholars of Arabic literature as such. This is not to say that they accepted it at face value, or that they considered it an accurate portrayal of historical events, but rather that they were willing to accept it as largely true. It is worth bearing in mind that this nineteenth-century acceptance of a fictional account as history was contemporaneous with efforts to record the oral popular epics in writing,21 as well as with the publication of Arabic print (p.9) editions of the Thousand and One Nights.22 Endemic forms of fiction, in this period, were explicitly fantastical, magical or strange. Yet here was a ‘traditional’ Arabic narrative related in a ‘realist’ mode.

Fiction in Classical Arabic Literature

Classical Arabic literature, we are often told, has little to offer in the way of fiction. In fact, one can count substantial works of originally-authored fiction on one hand. In particular what is missing is ‘sustained’ narrative fiction or drama, the long story fabricated for its own sake by a creative individual. Indeed, the following remarks made by Gustave von Grunebaum in the 1940s – as outdated as they should theoretically be – still ring true on a practical level:

Arabic literary theory does not provide for fiction. The concepts of plot and action are lacking. It is a rather strange fact that Arabic literature, so rich in anecdotal material, so eager to seize upon the unusual word or deed, never did seriously turn toward the large-scale narrative or the drama. Except for parables and short stories, many of which are borrowings from foreign literatures or more or less accurate retracings of true incidents, the Arab Muslim disdained literary invention.23

Yes, it is admitted, there is folkloric fiction, anonymously-authored tales such as the aforementioned Nights, and the sīra epics recounting the fantastical adventures of poet-warriors. But there is a sense in which these texts evolve on their own, independent from (p.10) authorial intervention, gradually evolving over time, accruing elements by osmosis. They are not only anonymous, but folkloric, and their fictive elements are seen as accidental distortions of collective takes on reality. But what if we were to put an author back into the equation? What if we were to come across a story which is deliberately concocted? Von Grunebaum accedes that one can find a certain fictional genre in the ʿUdhrī love tale, but he suggests that it never developed into anything ‘elaborate’ because no one ever had the idea to connect the pieces together:

The sad adventures of romantic lovers were told, grouped around and interspersed with verse ascribed with varying justification to the protagonists. Novelettes of this kind can be traced as early as the sixth century and they remain in vogue throughout the Middle Ages. But, while several littérateurs concerned themselves with collecting and retelling them, no one thought of choosing the anonymous reports and records as the basis of elaborate narrative.24

The orientalist impetus of von Grunebaum’s remarks is striking: ‘the Arab Muslim disdained literary invention’, ‘no one thought of’ piecing together a lengthy (fictional) narrative. Yet we have before us the Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste – proof that, to the contrary, someone did have this idea of building an elaborate narrative, not with pre-existing accounts of historical personages but rather with characters who were conjured up and modelled on literary precedents. The text was authored as fiction, and it was probably meant to be received as such. So why was it received instead as history, and was it always received in this way?

It is useful, in this regard, to consider the words of Stefan Leder, in his seminal essay, ‘Conventions of Fictional Narration in Learned Literature’, where he muses:

Were narratives, which we may classify as fictional according to our analytical standards, ever perceived, and admitted, as fiction in their original context? Where was in pre-modern Arabic literature any conscious use of fiction as a medium of literary expression, and (p.11) where can we find indications whether it was ever understood as such?

A narrative which we may identify as containing fictive elements cannot readily be considered a clue to the existence of fictional literature in the common sense of the term. Fiction is determined by conventions of literary communication. Fictional literature is not only constituted by the existence of fictive contents, but requires a system of textual and extra textual signs pointing to its fictional character.25

In the case of the Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste, there are plenty of textual signs pointing to its fictional character, but the extra-textual signs are misleading, and the extra-textual signs come to interfere in the narrative, historicising what were originally intended as obviously fictional elements.

From Fiction to History

Perhaps no figure is more responsible for the reception of the legend of al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān and Laylā bt. Lukayz as history than the nineteenth-century Lebanese scholar Louis Cheikho (1859–1927).26 He produced two works of scholarship that were pivotal in this regard: Kitāb shuʿarāʾ al-Naṣrāniyya (Book of Christian Poets, Beirut, 1890) and Riyāḍ al-adab fī marāthī shawāʿir al-ʿArab (Literary Gardens of the Laments of Arabic Women Poets, Beirut, 1897). Many modern (p.12) sources on Laylā bt. Lukayz cite these two books.27 In his Book of Christian Poets, Cheikho does two things to historicise the tale. First, he assigns a death date to Laylā of approximately 483 CE.28 His attempt to locate her precisely in pre-Islamic history would seem to lend a certain authenticity to her persona. Second, he refers to the character of Shahrmayh as ‘a son of Kisrā’.29 Kisrā is the Arabicisation of the Persian Khusraw – the name of two Sāsānid monarchs in particular: Kisrā Anūshirwān (531–79 CE) and Kisrā Aparwīz (591–628 CE) – which became the name by which Arabs referred to all the Sāsānid kings. He thereby takes an unrecognisable fictional figure and transforms him into a familiar, historically plausible one, albeit one which is vague and non-specific. Another liberty that Cheikho seems to have taken with his source materials is that he identifies Laylā as a Christian, hence justifying her inclusion in his Book of Christian Poets.30 There is no reference in any of the primary sources to Laylā’s religion, though, like the other characters, she speaks like a monotheist.

Cheikho’s casual attitude toward the material does not end there. The sources that he lists at the end of her entry31 as well as at the end of al-Barrāq’s entry32 do not pan out. For example, he suggests that he draws on Ibn al-Kalbī’s Jamharat al-nasab, but he seems to have confused this for the actual source – a set of tales attributed (p.13) to the aforementioned Dhuʾayb b. Nāfiʿ and appended to al-Qurashī’s Jamharat ashʿār al-ʿArab. Cheikho’s false lead caused the historian of Arab-Byzantine relations, Irfan Shahîd, much consternation:

It is regrettable that the indefatigable Cheikho did not document this important reference accurately and in detail. He asserts twice, and in unambiguous terms, that he derived his account from the Jamharat al-Nasab of Hishām al-Kalbī (Shuʿarāʾ, 141, 144). But the Jamharat as studied by W. Caskel has no reference in its Register to the poet al-Barrāq (nor to his patronymic or teknonymic). Cheikho must have derived his information from some manuscript of the Jamharat at his disposal or from a medieval Arabic text which quoted Hishām as the source for its account of al-Barrāq.33

By the time Cheikho publishes the Gardens of the Laments in 1897, he cites his sources with precision and accuracy,34 but he still does not question their historical value, and he presents the life of Laylā bt. Lukayz as history rather than fiction, despite the fact that his sources are all relatively recent and she does not have an ancient presence in the literature.

Also worthy of mention is Iskandar Abkāriyūs (1826–85). He authored what were two key sources for Cheikho. The first was Rawḍat al-adab fi ṭabaqāt shuʿarāʾ al-ʿArab (The Literary Garden of the Classes of Arab Poets, Beirut, 1858), a kind of biographical dictionary of poets. (Cheikho abbreviates the title to Ṭabaqāt al-shuʿarāʾ [The Classes of the Poets] and makes no reference to Abkāriyūs, which may cause one to confuse it with Ṭabaqāt fuḥūl al-shuʿarāʾ [The (p.14) Classes of Stallions among the Poets] by Ibn Sallām al-Jumaḥī.) In his ten-page entry on al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān, Abkāriyūs states that he is a poet of the second class,35 as are, for example, al-Khansāʾ and al-Shanfarā. The second work is entitled Tazyīn nihāyat al-arab fī akhbār al-ʿArab (The Adornment of the Ultimate Aim in the Accounts of the Arabs, Beirut, 1867).36 This book, which Cheikho refers to simply as Tārīkh al-ʿArab (History of the Arabs), contains a version of the al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān legend.37

