Folklore Genre in Tayyeb Salih’s Literature

KHARTOUM (SUDANOW)– The ability of Sudanese International novelist Tayyeb Salih to employ folklore genre in his fiction was the subject of a book that has landed in Khartoum bookshops some years ago.
Witten by yet a remarkable folklorist- Dr. Mohammad al –Mahdi Bushra- the book, entitled ‘’Folklore in Tayyeb Salih’s Literature’’, is seen as the first ever script to look at Salih’s works of fiction from this angle: The angle of folklore.
Hitherto, critics at home and abroad had tackled all aspects of Salih’s art , save the issue of folklore .By the result, Bushra’s work fills a void that escaped the notice of the literary community and brings to light Salih’s command of the folklore of his home region of Meroe district or what is broadly called the Shaygiyya Tribe culture.
Folklore is briefly defined as ‘’ the traditional beliefs , customs and the stories of a community passed through the word of mouth.’’ This tradition, of course, also includes proverbs , conventional wisdom, ballads and legends. Folklore genre , in simple terms, means folklore categories.
Bushra, a professor of folklore at the Afro-Asian Institute of the University of Khartoum, maintains that his work ‘’ had started where other critics had stopped ’’ in the analysis of Tayyeb Salih’s art with concentration on the different aspects of folklore genre.’’
Under the title ’’preface’’, the author recognizes the disparity in researchers definition of folklore genre that led to a lot of obscurities on the matter. He , however, seems to adopt the view of Russian researcher Vladimir Propp that the criteria for defining folklore genre should take into consideration four aspects.(1)The genre’s poeticism (2)The genre’s application (3)The style of the genre(4) The genre’s relationship with music.
He also accounts for other definitions of folklore genre , concluding that it is, by and large, very difficult to find a water tight definition of folklore genre.
The author has cited the same difficulty when trying to probe Salih’s folklore genre. But he rules that the crux of the matter rests with understanding the culture thorough which the concerned genre functions. Here, he says, we mean the culture of the Shaygiyya tribe and their neighbours. It is an Arabic culture that continued to develop for hundreds of years throughout Northern Sudan. Salih had digested that culture and, so, had the capability to use the area’s folklore and its genre in his fiction.
Under the title ’’ Introduction” , the author accounted for the reasons that prompted him to select this topic for the study. He also examined the term ‘’folklore genre’’ and how it could be defined and presented a general survey of the studies that tackled this type of creation. He indicated that the relation between folklore and literature was an intricate matter and that, may be, folklore is more expressive because it encompasses a lot of arts such as proverbs and drama. The problem becomes more complex when we look at certain artistic forms like the epic in folklore and compare it with the novel in literature. He recalls the general understanding that continued for a long time that the novel as a literary genre was no more than a crystallization and an incarnation of a genre that is originally rooted in folklore( that is the epic.) For the author, the novel is the daughter of the epic that was initially conceived in folk art.
Bushra also tackled the view of Russian researcher Yuri Solokov about the relationship of folklore with literature in which he defended folklore in the face of the negative descriptions attached to it when it was dubbed ‘’characterless’’ and having no clear cut identity, and further cited Solokov’s argument that the capabilities of the folk artist are, by no means, less than those of his peers in literature.
The author said his choice of folklore in Salih’s works was because Salih’s critics had ignored this aspect of our novelist’s creation .” Academics have ignored Salih’s depiction of the area’s heritage and folklore genre and that is the concern of this study.” My aim is to spotlight and identify the folklore genre in Salih’s novels and then to shed light on its importance as regards the form and content of the script with the ultimate objective of tackling the shortcomings in the previous studies on Salih’s art. That is because it is my belief that salih’s excellence was because he had appreciated the folklore genre and employed it in a superb manner,’’ said the author.
The author then made a review of the studies that touched upon Salih’s employment of folklore . He said those studies were wrong in that they focused on the African element in Salih’s use of folklore, totally ignoring the African personality and the African art in Salih’s writing , despite the fact that the Sudanese culture is, in fact, an amalgam of both African and Arab heritage. It is enough to say that Salih had used Arabic(his mother tongue) while other African writers had used European languages. Moreover, the society of Wad Hamid’s locality was akin to the Moslem society , despite the existence of an African element in it.’’
