Sidi Hammo.

The songs of Sidi Hammo rendered into English for the first time online

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I. IN PRAISE OF FADMA . . . . -31



IV. LOST LOVE ....... 50




VII. HARVEST DAY ...... 75




OF all the talismans by which Moorish women ward
off the perils of the Evil Eye, none is so cherished as the
quaint ornament, in silver, which nearly every sister of
Fadma wears upon her breast. As its name, Khoumsa,
implies, its most salient virtue lies in its Five points ;
that number, in whatever form presented, being the
most potent of protective agencies. But, as that great
authority, Dr. Edvard Westermarck, has recently
pointed out, there is something else. The five knobs,
whether jewelled or in silver, are set in the form of a
cross ; and this symbol has had, from remote antiquity,
a special virtue as well as varied occult suggestions.
In Moorish folk-beliefs it means the dispersion, to the
four corners of the earth, of any malign influence which
has been directed against the heart, the centre of life,
of the wearer.


This is a black and white reproduction of an illu-
minated MS. in Arabic writing, made by Mr. Johnston
for the Bodleian Library.


WHILE few European scholars know even the
name of the old singer who called himself " the
lowly master of song," Sidi Hammo has stood
to countless thousands of men and women for
the greatest of all poets.

He is the acknowledged laureate of the
Berbers, the people who trace their descent
from the warriors cast out of Palestine by
Joshua, the son of Nun. Whether moving
along the northern coast of Africa, or driven to
the highlands of Barbary by the Arab invasion,
the Berbers retained their manners and customs
almost intact, and while the influence of Europe
has made itself felt throughout the rest of
Africa, Berberland remains to-day as it was
before Musa's Arabs entered Morocco. The
Berbers are unconquered and uncontaminated
by western civilization. They have no written


language. They speak what is commonly called
Shilhah, but is better known as Tamazight,
literally the " Tongue of the Free," and, happily,
every sound in that language can be expressed
by Arabic consonants and vowel points.

In days seen faintly through the mists of time
that gather so quickly where a country has no
written history, one Ali ben Nasr founded a
Society of wandering singers, and of these Sidi
Hammo is the most famous. His songs have been
studied by the people and committed to memory.

They have passed from generation to gene-
ration preserving their native purity, and to-day
while the singer is little more than the shadow
of a name, his songs comprise almost the entire
literary wealth of Berberland.

What tradition has to say of Sidi Hammo
may be summed up in a few sentences. Some
hold he was a man of very dark complexion,
that is to say of negro blood on one side, and
that he lived in the days of Sidi-Abderrahman-
el-'Mjdoub. If this be true he must have
flourished in the beginning of the fifteenth


century or the ninth century of the Hegira. On
the other hand Mr. Johnston, the translator, and
no mean authority, believes that Sidi Hammo's
birth year is of much later date, and that he was
born less than one hundred and fifty years ago.
Certainly there are many modern notes in his
music, but, on the other hand, who shall say they
have not been interpolated by later generations ?
He is famous among the Berbers as a writer
of andama, i.e. short verses dealing with the
rules of life and the traditions of land or
people. About thirty-nine poems of this kind
are attributed to him. Nearly all begin with the
words " God be merciful to you, Sidi Hammo,
he the poor one said!" but these words may
have been added after the poet's death.

His poems contain interesting comments upon
various towns of Morocco and Tunis, especially
the latter, which he praises highly. Strange to
say the tradition of the present day Schluh is
that Sidi Hammo never left the empire of
Morocco, and therefore can never have seen
Tunis, so that his utterances are only a repetition


of other people's impressions. In one of the
last of his songs, Sidi Hammo confesses to being
a faithful Mussulman. Nearly all the poetry of
the Schluh is not in rhyme, but as the learned
Dr. Stumme has pointed out is written in
Iambic pentameter or Iambic hexameter.

Probably a native of Aouluz on the southern
slope of the Atlas Mountains, Sidi Hammo led
the strolling life that is so popular even to-day
among the beggar minstrels of Morocco and
Spain. Many verses suggest that he must have
lived after the introduction of tea into North
Africa, and this fact seemed to justify the trans-
lator's belief, and to upset many existing theories
about the date of his birth, although the sug-
gestion of interpolations is always reasonable
where songs have been committed to memory
for preservation. In all probability he died in
the Iskrouzen district among his well-beloved
mountains. His shrine (Zoivia) stands there
to-day, and is a well-known place of pilgrimage.