Louis Cheikho and his predecessor Iskandar Abkāriyūs are not the only scholars to imbue the legend with a certain truth value. One finds the pre-eminent scholar and historical novelist Jurjī Zaydān (1861–1914) also lending partial credence to the tale. Zaydān does not approach the text naïvely, but rather he situates it within the narrative genre of the sīrā, that is the romance or epic, comparing it to its more famous counterpart, the Sīrat ʿAntar (The Romance of ʿAntar), which is supposedly based on the life of the pre-Islamic poet ʿAntara b. Shaddād. In his Tārīkh adab al-lugha l-ʿArabiyya (History of the Literature of the Arabic Language, Cairo, 1912),38 Zaydān compares the two narratives and determines that the (p.15) language of the tale of al-Barrāq, which he assumed was transmitted on the authority of the third-/ninth-century ʿUmar b. Shabba,39 is more correct and closer to the style that was prevalent in early Islam and that the tale contains less exaggeration than the Sīrat ʿAntar. He therefore concludes that it was written down before Sīrat ʿAntar by more than a century – its earlier provenance meaning that it contains fewer distortions than tales preserved through oral folklore.40 As I have put it elsewhere, Zaydān ‘clearly places it under the rubric of “story” rather than “history”’, but ‘finds that the tale of al-Barrāq, and the other legends appended to the Jamhara, are among those Arabic heroic narratives From Fiction to History and Back: The Tale, Its Versions and Its Afterlivesthat mediate between history and fiction’.41

Orientalist scholars are largely silent about the legend of al-Barrāq and Laylā. However, the Austrian Aloys Sprenger (1813–93) provides a revealing summary and assessment of the legend in an article entitled ‘Notes on Alfred von Kremer’s edition of Wáqidy’s Campaigns’ (Second Notice) from 1856. While Sprenger does not present the tale as historically accurate, he does see it as representative of what he calls the ‘epos of the Arabs’ or as emblematic of Arabic epic poetry. In a lengthy description of the tale as it appears in a manuscript he owns (Sprenger 1215, corresponding to Ahlwardt 9747), he writes:

I possess an Arabic MS. which has the title of Jamharat al-ʿArab and contains seven times seven ancient poems (the first being the Moʿallaqát) and also episodes from the early history of the Arabs in a poetical garb.

The first episode is the story of Barráq (Persian authors call him Majnún) and Laylà. She was the youngest and handsomest daughter of an Arab chief and had two sisters. The eldest of them Soʿdà was (p.16) married to Thaʿlabah, the Lame, King of Petra, and the second to Shabyb, a chief of the Tay Arabs. Barráq, the hero of the story, fell in love with the youngest.

When Barráq was young he used to go out to the pasture grounds, milk the camels and carry the milk to the Christian hermit, who instructed him in reading the gospel, for our hero was a Christian.

He had hardly obtained the age of twenty-five when the celebrated war broke out between the Arab tribes of Mesopotamia and the Syrian desert, and afforded Barráq an opportunity of giving proofs of his bravery. Without following the original in the historical details of this war, I content myself with saying, that he surpassed all other warriors in courage and attained the title of Father of Victory. […]

Lokayz, the father of Laylà, was a friend of ʿAmr b. Morrah, the Laird of Çahbán, and used now and then to spend a few days in his castle. The beauty and soft feminine character of Laylà had become known all over the desert, and were the theme of conversation among the Arabian chiefs. One day as Lokayz was staying with the Laird, he demanded his daughter in marriage. Lokayz had not the courage to refuse him, but he did not give him a promise.

The rivalry of these two lovers is the plot of the story which throughout is with great art connected with the political history of the time to heighten its interest. It is not my intention here to give the outline of it, but I wish to call the attention of the reader to the method of treating the subject, which is peculiar to the Arabs and constitutes their epos. The narrative is in prose, whose only charm is its great simplicity, and it forms only a small proportion of the work. The greater part of the story consists of speeches, disputations, and monologues, which are all in verse and not without poetical beauty. They are always dignified and contain noble passions, and much wisdom.

Compositions of this description seem at all times to have been popular among the Arabs. The earliest and most beautiful specimen is the Book of Job. […]42 (p.17) Thus, while Sprenger does not present the story itself as ‘true’, he does imbue it with a cultural authenticity. He, like his Arab counterparts, implies that the legend is ancient, and he erroneously asserts that al-Barrāq is the Arabic equivalent of the Persian Majnūn.43 His hasty observation that the story is deftly interwoven with political history suggests that he sees some historical validity in the tale.

Matti Moosa, an Iraqi-born US scholar, in his book The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction, identifies the collection of tales, which he calls al-Jamhara and, like Zaydān, ascribes to the ninth-century transmitter ʿUmar b. al-Shabba, as ‘probably the first anthology which contained some stories of the Arabs and their wars with the neighbouring nations before the advent of Islam’.44 Whilst he does not offer an opinion on the veracity of these tales, he does not accept them as fiction per se. He writes: ‘Such can hardly be considered the ancestors of modern Arabic fiction. They are completely different not only from each other but also from recent fiction, particularly the short story, in their scope, in relation to the environment, and in their form.’45

It is important to acknowledge that all pre-Islamic Arabic poets are in some sense legendary, and it is impossible to ascertain their historical veracity. Indeed, many orientalist scholars as well as some Arab ones, most notably ā hā Ḥusayn (1889–1973),46 suggested that the vast majority of the pre-Islamic poetic corpus was suspect, and probably a fabrication of a later era. The difference between the status of Laylā bt. Lukayz and al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān and the status of poets like Imruʾ al-Qays and Labīd is that, in the latter cases, while we cannot confirm their historical existence, we can confirm that their legend is ancient. Their legends were already in circulation by (p.18) the time their verses were recorded in the ninth and tenth centuries, CE. The legend of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā ‘the Chaste’, on the other hand, is absent from this classical tradition. Thus far I have not been able to find a source that predates the eighteenth century.

It is interesting to note that the late nineteenth-century writer Zaynab Fawwāz (1850–1914) does not include an entry on Laylā bt. Lukayz in her seminal biographical dictionary of famous female historical figures, al-Durr al-manthūr fī ṭabaqāt rabbāt al-khudūr (Scattered Pearls among Mistresses of the Women’s Quarters, 1894). As chastity is one of the feminine virtues she often celebrates,47 one would think she would devote some attention to a poet dubbed ‘Laylā the Chaste’. From this fact we may make one of the following inferences: either Fawwāz had not heard of her, because she was unaware of the Abkāriyūs text, the serialisation in Ḥadīqat al-akhbār, and Cheikho’s Book of Christian Poets – his Gardens of the Laments was not published until 1897 – and because the tale was not circulating in the culture at large, or, she had heard of Laylā but thought of her as fictional, and thus excluded her. The majority of entries are on what I would call historical figures, although she does include biographies of the legendary heroines of the ʿUdhrī love tales such as Laylā l-ʿĀmiriyya, ʿAfrāʾ, and Buthayna. In fact, it turns out that she was probably just being a careful scholar, assuming that Laylā did not exist because she had found no reference to her in her literary and historical sources, which she lists in her introduction. It is likely that she knew of Iskandar Abkāriyūs’ Tazyīn nihāyat al-arab but that she considered it a collection of folkloric tales rather than a historical source. I say that she was probably aware of him because she does include in her list of sources a book by his son, Yūannā Abkāriyūs, entitled Qaṭf al-zuhūr fī tārīkh al-duhūr (Picking Flowers across the History of the Ages).48

(p.19) If one feminist pioneer, writing between 1891 and 1894,49 dismisses Laylā bt. Lukayz as a fictional or folkloric construct or at the very least ignores her presence altogether, another feminist pioneer, writing in 1911 or thereabouts, champions her as a historical figure, albeit one of timeless significance. Malak Ḥifnī Nāṣif (1886–1918), in an essay entitled ‘The Arab Woman – Yesterday and Today’, finds historical parallels between a young Libyan woman taken captive by the Italians and rescued by her tribe after uttering an insult at her captors, and our Laylā:

How similar is today’s Arab woman to her sister from yesterday? Laylā bt. Lukayz said, calling on her people to release her from captivity:

  • غللوني قيدوني ضربوا‎
  • ملمس العفة مني بالعصا‎
  • They fettered me, shackled me, and beat
  • My chaste surface with a stick50

It is tempting to attribute the difference in attitude toward our subject as the result of the influence of Louis Cheikho – to assume that Nāṣif was aware of his so-called scholarship and that Fawwāz was not; but Nāṣif must have had some other source that she cited, because this line of verse is omitted from Cheikho’s edition.51 Hence the reception of the tale as history must have extended beyond (p.20) Cheikho. Indeed, a feature on the tale that was published in a literary magazine in 1910 suggests both that it circulated widely as an account which was deemed historical and that it flourished independently of Cheikho’s Christianising influence.52

Storytelling and Hybridity

The Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste, as I have demonstrated above, is not a ‘true’ history but a fictional fabrication. In many ways it constitutes its own genre. It represents a hybrid text, informed by three different narrative paradigms. Two of these paradigms, namely the popular sīra and the ʿUdhrī love narrative, are very familiar in Arabic literature, and one – the story of the damsel-in-distress – is seemingly more alien. Before I elaborate on the influences of these three paradigms, let me first consider the environment in which this new genre emerged.