Bushra further accounts for a mistake in one of those studies that belittled Wad Hamid’s society as ‘superstitious’’ and ‘’backward.’’ The author is of the view that salih was well aware about the latent power in sufist(mystic) thought and that the Western critics had failed to go deeper into this type of folklore.
In Chapter One , the author made a review of the Sudanese artists’ early concern with heritage and folklore. During the 1930s there crystallized a general concept about the Sudanese identity .This was reflected in what came to be known as aladab al sha’abi (folk literature) when Hamza al-Malik Tambal totally rejected the use of the indigenous heritage in writing. He was supported in this by poet Tijani Yousif Bashir and later on by former Premier , poet, Mohammad Ahmad Mahjoub. But this trend was rejected by Mohammad Ashri al-Siddig who used the specific term ‘’folkart’’. Al Amin Ali Madani teamed up with al-Siddig in the defense of the Sudanese heritage and called for more respect to the Sudanese vernacular.
Bushra finds excuse for this clash of ideas because of the absence of genuine studies about the Sudanese heritage at that time. But by the inception of the Sudanese Research Department in the University of Khartoum in 1964 and its ensuing development in the Afro-Asian Studies Institute and the intensive field research conducted on the matter , correct definitions were established for folklore science and its subject matter. This led to the emergence of folklore vanguards , led by the late Sudanese linguist , Professor Abdallah al- Tayyeb who conducted a study on the local traditions among the Nile Riparian communities. Abdallah al-Tayyeb, however, did not mention the word folklore in his writing. Egyptian linguist Abdul Majeed Abdeen conducted a study on Sudanese native literature as part of his concern with Arabic culture in Sudan. One shortcoming in Abdeen’s study was that his look at the Sudanese native literature was one-sided because it strives to prove that Sudan was a purely Arab country.
The author, in the course of giving samples for the employment of folklore in Sudanese works of art , indicated that Sufism was clearly reflected in the poetry of Mohammad al-Mahdi Majzoub and the drama of Mohammad Abdulhai. He also asserts that the employment of folklore in drama had, in fact, started earlier than that in what could be seen in the marvelous plays of Ibrahim al-Abbadi , Khalid Abulrous and al-Tahir Shebaika who, the three of them, built their works upon personalities from the Sudanese literary heritage. Then there appeared the works of Yousif Aaydabi such as Husan al-Bayyaha (the Bayyaha Horse) and Hashim Siddig( Napata Habeebati or Napata My Loved One) in which the playwright mixed legend with historical events that took place during the Kush dynasty. Dr. Khalid al-Mubarak used folktales in his play the Shiluk Reth. Poet and diplomat Sidahmad al-Hardallu invoked folklore genre in his poetic drama

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Here the author concludes that there is consensus among Sudanese writers upon the pressing importance of knitting heritage in writing about a specific historical era. The narrator usually tries to rebuild the heritage without destroying it.
In Chapter Two, entitled ‘’specifying and employing folklore in Salih’s literature’’, the author tackles some folklore genres starting from verbal genres like folk verse and the issue of ‘’ the miracle’’ in the light of old texts taken from the famous religious chronology ‘’Tabaqat Wad Daifalla.’’
Salih’s first use of folklore can be seen in his novel ‘’A Palm on the Brook’’ when the narrator recalled early memories of his childhood in order to dissipate sadness by singing: Life will humiliate you and time will show you. Less money can separate you from the girls of your neighbourhood.’’
In the Wedding of Zain Salih employs folk verse. The wedding event was an opportunity to display a lot of secondary characters that play a significant part in this social event. Those characters had displayed a lot of the aspects of the common man without which the picture could have been incomplete. For example the narrator presents Fatma (Western Nile’s most famous singer) who presented a lot of expressive songs in the event. Another aspect of this popular creativity was also on display, including poetry sung in praise of The Prophet Mohammad. All songs were made to the accompaniment of the tambourine, a popular musical instrument played nearly in all happy occasions.
In the novel “Dawwalbait’’ Salih moves further to project the real role of the popular singer. While in the Wedding of Zain Fattoma the singer is referred to just in passing , in Dawwalbait Saeed Abloom (Saeed the fool) plays the bid role of the popular singer.