Mr. R. L. N. Johnston, whose literary labours
deserve even a larger measure of appreciation



than has fallen to them, is one of the few Eng-
lishmen to whom Arabic and Shilhah present
no difficulties. More than twenty years ago
he collaborated in the production of the rare
" Moorish Lotus Leaves " which one would
willingly see reprinted. Recently he has pub-
lished the lively little volume, entitled " At the
Sign of the Palm Tree " and " Morocco, the
Land of the Setting Sun." He has lived for
many years in the south of Morocco, and has
studied the Berber poetry thoroughly. " El
Mani " or " The Similes " now presented to the
English-speaking world for the first time, were
taken from the mouths of the peasants in the
Haha and M'tooga provinces, and the Atlas
villages, where the memory of " the lowly master
of song" is kept ever green. Every verse pub-
lished here has been verified by at least half a
dozen Berber scribes, and no proverb of question-
able antecedents has been included. The work
has occupied the author rather more than three
years, and is original inasmuch as no other man
has thought to make a collected edition of the



poet's work. The original manuscript, prepared
and illuminated by Mr. Johnston, has been pur-
chased by the Bodleian.

Save, indeed, for an occasional outburst of con-
ventional piety, -there is little of the ascetic about
Sidi Hammo. On the other hand, among hun-
dreds of verses, ethical, practical, and amatory
which Mr. Johnston has examined, not one has
been found containing a phrase which even
suggests the licentiousness common to Arab

To his fervent admirers of to-day, the main
charm of his poetry is the wrapping up of an idea
in simile. To discover the hidden meaning is to
be at once intelligent and sympathetic. With
the Berbers the " Master of the Song " is also
" Master of Meanings." To give but one in-
stance here " If you must swim, plunge into
the green waves rather than the muddy pool."
This is a warning to persons about to

In translating these fragments of Sidi Hammo,
Mr. Johnston has endeavoured to be literal



wherever such treatment would not spoil the
sense. To an English reader, to refer to the
" liver " as the seat of affections would convey no
meaning, though both in Arabic and Tamazight
the word is used as we use " heart." Hence the
latter has been given in rendering tasa, literally,
liver. But where Sidi Hammo, with an excess
of delicacy peculiar to his Berber folk, alludes to
his mistress in the masculine gender, Mr. John-
ston has allowed the pronouns " he " and " him "
to stand, to mark the idiosyncracy.

Despite his many jeers at the fair sex, it will
be noticed that all Sidi Hammo's allusions to
Fadma are couched in terms of admiration and
devotion. If tradition be accepted, this was
the maiden whom he championed in a singing
competition with a brutal Drawi negro. This
minstrel having slandered the girl, young
Sidi Hammo made pilgrimage to the shrine
of Moulai Ibrahim in the Atlas Mountains.
Having obtained saintly inspiration there, he
returned to Aouluz, and most effectually
silenced the slanderer in a contest of " mean-


ings" in presence of the whole tribe. One
severe hit at the Drawi has come down to us :

" Great and Only God ! By what law shall
the raven devour sweetmeats ? "

For Fadma, indeed, nothing is too good.
Fadma, tripping like a pigeon down to the
spring, there to preen her plumes. Fadma,
about whose way earth and sky grow bright.
Fadma, a queen uncrowned, for none has seen
her face, or heard the " laugh of the little
mouth." Fadma, his first love and, perchance,
his last.

To quote Mr. Johnston, " The flowery phrases
of the East are as foreign to Berber nature as
they are to the curt simplicity of the Shilhah
language. Sidi Hammo suggests, rather than
describes. A single line photographs the salient
points of a picture of which every Shilh can fill
in the details. His similes are drawn from
Nature in her most sublime moods, and from
the familiar every-day life of the folk among
whom he worked and wandered. Nothing that
belongs to his people and their surroundings



is strange to him. He has endured the stifling
drought of the long, long summer, which
turns the " happy realm " of Sunset Land into a
desert ; he has revelled in the brief but glorious
spring, the " Day of Herbage " wherein he tastes,
in anticipation, the joys of the celestial garden.
He has enjoyed the rosy splendours of sun-
rise spreading over snow-clad Atlas, and the
humming of the bees is music in his ear.
The smell of the earth after winter deluge, the
perfumed shade of the almond groves, the notes
of cuckoo, and blackbird, and nightingale, the
flashing beauty of the bee-eater, the magic
hues of the rainbow the " bride of the rain "
the lowing of the kine, and the uncanny yelp of
the jackal are all as familiar to him as they are
to every peasant farmer in Berberland."