Yuri Lotman’s notion of the ‘boundary’ helps us to contemplate the processes by which new genres develop. In Lotman’s universe, different cultures are likened to different semiospheres or realms in which signs have certain meanings. Innovations then occur at the site where two semiospheres collide or overlap, which he calls the ‘boundary’. What is made at the boundary is not seen as ‘foreign’ but rather as ‘ours’, since ‘foreign’ meanings are transferred to ‘our’ system of signs. Lotman writes:

The notion of boundary is an ambivalent one: it both separates and unites. It is always the boundary of something and so belongs to both frontier cultures, to both contiguous semiospheres. The boundary is bilingual and polylingual. The boundary is a mechanism for translating texts of an alien semiotics into ‘our’ language.53 (p.21) No matter how indebted a new form or genre may be to a ‘foreign’ source, its re-encoding according to ‘native’ principles ensures that it is received as ‘our’ text. He explains:

Something similar can be seen when the texts of one genre invade the space of another genre. Innovation comes about when the principles of one genre are restructured according to the laws of another, and this ‘other’ genre organically enters the new structure and at the same time preserves a memory of its other system of encoding.54

One could argue that the Arabic-speaking, or rather Arabic-reading world in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was one big boundary. With the Ottoman Empire’s multicultural vibrancy,55 the European colonial powers’ rising influence, and the prevalence of emerging nationalisms, semiospheres, big and small, continental and local, were interpenetrating with intensity. As such, it was a time of tremendous cultural effervescence, culminating in what is known as the Arab renaissance or Nahḍā.56

In this environment, the damsel-in-distress storyline passes into Arabic literary history unrecognised as a fictional paradigm. It is, or at least was at the time of its absorption into Arabic culture, ‘European’ in origin, drawing on popular folktales, chivalric (p.22) romances, and fictional narrative in general – for by the end of the eighteenth century, the theme of the ‘persecuted maiden’ had become firmly entrenched in European novels and operas. Mario Praz, in The Romantic Agony, described this figure of the persecuted maiden who, from the late eighteenth century onwards, becomes ubiquitous in the European Romantic imagination.57 According to Christopher Booker, she was ‘the beautiful virtuous heroine whose chief role in the fantasies of so many authors was to be portrayed as imprisoned, persecuted, ill-treated or murdered; or just wasting away through consumption to a tragically early death …’58 This, basically ‘European’, damsel-in-distress model had probably been transposed onto pre-existing Arabic genres, namely the sīra shāʿbiyya and the ʿUdhri love tale, at some point in the latter half of the seventeenth century, blending with them to create a peculiar hybrid. In the eighteenth century, as the damsel-in-distress flourished as a fictional paradigm in Europe, it made some inroads in the Arabic-reading world, but as a singular historical account rather than a fictional genre.

A perusal of Hasan El-Shamy’s Folk Traditions of the Arab World: A Guide to Motif Classification is telling in this regard. Under the entry ‘damsel’, one finds the descriptors ‘as wager’, ‘poisonous’, and ‘serpent’.59 There is nothing there – nor is there in the Stith Thompson Index60 – about distress or the necessity of rescue. El-Shamy’s entry on ‘maiden’ is much longer and contains references to abduction (motif R10.1) and rescue (motif R111),61 but the index does not lead us to very many stories classified under these headings.62 Nevertheless, the figure of the persecuted maiden or (p.23) the damsel-in-distress is not entirely unknown in Arabic literature. Many will be familiar with the story of Qamar al-Aqmār, the handsome Persian prince from the Arabian Nights who, astride a magic horse, rescues a Yemeni princess called Shams al-Nahār from both an ugly sage and a king determined to marry her against her will. Like Laylā, Shams al-Nahār needs rescuing, and it is a handsome young man who comes to her aid and, in the end, marries her.63

Another folktale with a heroine whose predicament has parallels with Laylā’s is the story of a certain ʿUfayra bt. ʿAbbād64 of the Jadīs tribe. ʿImlīq, the tyrannical king of Ṭasm, has ruled that no member of the Jadīs should marry a virgin, and he has all the brides-to-be from that tribe brought to him for deflowering. ʿUfayra is one such victim. After he has violated her and released her, she goes to her people, bleeding and with clothes torn, shaming them with a few lines of rajaz verse, beginning with:

  • لا أحدٌ أذلّ من جديس‎
  • أهكذا يُفعل بالعروس‎
  • No one is more humiliated than the Jadīs.
  • Is this what is done to a bride?

She then recites a poem of incitement to them, and the men of the tribe exact their revenge.65 The figure of the damsel-in-distress, then, exists in pre-modern Arabic literature, but it is nowhere near as prevalent as it is in the European literary imagination. Other (p.24) feminine prototypes, such as the warrior women of the sīra epics, and the chaste but not entirely victimised beloveds of the ʿUdhrī love tales, are more predominant.

If, then, this damsel-in-distress storyline is alien and imported, other components of the Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste are familiar and indigenous, and they can be traced back to those narrative traditions that are mentioned above, namely the popular epic and the ʿUdhrī love narrative. If one speaks of ‘wordplay’ in the study of poetry and of ‘motif-play’ in the study of folktales, here in the study of the formation of lengthy narratives, one could speak of ‘genre-play’.66 For our tale mixes and matches not just words or motifs, but constellations of interrelated ideas associated with different genres. In other words, it borrows independent sets of characteristics from three different genres. From the ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’ genre of the western fairy tale, it takes the components of its overarching plot: the premise of youngsters in love, the abduction of the beautiful maiden, her rescue by the handsome knight, and the happily-ever-after resolution. Overlaid on this network of components are sets of characteristics emanating from other indigenous genres.

From the popular epic67 it takes its attention to Arab genealogy and its heroic narrative format with its episodic battle scenes. Like the epic of al-Muhalhil b. Rabīʿa the text begins with the family tree branching out from Nizār, the first of the Arabs. Al-Barrāq is inserted into this lineage as a relative of al-Muhalhil. The plot moves from one extraordinary event to another and from one battle scene to another. As Sprenger suggests in his estimation of the tale quoted (p.25) extensively above, there is an intermixing of prose narrative and poems, uttered by the protagonists and revealing their emotional states, their objectives, and their intentions. Perhaps these poems are meant to be sung by the narrator or rāwī as would happen in popular epic.68 The text is in standard Arabic, not dialect, but it is composed in a simple, low-brow, and repetitive style.

This song-cycle structure, the alternation of prose narrative and verse monologues, is to be found in the ʿUdhrī love tale as well,69 but the ʿUdhrī love tale makes other unique contributions to the new genre that the Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste represents, namely, the premise that the male and female protagonists are first cousins in love, and themes of religiosity and chastity. But these echoes of the ʿUdhrī love tale come with two new twists. The first is that, in the ʿUdhrī love tale, which is generally set in the early Islamic or Umayyad era, the religion featured in the tale is Islam. It is not uncommon for the lover to undertake the hajj and there are many references to Islamic law, and licit and illicit behaviours. In the story of al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān, however, which (p.26) is set in the pre-Islamic era, the hero is made a Christian, at least this would seem to be the case in the Christian version of the tale. The second twist involves sexuality. In the ʿUdhrī love tale there is no sex outside of marriage. The female beloved is married off; hence it is understood that she has sex with her husband, but the relationship with the lover remains chaste and their relationship unconsummated. Here the story ends with the consummation of the relationship between lover and beloved and a celebration of the beloved’s ability to remain chaste despite the threat of rape. There is a shift of emphasis from a preoccupation with chastity to a preoccupation with virginity.