Salih’s creation is also rich in proverbs and sayings. The author had counted 30 of them in Salih’s works. One third of these are integrated in the Season for Migration to the North , followed in number by The Wedding of Zain in which Salih used the proverb: alfat mat (let bygones be bygones). In the Season for Migration to the Nortrh one of the characters, Bakri, uses the well known proverb: alghazal galat baladi sham , which can translate :The antelope said my home is the sham (Syria) , to tease the intriguing villagers who asked why he had returned to their desolate village, contrary to his previous vowing not to come back. In Dawwalbait Salih uses the proverb: Addi al ghannai wa’asshu: Pay the singer and serve him with supper. The author says Salih’s use of all these proverbs signifies his awareness about the community’s folklore.
Salih’s creativity is also well demonstrated in his use of popular imaginations and similes. This is one of his techniques for using folklore which had unfortunately escaped the notice of his critics, with the exception of Mukhtar Ajoaba and Yousif Noor Awad.
Salih also uses the word nakhla (palm) very much as a symbol of belonging and originality in the culture of Northern Sudan. In the Wedding of Zain, Salih describes the bride ni’ma’s beauty as a budding young palm that flourished when irrigated after a long thirst. He also uses the desert drought –resistant sayyal tree as a symbol of resilience and a continuation of life. He also likens some of his characters to some of the region’s animals. He is also keen to detail descriptions of wedding and funeral processions, especially the wedding rituals with all their dancing, music and clamour. In Dawwalbait Salih describes circumcision and religious feasts with all that noisy chorusing and shouting.
Salih’s novels contain a lot of reference to the miracles made by holy men as a reflection of the region’s folklore that appreciates the inherent spiritual abilities of sainthood. His concern with miracles had started as early as his first novel ‘Palm on the Brook’. In Domat Wad Hamid, the miracle becomes the centerpiece of his writing. All his novels portray the inherent spiritual power of the wali (saint). In the Wedding of Zain those miracles become more conspicuous, due to the lengthy description of the eventful wedding ceremony. In fact the entire novel is based on the miracle of al-Haneen, the holy man who endears the hero Zain who later on makes his own miracles. In Bandar Shah and Maryood Salih projects the miracle as a social phenomenon well embedded in the area’s heritage that adores self-denial and dedication. He also touches upon the dream, its implications and its interpretations in that community. In the Season for Migration to the North Salih adopts a narration similar to that in popular anecdotes , especially the techniques apparent in alf layla walayla (a thousand nights and one) of the Arabic heritage where there are several narrators and when the basic tale branches into several stories. The same happens in Dawwalbait . But in Maryood he returns to the usual novel techniques , with the exception of the third part in which he uses a style similar to the style of folktales that stands basically on the vernacular. Salih uses a hybrid of classical Arabic and the vernacular, especially in Maryood. The author says there is nothing wrong with that combination . Salih himself had once said the vernacular is the reservoir of the dynamics of language . “ I want to give the classical Arabic the rhythm of the vernacular and the vernacular the rhythm of the classical language….That means I want to give the vernacular the solemnity of classical Arabic ,’’ he had said
In Chapter Three , Bushra elaborates on the issue of the legend of the wise stranger who descends on a certain community , which is very common in many African cultures that came into contact with Moslem culture . This can best be seen in the Hausa community in West Africa and Darfur in Western Sudan. Here the wise stranger plays a basic role in the Islamization of the communities.
In this respect the author accounts for the studies that tackled this issue as can be seen in the writings of Sayyid Hamid Heraiz and Ahmad Nasr. While the former had tackled the Afro-Arab relations , case- studying the Fur, the Hausa and the Bargo, the latter had studied the legend of the wise stranger in over 20 stories from the Hilali Epic.
The author deems it easy to monitor Salih’s invocation of the legend which constitutes a referential framework of his novels and stories and that understanding the relationship of those writings with the legend makes it easy to understand his texts.
The author then elaborates on the issue of the wise stranger in Salih’s novels and stories. He says Domat Wad Hamid had contained an early reference to the legend of the wise stranger: That is Wad Hamid himself, after whom the village was named later on. He is one of Allah’s walis(saints) who make miracles and play a significant role in the fates of individuals and the community at large. . Salih had in this novel come very close to the notion of the wise stranger . In the Wedding of Zain , the character of the wali , al-Haneen, comes closer to the character of the wise stranger. He does not show up in the village but very rarely and the vanishes. This had stirred a lot of talk and speculation. He made a lot of miracles for the village dwellers.