To understand the veneration in which the
great poet of the Atlas is held, we must pause
to remember that the golden age of poets has
passed from the modern western world. Time
was when the place of the poet in the court of
civilized rulers was second to no man's. The


poet had as much honour as the successful
warrior. In days when Europe was scarcely
civilized the singer was respected. Do we not
preserve the Lark Song of Bernart de Ventadorn,
and the nightingale song of the lover of the
Lady of Fayel ? Where have we, in our own
language, aught more beautiful than John of
Fornsete's " Sumer is icumen in " ? The
Meistersinger of Germany, the Trouveres of
Provence, the Magyars of old time, from whose
ranks Elek Elek stands out so boldly one and
all testify to the power of song among a simple
people. If we would turn from west to east,
and it seems reasonable to do so in this
place, the great Chinese Empire supplies many
instances of the esteem in which poets and
poetry were held. One must suffice me here.

In the time of the Emperor Ming-huang, who
lived about 700 A.D., and founded the Peking
Gazette and the famous Han Lin College, Li
Tae Po became known to connoisseurs for his
exquisite verses. One of the Ministers of State,
Ho-tchi-tchang, spoke of his works to the



Emperor, admitting at the time that the poet
suffered from the vice of excessive drinking.
The Emperor read some of the verses and was
so deeply moved by them that he summoned the
poet to Court, gave him a post among his
literary men, and apartments in the garden
palace of Theng-hiang-ting. Not content with
these high marks of favour the Emperor is said
to have acted on occasion as the poet's amanu-
ensis. Some of the women of the Royal House-
hold remonstrated with their royal master, to
whom he replied that when the acts of Ming-huang
were forgotten, the verses he had copied for Li
Tae Po would be as fresh as the dew of morning.
" Though he speaks of himself as ' clerk to
the hamlet,' " says Mr. Johnston, "it is highly im-
probable that Sidi Hammo ever read a book, save
some necessary portions of the Koran. Among
the highlanders of the great range a little learning
goes a long way, and the man who can decipher the
chapter of the day easily passes for a sage. Thanks
to this lack of book-learning, Sidi Hammo's
plagiarism, if it exist, is of the unconscious

17 B


kind; and, despite the introduction of Arabic
words to describe ideas and things adopted by
the Berbers as the result of the Saracenic im-
migration, the original text of his songs and
parables, now for the first time set down in
writing, furnishes the student of comparative
philology with a fairly trustworthy guide to the
purest form of the Shilhah tongue. Divested
of the Arabic phrases necessarily used in speak-
ing of the imported religious tenets of Islam, as
of the luxuries introduced by the Arabs, the
native dialect of the Atlas Mountains, and
their spurs, is broad enough and forcible
enough for the wants of the simple, albeit
highly imaginative, folk to whose forefathers
Sidi Hammo sang. To the Arabs, indeed, it is
indebted for both a heaven and a hell, as well as
for the vocabulary of blessing and cursing, for
guns and gunpowder, and other modern means
of destroying life. But in speaking of all the
nature amid which he lives the Atlas high-
lander need borrow nothing from a foreign
tongue. He can appeal to the shrine of the



stars, and can hear the voices of the Unknown
in the winds which roll down from the snow-
capped height of Adraer Nderen, or the whisper-
ing breeze which sways the palm leaves and
rustles among the oleanders. Long ages before
Islam offered its explanation of djinns and afrits
for the mysteries that lie beyond the limits of
our intelligence, the caves of Imin Takkandoot
were sought by pilgrims from every clan of
Berberland, eager to propitiate the " Unseen
ones who see us," the shadowy denizens of the
great under-world of which these sombre caverns
are the portal. To-day, as in the forgotten
pagan days of yore, the procession of pilgrims
comes and goes as regularly as the seasons.
The petition to the unnamed spirit forces may
be granted, or it may fail, for they themselves
are subject to the iron rule of an unrevealed
Destiny. Yet for ever will it be,

'As one looks to the bough, though of fruit it be bare,
So we scan the Unknown for what hope may be there."

