On Blackness in Arabic Popular Literature: The Black Heroes of the Siyar Sha‘biyya, Their Conception, Contests, and Contexts


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships


Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations


This dissertation offers the first in-depth study of racial difference, and specifically blackness, in premodern Arabic popular literature. Based primarily on the historically orally performed chivalric legend (sīra) Sīrat Dhāt al-Himma, with comparative reference to Sīrat Banī Hilāl, Sīrat ‘Antar, and other near-contemporary sources, the project assesses the portrayal of black heroes in these texts from the time of their often-miraculous conceptions. To encapsulate these figures’ experiences, this dissertation isolates three main sites of literal and figurative racial construction through which the movement and status of black figures in the sīra’s imagined world are elaborated. These sites include the black heroes’ births, their coming of age as leaders and concurrent establishment of a community of military confrères, and the glossing of their stories by the text’s narrator. These varied extracts incorporate several subgenres, permitting a view of how "race talk" manifests across literary forms such as narrative prose, poetry, and extradiegetic dialogue.