Coptic folklore; Robeir al-Faris; The Cultural Palaces Authority; Cairo; 2008
In his introduction to Robeir al-Faris’s Coptic Folklore , Khairi Shalabi, winner of the 2003 Naguib Mahfouz fiction prize, writes: “First one should admit that in spite of this research being brief, it is definitely the first to tackle this topic. The researcher has not made any scientific or intellectual allegation, he merely discloses a side of the study of the Egyptian personality which had remained for a long time on hold.” Shalabi adds that in this book Faris has highlighted the common line that runs through the Egyptian Christian and Islamic heritage.
In his own introduction to the book, the main objective of which is to preserve this aspect of Egyptian heritage, Faris stresses that the Coptic heritage is a main component of the Egyptian heritage. He comments on the interest of researchers in collecting mawawil (ballads), folk tales and proverbs told by Egyptians, without giving any notice to their Coptic source. The author proceeds to say that Coptic folk culture is no more or less than an extension of the ancient Egyptian one, and that when Egyptians embraced Christianity they merely tuned their pharaonic poetry and tunes to Christian prayer and praise.
Not only did Coptic folklore suffer the disregard of researchers, Faris points out, but it also suffered official neglect from the Church which refused to acknowledge it in mainstream worship and dealt with it haughtily, alleging that many of the texts contradicted proper Christian beliefs.
The first chapter of Coptic Folklore looks at the culture of praise and chant in the Coptic Church. Faris sheds light on the history of praise in the Bible and conveys the opinion of some that David was the first to set up a choir to chant his psalms. He also explains the meaning of some of the Church’s terminology used to determine the different kinds of praise.
An idea of the poetic heritage of the Coptic language takes up the second chapter, with the author taking the reader on a journey through Coptic poetry which is religious in essence and which mainly revolves around Church life. Faris also informs the reader that most Coptic poetry has not yet been translated into Arabic. The third chapter talks about how religious hymns reflect events from the life of the Christ and from Church history.
The fourth chapter, “From the Coptic folklore”, fills nearly half the book. The author has reproduced a selection of the hymns recited by Copts during mawalid (popular feasts held throughout the whole year to commemorate the birthday of a saint). These chants are based mainly on biblical texts, especially the book of the Songs of Solomon. Stories, legends and proverbs from Coptic folklore are discussed in the fifth and final chapter, where Faris presents some of the legends related to such saints as St George, pointing out that the story of the dragon owes its foundation to the pharaonic legend of Horus and Set.
Finally, al-Faris presents his reader with a number of popular proverbs that go back to Coptic origins and that are still used by Muslims and Christians in Egypt, such as the one-phrase rhyming quotes used to describe every month of the Coptic year. The month of Baramhat which, coincides with the harvest, is described thus: “In Baramhat, go into the fields and come back laden with goods,” and in Kiyahk which coincides with the short days of midwinter, one is advised to: “Along with your lunch, prepare your supper.”
Accepting the other
The author has collated and included in his book a selection of oral Coptic legacy, from mawawil, stories, proverbs and legends about the saints, often repeated by the elderly in order to show how the Coptic, pharaonic and Arab cultures affected and were affected by each other. Faris insists that familiarity with Coptic folklore would go a long way towards instituting acceptance of the other, since it highlights the shared culture which lies at the base of everything Egyptian.