As I have pointed out already the authorities
are not in agreement about the date of Sidi


Hammo's life, but life in the country of the
Atlas Mountains has changed so little from the
time of the earliest date suggested (by Dr.
Stumme), down to the present day, that we can
recreate from the evidence of the pages before us
the life that the singer led. Morocco is a country
of poor men, but the rais who sings the songs of
other men, and the Nadhim who sings his own,
are ever sure of a welcome at every season of
the year. In Berberland he will find the
national dish of barley meal called ibrin piled
high in his honour just as the couscousoo
awaited him in the more northern country. He
passes from village to village carrying the news
which is silver, and song which is gold. His
wants are few, and all the world is before him.
So I have seen the wandering guitarreros of
Andalusia carrying their song from one hamlet
to another and finding a welcome everywhere.
Sidi Hammo is a poet of Nature, and to the wild
highlanders of the Atlas his song must have had
a charm of which even Mr. Johnston's transla-
tion can give us no more than a faint and far-oft



echo. Which of us knows the secret of the
country where mountain and river are haunted
by djinoon ? How can we hope to understand
life in which fatalism is the dominant force ?
" Luck, and luck alone, will grant the heart's
desire," sings Sidi Hammo, on behalf of a world
that has no doubt about the matter.

The scenes amid which Sidi Hammo passed a
life that seems to have been blameless and serene
are easy to recall, particularly easy to those of us
who have lived in Morocco and responded to its
fascination. Even to-day, in the heart of the
country, you may see the scribe and singer, the
gifted one who can write the name of Allah, fol-
lowed by an admiring group of villagers and
husbandmen, as he moves in leisurely fashion
by the side of some wealthy farmer or governor
to the shady grove or garden beyond the
village wall. A carpet is spread upon the
ground under an ample fig or almond tree,
the headman and his honoured guest seat them-
selves, and, when the lesser lights of the village
have gathered round within earshot, one negro



slave arranges the little brazier and the copper
kettle, while another brings the brass tray with
its shining glasses. Tea is the proper prelude
to the songs. Somewhere to the right or left one
sees the mighty Atlas with its crown of perennial
snow dominating the scene, but here the beauty
is of a softer kind. The orchard is a place of
poplars and almond trees, of pomegranates whose
scarlet flowers burn 'mid the deep green leaves.
Nightingales are singing, perchance the cuckoo
is calling, the scent of the wild thyme is every-
where. Far off among the lower hills the
shepherd boys, playing upon their awada reeds,
imitate the bird songs they love so well. Tea
ended the singer starts his songs, such songs as
Mr. Johnston has collected here, and there is a
profound appreciative silence among the listeners.
Evening falls, and the eternal pageant of sunset
is renewed on the mountain side, but the singer
holds his own until from out of the gathering
dusk the Mueddin calls to Prayer.

Inner Temple,

Nov. 1906.





WHILE all Berber students of Sidi Hammo re-
gard the whole of his work as a veiled tribute
to Womanhood, it is in his verses addressed
directly to Fadma that the great secret is more
nearly revealed. Although there is every reason
to believe that Fadma really lived, and was the
object of the poet's passionate devotion, it ap-
pears no less certain that in her he materializes
the ancient Berber belief in a female creator,
a veritable Earth Queen for the notion of a
heaven beyond the visible sky would seem to
have formed no part of that philosophy. In the
tongue of the Berber, the sun the most potent
generative force in existence is feminine. Ayor,
the moon, is her son, and mankind are, in a

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sense, truly, the children, but far more em-
phatically the thralls of the universal mother,
the supreme mistress of joy and suffering, the
all-pervading dispenser of pleasure and of pain.

