From ‘The Beauty Hunters’: An Excerpt from Adil Babikir’s Work on Sudanese Bedouin Poetry

APRIL 4, 2023 — Al-Ḥārdallo is a central figure in Adil Babikir’s The Beauty Hunters: Sudanese Bedouin Poetry, Evolution and Impact, which appeared this Saturday from University of Nebraska Press. Not only is he a central figure in the poetic tradition Babikir traces in the book, but he is also a compelling character, who lived through three distinct periods of Sudanese history: Turco-Egyptian rule (1820–1885), Mahdist rule (1885–1898), and part of the Anglo-Egyptian era (1898–1956). 

To give readers a glimpse of The Beauty Hunters, we run a selection from the first chapter, which tells us a little about Al-Ḥārdallo’s life and poems.

The following is reproduced from The Beauty Hunters: Sudanese Bedouin Poetry, Evolution and Impact by Adil Babikir by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2023 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

1 Al-Ḥārdallo’s Time

Al-Ḥārdallo was born in 1830 in Reira, in southeastern Sudan, to a wealthy and influential family. His father, Aḥmad Abu-Sin, was the head of the Shukriyah tribe, which enjoyed a prominent status during the Turkish rule. Aḥmad was named chief sheikh, in which capacity he was in charge of all the tribes dwelling in the area between the White Nile and the borders with Ethiopia. He was also the first Sudanese commissioner of Khartoum, a position he held roughly between 1860 and 1870.

During his youth and a good part of his adulthood, al-Ḥārdallo led a carefree life. His poetry is replete with anecdotes of his affairs with scores of women. This may sound out of line to contemporary readers when judged by present-day standards. However, reading it within its historical context will show that it was a condoned practice within tribal communities at the time.

As illustrated across the book, al-Ḥārdallo was one of the pioneers of Bedouin poetry who played a trailblazing role in the evolution of Sudanese poetry and lyrics and in forming a unique taste for poetry and beauty. From this perspective, and also given its high aesthetic value and unique style, al-Ḥārdallo’s love poetry is worth highlighting.

Many Bedouin poems were produced at private gatherings where friends would meet for entertainment and spend the night reminiscing about happy times in the past. Those relaxed settings often gave birth to interactive poems, with the poets in attendance contributing quatrains in turns. Light by their nature, these poems are part of the entertainment atmosphere of those friendly settings and may not bear comparison, in terms of quality, with al-Ḥārdallo’s masterpieces. However, they shed light on life in Buṭāna at the time and offer an indispensable source of information about the evolution of Bedouin poetry.

Al-Ḥārdallo made frequent references to his inner circle of friends, namely his brother and fellow poet ʿAbdallha. In the introduction I mentioned one piece in which the poet apologized to his other brother ʿIbdillah for his absence from their usual get-together. Quatrains produced in these casual settings reflect a poet full of life, in a cheerful mood.

“Musdār al-Mitairig” was one of the interactive poems produced during those private settings. A mitairig is a thin cane carried by men as an ornament and an indication of status and is also used by speakers and poets as part of their body language, to emphasize a point or help create the desired impact on listeners. The subject of this musdār was al-Ḥārdallo’s mitairig, which mysteriously went missing and turned out to have been taken by none other than the poet’s sweetheart! As the story goes, she was supposed to come to his place one night. His guests that particular night stayed longer than usual, and when she did come al-Ḥārdallo had already lost himself to slumber, so she took away his cane as proof that she fulfilled her promise. Missing his cane in the morning, al-Ḥārdallo thought some burglar stole it, but it was ʿAbdallah’s guess that was proven right. So the whole poem revolves about this.

In the latter part of his life, al-Ḥārdallo and his tribe experienced a cruel downturn with the rise of the Mahdist rule (1885–98). This religious and political movement was launched in 1881 by Muḥammad Aḥmad al-Mahdi against the Khedivate of Egypt, which had ruled the Sudan since 1821. Although the Shukriyah had managed for decades to stay clear of tribal feuds, they antagonized al-Mahdi’s successor, Calipha ʿAbdullahi, when they sided with a rival faction, al-Ashraf, following al-Mahdi’s death. Calipha ʿAbdullahi imprisoned many of the Shukriyah leaders, who lost a good part of their wealth and influence and had to take refuge in the Ethiopian borders, particularly following a strong drought that hit Buṭāna in 1889.

The ordeal of the Shukriyah in the hands of the Mahdists is well documented in many historical references as well as in al-Ḥārdallo’s verse, which carries frequent references to prominent families of the tribe, such as “the sons of Ḥamad” and “ʿAmāra and his cousins” who ended up as refugees in Ethiopia.

Even the sons of Ḥamad, once the resort for everyone in need,

have now left, crossed the Atbarawi River to Abyssinia.

Their women with thick hair in oil soaked

are in tears for leaving Reira and their company behind.

The poet does not forget to describe his personal feelings over this plight.

Today I feel like one who went on a no-return trip,

or one whose arrow went too wide.

Like braids of hair swinging in a woman’s neck,

our fate is swinging in the hands of our Creator,

who alone can decide when to take our souls back.

Moved by the sight of the once dignified women of the tribe wandering the streets of local towns in torn clothes, he sends this outcry to his brother ʿAbdallah Abu-Sin, lamenting the death of a great figure of the tribe.

Look around, ʿAbdallah;

You will see young oryxes,

tottering around in rags.

What a grieving loss is ab-Saʾad, folks.

To read more, you can find the book at the University of Nebraska Press website.


Adil Babikir is a translator and an Arabic content manager at Mubadala Investment Company in Abu Dhabi. He has translated and edited several works, including Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology (Nebraska, 2019) and Mansi: A Rare Man in His Own Way, by Tayeb Salih.