This combination and reformulation of genres brings about a diminished agency for the female characters, perhaps reflecting its origins in the ‘symbolic language’ of the European fairy-tale genre.70 Women in the popular epic are not passive but active figures – often warriors. Remke Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam71 details the stories of several of these warrior women, such as Dhāt al-Himma – when they get into trouble, they fight their way out of it. They are nothing if not active. Women in the ʿUdhrī love tale are a bit more passive – beloved much more than lover, but a theme of parity ensures that they are somehow on a par with the lover. She is his tirb – that is the beloved and her lover are the same age, and their activities are often conjugated in the third-person dual. He dies of love, then she dies of love. They love in tandem. They are cousins and equals.

Women in this new, damsel-in-distress hybrid are neither active nor equal. To the contrary their passivity is almost total, and their lowly vulnerable status emphasised. As Laylā herself states when (p.27) she learns of her father’s decision to marry her off to someone other than al-Barrāq:

  • ما حيلتي فيما يراه أبي وهل‎
  • يأتي المعالي واقف في الأسفل‎
  • انّ النساء اذلة مستورة‎
  • يعرفن بالرأي الضعيف الأعزل‎
  • What power do I have over what my father thinks?
  • Does someone who stands at the bottom reach the heights?
  • Women are lowly and secluded [mastūrā]
  • Known for their weak and unarmed opinion. (2:26)

Utterly oppressed, she is. Note the juxtaposition of the word for ‘lowly’ or ‘abased’ (adhilla) and the word for ‘secluded’ (mastūrā) which seems like an alien association between seclusion and oppression, perhaps reflecting its imported ‘European’ content.

The theme of the ‘persecuted maiden’ transferred easily onto Arab women in orientalist discourses. Indeed, Arab woman, in the European imagination, becomes ‘persecuted maiden’ par excellence. But, as a literary trope, it was alien to Arabic culture, not altogether unknown, but much less predominant than other female character types and hardly figuring as the premise for a lengthy narrative.72 The Arab damsel-in-distress is essentially new, a cultural fabrication, borrowed from European narratives and transposed onto the sīra shāʿbiyya and ʿUdhrī love tale models. The familiar codes masked the ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ elements, and its lack of fantastical elements, which was in fact a sign that it was of recent provenance, meant that it was understood not as a piece of fiction, such as the sīra shāʿbiyya and the ʿUdhrī love tale, but as history, and literary history at that.

(p.28) From History Back to Fiction

No sooner does our tale become accepted or misrecognised as history than it feeds into modern fiction, more specifically the historical novel and other outlets of cultural expression, such as poetry, music, and cinema. We can trace this trend back to 1909, when a young Egyptian poet called ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Shukrī (1886–1958) published his first collection of poetry, Ḍawʾ al-fajr (The Light of Dawn). The poem which inaugurates the collection is called ‘Kisrā wa-l-asīrā’ or ‘Chosroes and the Captive’ and it is subtitled ‘Qiṣṣa’ or ‘A Story’. This twenty-eight-line narrative poem tells the story of an Arab maiden who wards off the sexual violations of a Persian tyrant. Shukrī, a ‘stern moralist’,73 addresses the poem to young women – it opens ‘yā fatāt al-ḥayy’ or ‘O girls of the neighbourhood/tribe’ – and indirectly calls on them to guard their virtue like the heroine of the poem. Shukrī does not name her; nevertheless, the reference to Laylā bt. Lukayz is quite specific, for he quotes a line of her verse – the same line as Malak Ḥifnī Nāṣif, in fact. He does so towards the end of the poem, where the line serves as a call to arms:

  • إيه لله عفاف مخلص‎
  • لك ما سيم الخنى إلا أبى‎
  • ثم قالت قولة في أسرها‎
  • تبعث الغلّ وتهفو بالوغى‎
  • قيّدوني، غلّلوني، ضربوا‎
  • ملمس العفة مني بالعصا‎
  • فأتاها نبأ من قومها‎
  • أنهم عافوا لذاذات الكرى‎
  • أو تجول الحرب في ميدانها‎
  • كمجال الطيش في عهد الصبا‎
  • أو يكون السيف في أعدائهم‎
  • مُعْمَلاً يودي بهامٍ وطلا‎
  • (p.29) My God what sincere chastity
  • You have – no obscenity was imposed on you without being refused
  • Then she uttered a statement in her captivity
  • Spreading rancour and fomenting battle
  • ‘They fettered me, they shackled me, they beat
  • My chaste surface with a stick’
  • So news came to her from her people
  • That they would shun the pleasures of sleep
  • Unless war would run through its field
  • Like the current of recklessness in the age of youth
  • Or that the sword on their enemies
  • Be brought to bear, causing necks and heads to perish74

One cannot help but wonder if the poem has political allegorical dimensions whereby the young female captive represents Egypt75 and Chosroes, a foreign monarch who invades Arab lands, the British imperialists. The allegorical potential of the tale was certainly operative in the Bahīja Ḥāfiz. film Laylā bint al-ṣaḥrāʾ (Laylā, Daughter of the Desert, 1937), which was banned and rereleased as Laylā al-badawiyya (Laylā the Bedouin, 1944). Although the film was censored ostensibly for its representation of the Persian monarch, which was seen as offensive to the modern-day Iranian regime, Ḥāfiz. signals her equation of Chosroes with the British, when, in an effort to decrease her vilification of all things Persian, she renames the tyrannical despot ‘Kingā’ for the second release of the film. Thus, the make-believe Persian king Shahrmayh transforms into the historical but generic Persian Sāsānid king Kisrā or Chosroes when the tale becomes historicised, then, when it becomes re-fictionalised, he transmutes into a once-again make-believe but this time etymologically English king, Kingā.

(p.30) That the film is highly politically-charged is evident from its history with censorship. After the film’s initial release in 1937, it had a short run in the theatres before being banned by the local Egyptian authorities. It seems that the representation of a Persian king trying to force himself sexually on an Arab maiden was considered an indirect and insulting reference to Princess Fawzia’s engagement to the Shah of Iran.76 In addition to the local ban, the British and French authorities outlawed the screening of Laylā, Daughter of the Desert in their overseas territories; the British in Palestine and India, and the French in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco.77 It seems that the British feared a diplomatic incident with Iran. A telegram dated 18 July 1937 and signed by a certain Horace James Seymour, then His Majesty’s Minister in Tehran, lays out the main objections:

Political Director General of Ministry of Foreign Affairs made oral protest to me last night against exhibition of a film called ‘Leila, daughter of the desert’ which was released in Arabic in Egypt last month or in May. Film which seems a wild version of Leila Majnun legend, depicts Arabs as overthrowing Court of King Khosroes. This is unhistorical and wounding to national esteem of Persia.78

When the film was rereleased as Laylā the Bedouin, the British no longer objected to its screening. This was not a result of any changes made to the film – I should add that the polemically significant name change from Chosroes to Kingā seems to have passed unnoticed – but rather due to the fact that there was a new Iranian monarch, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who was not particularly bothered by (p.31) the film’s existence.79 The French maintained the ban, however, at least in Morocco, and, according to Elizabeth Thompson, this was because they objected to the ‘portrayal of the monarch as a playboy’.80

The revamped Laylā the Bedouin was reportedly a flop at the box office.81 Thus, between its history with censorship and its status as a commercial failure, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the cultural impact of the film itself. However, musically the film made an enormous contribution to Arab popular culture. This is because Bahīja Ḥāfiz. commissioned Muḥammad al-Qaṣabjī to compose a song for the film which was based on the poem Laylā utters whilst in captivity, ‘If Only al-Barrāq Had an Eye to See’ (Layta li-l-Barrāqi ʿaynan). The song was performed by both Ḥayāt Muḥammad and Ibrāhīm Ḥammūda in the film, but their performances were eclipsed by that of Asmahān whose recording was released in 1937 by Baidaphone.82 Bahīja Ḥāfiz. subsequently sued Baidaphone for ten thousand pounds for infringing on her intellectual property, and the courts awarded her five hundred pounds in compensation.83 A measure of the song’s success is perhaps that today, more than eighty years after its release, it has a ubiquitous presence on YouTube.84 Maḥmūd Kāmil attributes the success of the song to its expressivity:

(p.32) With this poem, al-Qaṣabjī achieved a great degree of power in its musical expression. Every word sincerely evokes the meaning that it carries. For it envisions the feelings of a young woman (Laylā) when some evil people have violated her, imprisoned her, and exposed her to a variety of forms of torture, such that she prefers death to submitting to their desires, and she wishes her cousin who is in love with her (al-Barrāq) could see the kinds of torture and cruelty she endures!!85

The song is a five-line extract, with some revisions, from ‘If Only al-Barrāq Could See’. I quote the words of the song below:

  • ليت للبراق عيناً فترى‎
  • ما ألاقي من بلاء وعنا‎
  • عُذِّبت أختكم يا ويلكم‎
  • بعذاب النكر صبحاً ومسا‎
  • غلّلوني قيّدوني ضربوا‎
  • جسمي الناحل مني بالعصا‎
  • قيِّدوني غلِّلوني وافعلوا‎
  • كل ما شئتم جميعاً من بلا‎
  • فأنا كارهة بغيكم‎
  • ويقين الموت شيء يرتجى‎

  • 1 If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see
  • The agony and distress I endure
  • 2 Woe upon you, your sister has been tortured
  • Awfully morning and night
  • 3 They fettered me, shackled me, and beat
  • My slender body with a stick
  • 4 Fetter me, shackle me, and do
  • Every sort of atrocity you all want
  • 5 For I hate your infringement
  • And the certainty of death is something to be desired86

(p.33) The musical element of the song compounds the sense of anguish that pervades the poem. This occurs most noticeably at the beginning of line 3, where the words ‘shackled’ and ‘fettered’ are extremely elongated. Asmahān holds the ū sound in ghallalūnī and qayyadūnī for more than six seconds.87 Ibrāhīm Ḥammūda takes this even further, holding the syllables in question for nine seconds.88 The ū represents the third-person plural masculine past tense conjugation, and this ū precedes the first-person objective pronominal suffix -nī, hence the song emphasises the actions of males upon the female body. There is a sense in which in line 4, by addressing men in general and implying that they all would wish to do harm to her, the poetic persona abstracts upon her previously personalised victimisation and suggests that men in general pose a threat to women in general. The song thus projects a cynically feminist stance. With no reference to the Persian enemy, it is not about protecting ‘our women’ from them, but simply protecting women from men. Asmahān’s performance of the song was particularly poignant in this regard, as she is rumoured to have been beaten by her brother Fuʾād.89

Harder to pin down chronologically is ʿĀdil al-Ghaḍbān’s novel Laylā al-ʿafīfa (Laylā the Chaste). It seems that it was first published in March 1954 in the Iqraʾ series by Dār al-Maʿārif in Cairo. However, according to Maḥmūd Qāsim, the novel served as the basis for the scenario of the 1937 Bahīja Ḥāfiz. film,90 so it may have been composed (p.34) as early as the 1930s. ʿĀdil al-Ghaḍbān (1905 or 1908–72) was a Cairene writer of Syrian extraction who was the editor-in-chief of the literary journal al-Kitāb (The Book) from 1945 to 1953. According to Elisabeth Kendall, in his journal he expressed pride in Arabic cultural heritage and felt that modern Arabic literature should build on the foundations of classical Arabic literature.91 Al-Ghaḍbān takes the Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste and transforms it into a modern novel. It is unclear what he used as his source or sources, but he adapts the Christian version of the tale, so he was probably familiar with the work of Cheikho and/or Abkāriyūs, or he may have read the serialisation of the tale in Ḥadīqat al-akhbār. Al-Ghaḍbān’s version differs substantially from the epic, most notably in its privileging of prose over verse. Phenomena such as description and character development, which in the epic would normally be expressed as poetry uttered by a particular character, are here rendered or framed in prose by an omniscient narrator. A handful of poems figure centrally in the novel, including Laylā’s ‘If Only al-Barrāq Had an Eye to See’, but otherwise the novel is not particularly prosimetrical.

The novel received a rave review by the feminist author and scholar Bint al-Shāṭiʾ. Writing in the government daily al-Ahrām in 1955, she enthuses over al-Ghaḍbān’s ability to manipulate his sources with great skill and dexterity:

From the Iqraʾ series I read the story Laylā al-ʿafīfa. Its core is taken from the literary heritage that has come down to us from the Pre-Islamic age. And the poet and writer Mister ʿĀdil al-Ghaḍbān has shaped it into a splendid piece of story-telling set amongst the pavilions of the Bedouin in the deserts of the peninsula. There grew up Laylā bt. Lukayz, the chaste Bedouin maiden, whose call to her cousin al-Barrāq still echoes across time:

  • If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see,
  • The agony and distress I endure

(p.35) I will not describe to the readers the technical virtuosity I found while I was reading this story of love, purity, and chivalry in the desert. Rather, what concerns me is the tribute to our artistic heritage which is full of vibrant images and rich in authentic, fertile materials. From them an inspired pen can shape narrative wonders.92

Bint al-Shāṭiʾ does not comment on the veracity of the novel, but she clearly sees it as historical fiction, or a piece of fiction which draws on historical reality. She suggests that Laylā’s poem dates from the pre-Islamic era, and she also implies that al-Ghaḍbān’s source materials are ‘authentic’. Thus, even as the legend passes from history back into fiction, its status as history is reaffirmed.


Thus, our Laylā, who originates as a fictional character at some point during or shortly before the eighteenth century, who exists in adventure time, and who is victimised by the imaginary Persian king Shahrmayh, transforms into Laylā bt. Lukayz, the historical figure, who is imprisoned by vassals of the actual King Chosroes, and who is assigned a death date of 483 CE. She stands as one of the earliest Arab women poets whose existence is, to this day, unquestioned. The popularity of her figure, famous for maintaining her virginity despite all odds, has waned since the production of the movie, the song and the novel. Yet her legend still imprints itself on literary history, as she continues to be anthologised, celebrated, and even translated into English.93 It is my wish that Laylā the Chaste remain a figure at the forefront of literary consciousness, but that her persona be re-contextualised as the post-classical fictional creation that it is.

(p.36) The Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste, inasmuch as it inscribes the knight-in-shining-armour-rescues-damsel-in-distress storyline on the genres of the ʿUdhrī love tale and the popular epic, has much to teach us about the development of Arabic fiction. As what would seem to be a rare specimen of lengthy imaginary narrative emanating from the pre-modern environment, and as a text that was misrecognised as history in the modern era, it causes us to interrogate our definitions of fiction and to wonder at what other textual junctures the boundaries of fiction and reality have been so blurred. Let us revisit Stefan Leder’s questions quoted earlier in this chapter and ask, ‘Where was in pre-modern Arabic literature any conscious use of fiction as a medium of literary expression, and where can we find indications whether it was ever understood as such?’ It would seem that our tale, featuring the imaginary King Shahrmayh, and ensconced as it is in an ‘adventure chronotope’ with abstracted and indistinct representations of time and place, was at least ahistorical if not downright fictional. Presumably, it was meant as make-believe and intended to be received as such. Perhaps what the existence of this text, so patently fictional in its construction and yet construed as historical in its latter-day reception, teaches us is that the fictional mode of communication was operative in certain milieus in the pre-modern Arabic literary environment and not in others. Fictionally-speaking, in other words, the Arab world was not a monolith but consisted of a variety of environments, some of which would receive the Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste as make-believe, and some of which would receive it as truth. The fictionalising environments thus fostered the expansion of the tale into its Christian version, while the historicising environments – such as that in which Cheikho operated – fabricated extra-textual signs which would disguise the text as history.


(1) Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, 2nd edn (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 97.

