Annachiara Raia: Rewriting Yusuf – A Philological and Intertextual Study of a Swahili Islamic Manuscript Poem [PDF]


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with a foreword by Farouk Topan
AAM Archiv afrikanistischer Manuskripte Volume 12

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XVIII, 665 pp.
1 map, 3 colour photos, 2 colour illustrations, 81 colour facsimile-reproductions, 32 b/w facsimile-reproductions, 1 genealogical chart, numerous figures and tables

Text language: English

This work centres on a long narrative poem, the Utendi wa Yusufu. This is the Swahili version of the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, as he is called in the Old Testament, or the Arabic Yūsuf ibn Ya‘qūb, revered by both Judeo-Christian and Muslim communities. The story has been disseminated all over the world, translated into many different languages and adapted into various genres throughout the centuries, making it one of the most widely-travelled stories of mankind. The story also made its way to the East African coast and became widespread at the beginning of the twentieth century and probably even in the nineteenth. In the context of this work, I will focus on the earliest surviving East African versions of the story that we have, which have been preserved in manuscripts in Arabic script.

In its core, the present study offers the textual history, critical edition and translation of the Utendi wa Yusufu. The poem has been circulated in several manuscripts in Arabic script. Although I will give an overview of all the manuscript versions available, my text edition is based on three manuscripts penned by two different scribes. The manuscripts have never been transliterated, commented on or translated – my work is the first critical text edition of the poem.

The second aim of this monograph is to consider the aspect of adaptation: how is the story, which has been so widely circulated, re-narrated in East Africa and from a Swahili coastal perspective? How did it become part of Swahili intellectual history? How did the Swahili poet transform the text to make it his own? How does the Swahili text differ from the presumably similar text of the Qur’ān or the Qiṣaṣ? Since the story has been so popular and widely diffused throughout the whole area of the Indian Ocean, and translated and adapted over centuries and across continents, the Swahili ‘Hadithi ya Yusufu’ then makes for a riveting case study of appropriation: it is a specific text in a relatively well-known genre, the utendi, which can tell us more about the ‘Swahili’ form of ‘translating’ ‘foreign’ stories into local context. This study of appropriation is text-oriented and has concentrated on two principal intertextual sources of the Utendi wa Yusufu, which are both part of Islamic tradition but pertain to two different genres: firstly, the Holy Qur’ān, and more specifically, the Sūrat Yūsuf, and secondly, the Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyā, a widely-known cycle of literature about the prophets who lived prior to Muhammad.

There have been a number of hints at the intertextual links between the Swahili poem of the ‘Utendi wa Yusufu’ and these Arabic sources. However, my study makes the first attempt to thoroughly examine the interrelationship between the Swahili poem and the two texts. As I will show, focusing on the comparison, the Swahili text differs from both texts quite substantially, both with respect to the presence and absence of motifs, as well as the depiction of the story and its style. Both the liberty that the poet takes in amplifying the text, but also the utendi’s style, its epic length and its episodic structure have a decisive bearing on the story. Finally, I will also consider the implications of the specific modes of adaptation found in the utendi. What do they reveal about the poet’s attitude towards the text?

Under these links you will find further historical and more recent Swahili literature studies:

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