The Utendi wa Yusufu. A Critical Edition of the Swahili Poem of Yusuf and a Study of its Adaptation at the Swahili Coast.


Annachiara Raia

Research Area:


The story and figure of Yusuf (or Joseph in Christian tradition), has been travelling across time and space. Its popularity in the lands of Islam gave birth to many ‘native’ versions in Berber, Swahili, Persian, Urdu, Malay and Javanese. Adapted and re-adapted several times through the 19th 20th and 21st century, the Utendi wa Yusuf has been an important and popular text at the East African Coast. The oldest existing witnesses on the story in Swahili poetry are manuscripts in Arabic script dating back the first half of the 20th century and ascribed to a famous artist, musician and poet from Lamu on the so called northern Swahili coast. A complete critical edition of the Utendi wa Yusuf has never been published until now. The transliteration and translation of the poem consisting of 729 stanzas, are the departure points framing the first section of my PhD research project focused on the common theme of the ‘linguistic adaptation’. From this perspective, I will look at poem’s versions considering the manuscripts layout and the stanzas arrangement of the narrative, the Swahili orthography conventions in Arabic script, the linguistic register and style.
A second section of my PhD research project will investigate the intertextuality cross-references with which the story is interlinked and shaped by. Considering that any encounter with a text is an act of appropriation, how the story is re-presented at the Swahili coast, across geographical, temporal and cultural borders? Although the author clearly attested to have used both the Qur’an (Sura twelfth) and the Old Testament (Genesis 37-43) as his ‘sources’, the imitation of exemplars and role models drew beyond the religious texts, including Arabic literary prose texts and Persian motifs. The cultural encounter of foreigner stable texts with the Swahili re-reading opens up to a number of questions about the story inter-reading and dialogue: which ‘stories’ the Swahili narrative poem stem from? Which role do quotations and allusions to previous-texts play within the new narrative? Relying on imitatio as the creative practice aiming at transformation rather than reproduction, how the Swahili utendi genre shapes the new narrative and which meaning did the poet make out?
The research is aimed at filling an important gap and making the Swahili version of the text available to comparative studies with other adaptations from the Indian Ocean area and beyond. Following this path, the project may contribute to consider the ‘adaptation’ as an important means of mediating new concepts, given that no one has hitherto considered ‘adaptation’ as a transcultural process in Swahili intellectual history.