(2) Perhaps the first time that it appears as a discrete legend is in the 1858 version which was serialised in the Lebanese periodical Ḥadīqat al-akhbār.

(3) Aḥmad ʿAṭiyya, editor of Kitāb al-jamhara fī ayyām al-ʿArab, attributes his book to ʿUmar b. Shabba. This attribution comes from the two Cairo manuscripts he consulted.

(4) As Kulayb features centrally in both of these tales one may get a sense of their content from G. Levi Della Vida, ‘Kulayb b. Rabīʿa’, EI2.

(5) Abū Zayd al-Qurashī, Jamharat ashʿār al-ʿArab (Beirut: Dār Ṣādir/Dār Bayrūt, 1963).

(6) Ch. Pellat, ‘Abū Zayd al-Ḳurashī’, EI2.

(7) None of these terms fits our tale precisely. Unlike the epic, our tale is composed partly in prose. Moreover, its style is not grandiose. But like the epic it focuses on the actions of a heroic individual fighting in tribal wars whose actions bear on the fate of the community. The romance, too, has characteristics in common with our tale. It allows for prose and emphasises themes of chivalry and civility. For more on the ‘epic’, the ‘chivalric romance’, and the distinction between them, see M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th edn (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2014), 44 and 97–9. The Arabic term sīra, though largely applicable, could be misleading. Our tale is shorter than a typical sīra, and it is not composed in rhymed prose or sajʿ.

(8) See ‘A Note on the Manuscripts and Published Editions’, above.

(9) Note that not all of the tales in the collection are narrated by Dhuʾayb b. Nāfiʿ.

(10) ʿAṭiyya speculates as to his identity (Kitāb al-jamhara, 30–3), looking for him among known transmitters for ʿUmar b. Shabba, who are called Ibn Nāfiʿ, but none of them are known as Dhuʾayb. Given that the text probably originates much later than the life of ʿUmar b. Shabba, this seems like a pointless exercise.

(11) Aboubakr Chraïbi, Arabic Manuscripts of the Thousand and One Nights (Paris: Espaces & Signes, 2016), 63. Chraïbi suggests that eight of his criteria should be met for a work to count as ‘Middle Literature’. For more on the concept of ‘Middle Arabic Literature’, see Chraïbi’s article, ‘Classification des traditions narratives arabes par “conte-type”: Application à l’étude de quelques rôles de poète’, Bulletin d’Études Orientales 50 (1998), 29–59.

(12) Perhaps one could equate it with – or rather compare it to – the ‘simple prose’ style that Peter Heath describes as one of those to be found in the popular epic. See his ‘Styles in Premodern Arabic Popular Epics’, in Bilal Orfali (ed.), In the Shadow of Arabic: The Centrality of Language to Arabic Culture (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011), 413–31. That style is generally rhymed, however.

(13) These are, first of all, the manuscripts Ahlwardt 9747 and Ms. Or. Oct. 1383 – both in Berlin. Then we have the serialisation in Ḥadīqat al-akhbār as well as the Abkāriyūs rendition. See ‘A Note on the Manuscripts and Published Editions’, above.

(14) On the trend amongst Christian Arabs to situate themselves at the centre of the Arabic linguistic and literary tradition both during the Nahḍa and in the period preceding it, see Abdulrazzak Patel, ‘The Reintegration of Pre-modern Christians into the Mainstream of Arabic Literature and the Creation of an Inter-Religious Cultural Space’, The Arab Nahḍah: The Making of the Intellectual and Humanist Movement (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 36–74.

(15) It is telling that in the index of battle days From Fiction to History and Back: The Tale, Its Versions and Its Afterlives found in ʿAṭiyya’s Kitāb al-jamhara, only one of the battles listed, waqʿat Mutūn, is found in the pages dedicated to the epic of al-Barrāq b. Rawḥān. See ʿAṭiyya, Kitāb al-jamhara, 506. Note that Mutūn appears as Manwar or Manūr in Ahlwardt 9747.

(16) Mikhail M. Bakhtin, ‘Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel’, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 90.

(18) In his study of chansons de geste, Howard Bloch claims that the songs ‘were composed in reverse chronology pointed always toward the origin of the family line … The earlier a character or event can be situated within the global cycle, the later, generally speaking, the date of its addition to the whole’. See his Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 94.

(19) In his essay ‘Transformations of the Wondertale’, Vladimir Propp states that ‘A fantastic treatment of a wondertale component is older than its rational treatment.’ See his Theory and History of Folklore, trans. Ariadne Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 88. This suggests to me that fantastical elements are a sign of ancient provenance, and that therefore, a story that lacks fantastical elements would tend to be younger than one which has them. However, Propp also suggests that there are kinds of stories, such as fables, which feature ‘realism’ although they date from ‘time immemorial’. Ibid., 80.

(20) Here I am thinking of the Cinderellas, the Snow Whites, and the Rapunzels – those narratives popularised by Disney in the twentieth century which feature helpless heroines rescued by handsome and fearless men. For a treatment of the Arabic fairy tale which presumes a much broader definition, see I. Lichtenstaedter, ‘Folklore and Fairy-Tale Motifs in Early Arabic Literature’, Folklore 51.3 (1940), 195–203.

(21) As Konrad Hirschler has pointed out, there is ample evidence to suggest that certain popular epics were in fact recorded in writing in the medieval period. See his The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 175–6. Nevertheless, few manuscripts from this early period survive, and there is definitely an upsurge of epic-writing activity in the late pre-modern era. According to Bridget Connelly, most manuscripts of the Sīrat Baybars date from the eighteenth century, while most manuscripts of Sīrat ʿAntar and the Sīrat Banī Hilāl date from the nineteenth century. See her Arab Folk Epic and Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 8.

(22) Wen-chin Ouyang, ‘Introduction’, in Wen-chin Ouyang and Paolo Lemos Horta (eds), The Arabian Nights: An Anthology (London: Everyman’s Library, 2014), xiv.

(23) Gustave E. von Grunebaum, Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation, 2nd edn (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 287. The book was originally published in 1946 and developed out of a series of lectures delivered in 1945.

(24) Ibid., 287–8.

(25) Stefan Leder, ‘Conventions of Fictional Narration in Learned Literature’, in Stefan Leder (ed.), Story-Telling in the Framework of Non-Fictional Arabic Literature (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998), 35. This thesis that the existence of fiction is predicated on an act of communication by which a text must be received as imaginary also informs T. Herzog’s argument in his probing article, ‘“What They Saw with Their Own Eyes …”: Fictionalization and “Narrativization” of History in Arabic Popular Epics and Learned Historiography’, in S. Dorpmueller (ed.), Fictionalizing the Past: Historical Characters in Arabic Popular Epic (Leuven: Peeters, 2012), 25–43.

(26) A short biography and profile of his career may be found in Yūsuf Asʿad Dāghir, Maṣādir al-Dirāsa al-Adabiyya, vol. 2: al-Fikr al-ʿArabī al-Ḥadīth fī Siyar Aʿlāmihi, part 1: al-Rāḥilūn (1800–1955) (Lebanon: Jamʿiyyat Ahl al-Qalam, 1956), 515–24.

(27) See, for example, Khayr al-Dīn al-Ziriklī, al-Aʿlām, 2nd printing, vol. 6 (Cairo: al-Muʾallif, 1955), 117; and ʿUmar Riḍā Kaḥḥāla, Aʿlām al-nisāʾ ʿālamay al-ʿArab wa-l-Islām, 2nd printing, vol. 4 (Damascus: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Hāshimiyya, 1959), 336–7.

(28) Louis Cheikho, Kitāb shuʿarāʾ al-Naṣrāniyya (Book of Christian Poets), vol. 1 (Beirut: Maṭbāʿat al-Ābāʾ al-Mursalīn al-Yasūʿīyīn, 1890), 148. As far as I can tell he drew this date out of thin air.

(29) Ibid., 148.

(30) Cheikho is known for labelling ancient Arabic poets as Christian on the basis of scanty evidence.

(31) At the end of Laylā’s entry, Cheikho states: ‘We have gotten this biography from a manuscript collection of ancient poetry, from the History of the Arabs (Tārīkh al-ʿArab), and from the Classes of the Poets (Ṭabaqāt al-shuʿarāʾ).’ Ibid., 150.