In the Season for Migration to the North Mustafa Saeed is the central character that descends on the village from where nobody knows and becomes an active part in the community . In this novel, the aspect of the wise stranger’s legend seems to be relatively vague. The character of Mustafa Saeed carries but very little of the traits of the wise stranger. That is because he had come from the center of enlightenment , Khartoum, and had come with material rather than with spiritual knowledge. He disappears in an abrupt and vague manner.
But Dawwalbait is the closest of Salih’s novels to the legend of the wise stranger. Here the reader finds a clear and visible employment of this legend. The hero’s character carries all the aspects of the wise stranger . He had descended on the village from where nobody knew . He was hungry, lonely and sustained a severe wound on his body. He had no religion and speaks an incomprehensible language . Nevertheless, he found his way in the village and became one of its people . He was given a name , embraced Islam and married a village girl. Like Mustasfa Saeed , Dawwalbait ends at the bottom of the river , leaving behind his Son Eisa who developed a compelling spiritual authority on the villagers. The village had woven a lot of legends and stories about Eisa. In Dawwalbait Salih had moved away from the wise stranger issue in that the hero had no religion but the village encouraged him to embrace Islam, organizing a handsome ceremony for this.

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In Chapter Four , the author tackles the aesthetical value of Salih’s employment of folklore genre and how far that genre had enriched his works.
The author had noted that one of the most outstanding aspects of Salih’s novels was the intellectual and technical unity . Salih’s stories and novels are thoroughly bound to each other . The big novel is formed from short stories that connect together to make a big whole.. Look at ‘’a Handful of Dates’’, ‘’ A Palm on the Brook’’, ‘’ Domat Wad Hamid’’, ‘’The Wedding of Zai’’ , in addition to ‘’ the Season for Migration to the North’’ and ‘’ Bandarshah ” . All of these works had meant to reflect the imaginary society which Salih had created in the illusionary village of Wad Hamid. And that naming a place after a holy man is very common in Sudan. For instance Khartoum was just a desolate place until a holy man came to live in it. It then grew bigger and bigger. The same can be said about the village of Ukasha towards the Northern border with Egypt which was dwelt by and carried the name of the holy man Ukasha who made miracles.
“The place”” is also a constant element in Salih’s writing. It is the central character in his stories .
Salih also speaks very much about his narrators’ relationship with the ‘’grandfather’’. The grandfather in Salih’s fiction is an institution in his own right.
After the grandfather comes the institution of the father , especially in such communities which are based on the tradition of the extended family.
Also the wise stranger legend is no doubt the central issue in the Salih full fledged novel that embodies his stories. Salih every now and then formulates the legend in a different form . It could be said that legend is the basic tone in the symphony of the big novel.
In conclusion , the author asserts that Sudanese folklore studies had scored handsome progress and had overcome the obscurity surrounding the matter and the unilateral and selective outlook towards the heritage. But those studies had, unfortunately, continued to be rather theoretical and did not take a practical form. That is because they had failed to tackle the folklore genre in the Sudanese art despite the noteworthy awareness of the Sudanese creative writers about the country’s heritage and despite the availability of many creative texts that employed folklore genre in a marvelous manner. Salih’s writings stand as a good testimony for this.
The most important aspect of Salih’s creativity is his employment of the aspects of the contemporary novel side by side with the folklore genre. But the critics of his creation could not go deep into the cognitive and aesthetic manner in which he used the heritage.. Those studies , in the best of cases , were satisfied with just referring to the folklore genre without giving an in-depth assessment of how Salih had employed it. Salih’s employment of folklore genre is very diverse in that he very directly uses folk verse and sayings and adopts folk styles in the narration of folk tales. But Salih’s genus always remains to be his ability to employ the legend in a very complex manner , and reformulate and integrate it in the backbone of his work of art. That had earned him a fictional achievement that can challenge many modern international works of fiction. The most outstanding aspect of Salih’s modernity was his ability to go back to the roots of the Sudanese culture and his awareness about the richness of the local heritage and his invocation of that heritage.

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