This survival of an ancient cult finds expres-
sion in various forms, notably in the respect,
often amounting to absolute dread, in which
woman is held. It is unnecessary to remind
readers that this position is rarely occupied by
a woman in the Arab social scheme. That very
acute observer, Gerhard Rohlffs, tells us :

" In many Berber tribes it is not the son who
inherits, but the son of the sister, or the son of
the eldest daughter. In other Berber tribes
women have the right to reign. South of
Morocco I found among the Berbers that the
Sauya Karsas, a religious order, and court of
jurisdiction for the region of the river Gehr, was
not administered by its nominal chief, Sidi Mo-
hammed ben Ali, but by a woman named Lalla
(lady) Diehleda, who was really the chief of the
sect. In all matters of importance the Berber
woman has her say, and there is no country in


the world wherein men defer so much to the
opinions and wishes of their wives."

Indeed, to the Berber, every woman is a
possible enchantress, possessed of occult power
to punish as well as to reward. Every married
woman becomes, in the Shilhah vernacular,
tamghart, the feminine form of amghar, sheikh.
The sheikh being the person of highest con-
sideration in the clan, and the official representa-
tive of kingly rule, the inference is obvious.
It should be remarked at the same time, that the
wife, the completed woman, draws her sway
from an unseen, mystic source. Of earth's great
hive, she is the sacred queen bee. She inherits
the occult traditions of countless generations of
her sex, and, wielding some portion of the original
motive power, she is the living symbol of the
Earth Queen Agalidt'n Dounit whereof the
material heroine,

" Fair Fadma, queen of woman and of man,"

is, to the poet, the most dazzling human reflection.
As is pointed out elsewhere, the original diction

2 5


of Sidi Hammo is distinguished by a certain
subtlety which is peculiarly fascinating to the
Berber mind. Its character is essentially elusive,
and calculated of set purpose to veil the mysteries
from the eyes of the uninitiated. He not only
means all he says, but a vast deal more. Of one
thing, we may rest assured. In Fadma, he has
symbolized everything that stands for the glory
of existence, the eternal, throbbing joy of life,
of love, beauty, music, faith, sanctity, mother-
hood ; all that is dearest to the higher soul of
man. Every line proves, too, how deeply philo-
sophy and metaphysics enter into the Berber
life ; elements which have combined, acting upon
a highly imaginative nature, to give so marked a
tone of mysticism to this wonderful people's life
creed : a cult which he has summed up in the

" What is sweeter than heaven now ? What is deeper

than Hell ?
' I love thee,' or, ' I love thce not.' "

It is in this light that we must read Sidi
Hammo. Herein lies his great secret. Fadma



is the beauteous emblem of purest, noblest woman-
hood. She represents the eternal mystery of
existence, of creation, of the Unknown. She is
the object of a cult old as the everlasting hills.
It is a worship far too sacred to be defined, or
even spoken save in parable. None but the
initiated may be allowed to approach the Holy
of Holies.




In the name of Allah, the Compassionate !

May he extend His grace to our Lord Mo-
hammed, to his disciples, and to the composer,
Sidi Hammo, upon whom rest the mercy of


WHEN folks have eaten, some remnants are
left. The life in which I am plunged is one of
memories. The glorious moments have fled into
the realm of the vanished past. The lords of
parables and poesy are no more. Song itself is

To endure is the only remedy. Like unto
silk, which cannot chafe the skin, is the power to
endure. This I say, well knowing that ere long
the wild flowers will sprout above my head.

For every ill the physicians boast a cure. But
for the greatest of all evils for desire, and love,
and death what drug shall avail ?

The sick man longs for grapes, and the lord of
the vineyard denies him so much as a bunch.

3 1


He craves honey, but having stocked no hive he
must go hungry. I beg of the gardener a bloom,
one would suffice me. Says he, " Go your way,
fool. If I gave to all who pass, I should have
none to give." At every door whereat I ask an
alms, they tell me, " The Lord will relieve you.
We are weary of you beggars."

Though one be amid the chills of the tomb, in
the very desolation of Hell, can he picture it ?

Would that my heart had a window. Then
you might see the flame of my desire. Could I
but attain my heart's goal, the world might
perish ! Must we not all die ?

What sin have I wrought, that unless I speak
her name I feel my heart breaking ? Fadma !
Will the lady of the shrine chide the worshipper ?
Why, then, raise so fair a structure ? Yet, as
she were some mighty ruler of whom I begged a
dole, she vouchsafes me not even a word.

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Online LibrarySidi HammoThe songs of Sidi Hammo rendered into English for the first time → online text (page 1 of 3)