(32) At the end of al-Barrāq’s entry, Cheikho states, ‘In our summary of this biography we have relied on Kitāb jamharat ansāb al-ʿArab by al-Kalbī, Tārīkh al-ʿArab by Iskandar Abīkāriyūs, Kitāb ṭabaqāt al-shuʿarāʾ, and a manuscript collection of ancient poetry.’ Ibid., 147.

(33) Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1989), 427n. It is curious that Shahîd, despite his awareness of the unreliability of Cheikho’s reference, still relies on his account as his sole evidence of the existence of Christianity in South Arabia in the fifth century. Ibid., 427–9.

(34) He lists (1) Kitāb al-raqāʾiq fī majmūʿ al-shiʿr al-jāhilī al-rāʾiq (which he identifies as one of the manuscripts in our eastern library), (2) Tārīkh al-ʿArab by Iskandar Abkāriyūs (this is actually Tazyīn nihāyat al-arab), (3) Ms. De Mr Hartmann à Berlin (Ms. Or. Oct. 1383), (4) Ms. de la Bibl. Royale de Berlin, Sprenger 1215 (Ahlwardt 9747), (5) Ms. De Londres Add. 18,528 (this manuscript contains only a passing reference to al-Barrāq). See Louis Cheikho, Riyāḍ al-adab fī marāthī shawāʿir al-ʿArab (Beirut: Catholic Press, 1897), 2.

(35) Iskandar Abkāriyūs, Rawḍat al-adab fi ṭabaqāt shuʿarāʾ al-ʿArab (Beirut: Maṭbaʿat Bayrūt, 1858), 49–59.

(36) Maria Nallino, commenting on the book as a source for al-Qurashī’s Jamharat ashʿār al-ʿArab, which it also contains, calls it ‘useless’. She writes: ‘L’edizione incorporata nel Tazyīn al-nihāyah di Iskandar Abkāriyūs è anch’essa senza valore, sia per il cattivo stato del manoscritto che le servi di base, sia per la sostituzione di alcune delle qaṣīde originarie con altre che non apparentgono alla Ǵamharah.’ See her ‘Le varie edizioni a stampa della Ǵamharat ašʿār al-ʿArab’, Rivista degli studi orientali 13.4 (1933), 341. Curiously, the Tazyīn represents an expanded edition of Nihāyat al-arab fī akhbār al-ʿArab, which Abkāriyūs also authored, and which was published in Marseilles in 1852. This earlier book also includes some of the poetry of the Jamhara, but it makes no reference to al-Barrāq or Laylā. Perhaps Abkāriyūs revisited and expanded upon this earlier work because he came across a new manuscript of the Jamhara which contained a version of the tale.

(37) See ‘A Note on the Manuscripts and Published Editions’, above.

(38) According to Michael Allan, this work is comprised of a series of articles originally published in the journal al-Hilāl between 1894 and 1895. See his In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016), 83.

(39) Zaydān must have been aware of the manuscript/s edited by ʿAṭiyya. See ‘A Note on the Manuscripts and Published Editions’, above.

(40) Jurjī Zaydān, Tārīkh adab al-lugha l-ʿArabiyya, vol. 2 (Cairo: Dār al-Hilāl, 1912), 294.

(41) Marlé Hammond, ‘“If Only al-Barrāq Could See …”: Violence and Voyeurism in an Early Modern Reformulation of the Pre-Islamic Call to Arms’, in Hugh Kennedy (ed.), Warfare and Poetry in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 222. On this particular point see Zaydān, Tārīkh adab, 293.

(42) A. Sprenger, ‘Notes on Alfred von Kremer’s edition of Wáqidy’s Campaigns’ (Second Notice), Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 25.3 (1856), 199–200.

(43) The Arabic equivalent of the Persian Majnūn is, rather, Qays b. al-Mulawwaḥ, known as Majnūn Laylā or Laylā’s Madman. See Ch. Pellat, J.T.P. de Bruijn, B. Flemming and J.A. Haywood, ‘Madjnūn Laylā’, EI2.

(44) Matti Moosa, The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction, 2nd edn (Boulder, CO and London: Lynne Rienner, 1997), 1.

(45) Ibid., 1.

(46) See his Fī al-adab al-Jāhilī (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Iʿtimād, 1927).

(47) Marilyn Booth, ‘Exemplary Lives, Feminist Aspirations: Zaynab Fawwāz and the Arabic Biographical Tradition’, JAL 26.1–2 (1995), 137.

(48) Zaynab Fawwāz, al-Durr al-manthūr fī ṭabaqāt rabbāt al-khudūr (Cairo: Hindāwī, 2012), 9.

(49) Fawwāz states that she began composing her dictionary in October of 1891. Al-Durr al-manthūr, 8.

(50) Malak Ḥifnī Nāṣif, ‘al-Marʾa al-ʿArabiyya amsi wa-l-yawm’, in Majd al-Dīn Ḥifnī Nāṣif (ed.), Āthār Bāḥithat al-Bādiya (Cairo: al-Muʾassasa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿĀmma, 1962), 290.

(51) Cheikho, Shuʿarāʾ al-Nasrāniyya, 149. Bichr Farès suggests that Cheikho removes the reference to the malmas al-ʿiffa out of prudishness. I have translated the phrase as ‘chaste surface’ but it means something more like ‘touching-place of chastity’. In other words, he thinks that Cheikho was deliberately censoring the phrase. See Bichr Farès, L’honneur chez les Arabes avant l’Islam (Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1932), 75n. I would be inclined to agree, but Farès’ assertion is confused by the fact that he conflates lines 4 and 6 of the poem. Farès assumes that Cheikho distorts line 6, but in actuality he cuts out line 4.

(52) See ‘Fī ḥadāʾiq al-ʿArab: Laylā l-ʿafīfa wa-l-Barrāq’, al-Zuhūr 1.4 (June 1910), 166–8. In this summary of the tale, there is a reference to Laylā’s torture poem as ‘her famous qaṣīdā’, as if the reader would be expected to be familiar with it. Moreover, there is no mention of Christianity. The feature presents the material as historical when it states that al-Barrāq died ‘about a century and a half before Islam’.

(53) Yuri M. Lotman, ‘The Notion of Boundary’, in Universe of the Mind (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), 136.

(54) Ibid., 137.

(55) An informative and fascinating study of reading practices in the multi-ethnic and multilingual Ottoman Empire that elucidates mechanisms of cross-fertilisation may be found in Johann Strauss, ‘Who Read What in the Ottoman Empire?’, MEL 6.1 (2003), 39–76.

(56) Here, I am extending the Nahḍa a bit further back in time than is typical. Traditionally it is described as beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. See, for example, P. Starkey, ‘al-Nahḍa’, EAL, 573–4. Recent scholarship has tended to shift the start date of the Nahḍa a bit earlier, as early as the eighteenth century. See Peter Hill, ‘Revisiting the Intellectual Space of the Nahḍa (Eighteenth-Twentieth Centuries)’, Les carnets de l-Ifpo: La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient (Hypotheses.org), 5 June 2014. Other interventions on the Nahḍa include: Tarek el-Ariss, ‘Let There Be Nahḍah!’, Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 2.2 (2015), 260–6; Muhsin al-Musawi, ‘The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity?’ Parts I and II, Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 1.1 (2014), 265–80, and 2.1 (2015), 115–30; and Stephen Sheehi, ‘Towards a Critical Theory of al-Nahḍah: Epistemology, Ideology and Capital’, JAL 43.2–3 (2012), 269–98.

(57) Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony. See, especially, chapter III, ‘The Shadow of the Divine Marquis’, 95–195.

(58) Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots (London: Continuum, 2004), 386.

(59) Hasan M. El-Shamy, Folk Traditions of the Arab World: A Guide to Motif Classification (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 2:118.

(60) Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1958), 6:187.

(61) El-Shamy, Folk Traditions, 2:302–3.

(62) Ibid., 1:329–30.

(63) See ‘The Magic Tale of the Ebony Horse’, in Ouyang and Horta, The Arabian Nights, 859–92.

