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Reading an ancient

Egyptian poem
Richard Parkinson, curator, British Museum
Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and
academic traditions do not always help.
The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around
!"# B$ and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant%s
quest for &ustice after his goods are stolen. But its ela'orate style
has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient
words()oca'ulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.
The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum
*o once, when teaching a class in +ermany, , was struck that
when , asked -what does this )erse of poetry mean.% a student
replied -it is a perfecti)e )er'/form%. 0hich is an important fact, of
course, 'ut it is not the total meaning of the poetry 1and not at all
the answer , was looking for23.
4ast year , pu'lished a new commentary on The Tale of the
Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with
the poetry. 5s well as notes on its construction and language, ,
included, among other things, pictures.
,n the poem, the peasant hero is 'eaten with a stick of iser,
-tamarisk%. ,t is a minor detail, unless you )isualise the shru' as
you read, and remem'er 'oth that it is )ery whippy and that it
grows e)erywhere on ri)er 'anks. The poet uses this particular
plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic 'ut also
opportunistic6 the )illain gra's whate)er is to hand to attack the
hero. E)erywhere in the poem, a concrete )isualisation of the
imagery allows the reader to realise the )i)id interconnectedness
of the poet%s thought.
5 tamarisk in the 0adi el/7atrun
The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes
on a single page to help the process of reading as a single
integrated experience6 the reader does not ha)e to flick 'etween
different sections for comments on the grammar, historical
allusions, or possi'le meanings. E)erything the reader needs
appears together in one glance, and , look forward to seeing if this
has worked for students when , take up a new &o' teaching
Egyptology in 8xford.
The a'ility of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere
'etter sensed than inthe mesmeric pri9e/winning film of *hadi 5'd
el/*alam 1:;#3, recently restored 'y the 0orld $inema
<oundation, and they ha)e generously allowed us to include an
image of the actor 5hmed Marei as the frontispiece.
5hmed Marei as the peasant in *hadi 5'd el/*alam%s film= courtesy of the
0orld $inema <oundation and the Egyptian <ilm $entre.
This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original > a
reminder that the poem was written 'y an indi)idual for his
contemporaries 1and not for Egyptologists3. This may e)en 'e the
first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has
included a photograph of a li)ing person. 5nd this li)ing and su'tle
work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian re)olution of
?#. 5s author 5hdaf *oueif noted then, it represents an
Egyptian tradition of non/)iolent protest against any a'use of
authority, and it is, in the words of *hadi 5'd el/*alam, -a cry for
&ustice, a cry that persists throughout the ages%.%