(64) She is also known as ʿUfayra (or ʿAfīra) bt. ʿAfār (or ʿIfār or Ghifār).

(65) The story is found in Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil fī l-Tārīkh, ed. Abū l-Fidāʾ ʿAbd Allāh al-Qāḍī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1987), 271–3, as well as many other sources, including Muhammad ibn Ḥabīb, Asmāʾ al-mughtālīn, in ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn (ed.), Nawādir al-makhṭūṭāt (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat Lajnat al-Tāʾlīf wa-l-Tarjama wa-l-Nashr, 1951–5) 2:118–20, and al-Iṣfahānī, Kitāb al-aghānī (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, 1927–), 11:165–6. I am indebted to Geert Jan van Gelder for drawing my attention to this tale. An English version of it, and translations of two poems attributed to ʿUfayra – here known as ʿAfīra – may be found in Abdullah al-Udhari, Classical Poems by Arab Women: A Bilingual Anthology (London: Saqi, 1999), 28–33. Al-Udhari identifies her as a third-century poet.

(66) I am indebted to Wen-chin Ouyang for suggesting this line of enquiry.

(67) For an overview of the popular epic, see G. Canova, ‘Sīra Literature’, EAL, 726–7; and P. Heath, ‘Sīra Shāʿbiyya’, EI2. See also Dwight F. Reynolds, Arab Folklore: A Handbook (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2007), 52–67. Important monographs on popular epics include: M.C. Lyons, The Arabian Epic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Connelly, Arab Folk Epic and Identity; Peter Heath, The Thirsty Sword: Sīrat ʿAntar and the Arabic Popular Epic (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1996); Susan Slyomovics, The Merchant of Art (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1987); and Dwight Reynolds, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).

(68) One of the complaints the ‘Final Reader’ had about the January 2019 manuscript of this monograph was that I hint at a relationship between the tale and traditions of oral literature but that I do not expand or elaborate on this or talk about the tale’s potential performance context. I agree that this is a shortcoming, but as I have no direct evidence that the tale was performed musically in either public or private settings before the film adaptation in the twentieth century, and as the tale is not characterised by colloquialisms, I have decided not to go down this route. However, as Walter Armbrust argues, the practice of silent reading in this part of the world, which is characterised by audio-centrism, is a modern phenomenon, and in earlier eras texts were meant to be read aloud. See his ‘Audiovisual Media and History of the Arab Middle East’, in Israel Gershoni, Amy Singer and Y. Hakan Erdem (eds), Middle East Historiographies: Narrating the Twentieth Century (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006), 288–313. One can therefore expect recitations before small audiences, such as family members or students, to have occurred. But this would be true of practically any text.

(69) On the ʿUdhrī love tale, see Renate Jacobi, ‘ʿUdhrī’, EI2. See also two contributions to Friederike Pannewick (ed.), Martyrdom in Literature: Visions of Death and Meaningful Suffering in Europe and the Middle East from Antiquity to Modernity (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2004): Renate Jacobi’s ‘The ʿUdhra: Love and Death in the Umayyad Period’, 137–48, and Stefan Leder’s ‘The Udhri Narrative in Arabic Literature’, 162–89.

(70) Marina Warner notes: ‘The term “fairytale” is often used as an epithet – a fairytale setting, a fairytale ending – for a work that is not in itself a fairy tale, because it depends on elements of the form’s symbolic language.’ See her Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), xviii. See also Warner’s The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995). Reading these two books I realise that my working definition of fairy tale is quite narrow and that I am really talking only about the damsel-in-distress sub-type.

(71) Remke Kruk, The Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014).

(72) There are certainly episodes in Arabic literary narratives where heroes rescue damsels – one thinks of ʿAntar rescuing his beloved ʿAbla, for example. See Anonymous, The Romance of Antar, trans. Terrick Hamilton, ed. W.A. Clouston (Milton Keynes: Dodo Press, n.d.), 64–6 and 74–8.

(73) M.M. Badawi, ‘Shukrī the Poet – a Reconsideration’, in R.C. Ostle (ed.), Studies in Modern Arabic Literature (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1975), 21.

(74) ʿAbd al-Rahmān Shukrī., Ḍawʾ al-fajr, 2nd printing (Alexandria: Jurjī Gharzūzī Press, 1914 or 1915), 2–3. Translation mine.

(75) On the tendency for Egyptians to represent their country as a female figure, see Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

(76) www.bibalex.org/alexcinema/actors/Bahiga_Hafez.html (accessed 30 January 2018). Note that I have not tracked down any documentation for this local ban.

(77) British correspondence regarding the ban on Laylā, Daughter of the Desert, and the lifting of the ban on Laylā al-badawiyya, may be found in the following files: British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PJ/7/1296; British National Archives, Colonial Office, CO 323/1421/3; British National Archives, Foreign Office, FO 371/52594. Note that the first of these files also contains French correspondence about the banning of the film. A detailed description of the content of each of the files may be found in Hammond, ‘If Only al-Barrāq Could See’, 235, n.6.

(78) CO 323/1421/3, document 1.

(79) Hammond, ‘If Only al-Barrāq Could See’, 217. Hammond cites FO 371/52594, document 28, 235, n.9, as evidence of the perceived change in attitude.

(80) E.F. Thompson, ‘Politics by Other Screens: Contesting Movie Censorship in the Late French Empire’, Arab Media & Society (January 2009), 6.

(82) Maḥmūd Kāmil, Muḥammad al-Qaṣabjī: Ḥayātuh wa-aʿmāluh (Cairo: al-Hayʾa l-Miṣriyya l-ʿĀmma li-l-Tāʾlīfi wa-l-Nashr, 1971), 53.

(83) Ibid., 53. Apparently as a result of this court action, Asmahān’s recording of the song was banned from sale in Egypt for a time. See Sāʿīd al-Jazāʾirī, Asmahān: ḍaḥiyyat al-istikhbārāt (London: Riad El-Rayyes, 1990), 63.

(84) On 1 February 2018, I counted eighteen different uploads of Asmahān’s recording of the song, collectively attracting more than 98,000 views. One also finds performances by Ibrāhīm Ḥammūda and covers by Nazik, Dorsaf Hamdani, Karima Skalli, and Lubana Al Quntar.

(86) Asmahān wa-Farīd al-Aṭrash, Farid & Asmahan (Baidaphon Beirut compact disc, 1990).

(87) Her performance may be heard, for example, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fd-T-tLW90 (accessed 1 February 2018).

(88) See www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0jligQj4HM (accessed 1 February 2018).

(89) On her brother Fuʾād’s abusive behaviour toward her, specifically his beatings of her, see al-Jazāʾirī, Asmahān, 43, 75–6. The reports are based on what Asmahān told a journalist friend of hers. Sherifa Zuhur, who interviewed Fuʾād for her book, Asmahan’s Secrets: Woman, War and Song (Austin, TX: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2000), stops short of suggesting an abusive relationship, describing Fuʾād as ‘the voice of brotherly authority’ whose ‘efforts to control Asmahan failed’ (25). Elsewhere she writes: ‘He confronted her, now and then, blustering like a novice teenage baby-sitter’ (81).

(90) Maḥmūd Qāsim, Mawsūʿat al-aflām al-ʿArabiyya: 1927–2018, vol. 2 (London: E-Kutub, 2017), 458–9. A replica of the 1937 film programme which is in my possession states that the film is ‘historical’ (tārīkhiyya) and ‘realistic’ (wāqiʿiyya) and ‘adapted from Laylā’s dīwān’.

(91) Elisabeth Kendall, Literature, Journalism and the Avant-Garde: Intersection in Egypt (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 57.

(92) Bint al-Shāṭiʾ (a.k.a. ʿĀʾisha ʿAbd al-Rāḥmān), ‘Majmūʿāt min al-qiṣaṣ’, al-Ahrām, 1 March 1955, p. 5. Note that she refers to the text as a qiṣṣa and not as a riwāyā. Perhaps the latter term’s equation with the novel was not yet firmly set in 1955.

(93) See, for example, al-Udhari, Classical Poems, 34–7. See also Suheil Bushrui’s translation of one of her elegies in Suad al-Attar (London: al-Madad Foundation, 2004).