From the weddings and the Cabarets of Egypt in the early 1900s: 10 artists, musicians, singers, actors and dancers take us back to that golden age.
Directed by Hisham Jaber
Sayyed Darwish is one of Egypt’s greatest musicians, and father of its popular music. ‘Cocaine’ is one of the most representatives of Sayyed Darwish’s practical manifesto. He was against music that hailed platonic ideals and classical tunes, and wrote alternatives that represented his reality. In this song in particular, one can easily notice his shift from the ideal ‘Habibi/Your Eyes/Your Heart’ to a musical language that controversially fits more contextual slang such as ‘Tokh/Nokh/Donkey’. Like Darwish was known to write songs that represent all types of people, singing for the employees, poets, carpenters, and more, this is a song for the cocaine addicts and their prosecution by the authorities.
This is a song from the film, “Miracle of the Sky.” It’s somewhat of a nursery rhyme, a children’s song demonstrating what happens to children when they don’t listen to their parents. For example, the song starts with a little bird playing with a cat even though his mother told him not to. The cat ends up scratching him… so on and so forth. In the film, Mohamad Fawzi sings the song in a garden surrounded by a chorus of children repeating the song’s catchy rhymes, “Saw Saw” and “Naw Naw” representing a bird’s and a cat’s sounds respectively.
‘Ya Kharga Men Bab El Hammam’ is a song from a film titled ‘Lehbat El Sett,’ meaning ‘The Dame’s Game’ that was a major turning point in its leading role’s professional life. Taheyya Karioka, well known for her cabaret belly dancing and political activism at the time had never sung before. For this film however, she was convinced by the director ‘Wali Al Deen Sameh’ to sing using her own voice, and not playback using a surrogate vocalist’s as was the norm at the time. To convince her, ‘Sameh’ asked composer ‘Mahmoud Al Sharif,’ her friend from the days of her performances at the ‘Cabaret Badia’ to write the song and accompany her on the oud so she feels comfortable. Even after the song and its film were great successes, Taheyya turned down singing offers by greats such as Abdel Wahab.
Based on the first instalment of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, ‘Bein Al Qasrein’ (Palace Walk) is a film set in Cairo during the First World War. The scene from which this song is extracted is quite a sarcastic zoom-in on early 1900s Egypt. It depicts a cabaret-like setup that the Hishik Bishik Show resembles a lot, with dancers, musicians and a singing Lolita, alluringly chanting about her father. She tells the man she’s seducing that he must not get close because her father’s behind her – that he’s a very vicious man when it comes to protecting her. It’s a scene of duality and social schizophrenia. The songstress threatens the prey she is seducing with traditional societal customs, yet while dancing and singing, they voluntarily break them all.
Cheikh Koufa’a” is a political and satirical song mocking the foreseen transformation of an entire community. Sayed Darwish sings to and about the Egyptian higher class as it adopts new and “improved” values following the French occupation. In this song, French pronunciations are used instead of the authentic and actual arabic pronunciations as a way of ridiculing those who gave in to the transfiguration of their national identity. The Rs and Ks are pronounced differently, but that’s not all, Sayed Darwish also slips a couple of english and french words like “Casquette”, “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” and “Finish” to emphasize on the fact that languages are blending in as much as foreign values.
This song first appeared in the film ‘Laylat El Henna,’ (Night of the Henna) performed by Shadia in an exceptionally elegant cabaret setting, where she walks between the tables wearing an evening gown, surrounded by synchronized belly dancers. Shadia sings to a beautiful Hassan, a song of yearning from a charmed victim to a tough, nonchalant lover. She lists her playboy’s victims as she dances and sings, knowing he is never going to change.
Horiyya Hassan’s cheeky performance of this song in the film “Bahebbak Ya Hassan” (I love you Hassan) portrays a story of love between two neighbours. While Horiyya’s heart flutters when she sees her lover on the building stairs, she must keep her infatuation to herself so that the neighbours don’t notice their love. In her song, she speaks of sneaky glances from balconies and climaxing anticipation until the lover knocks on her door with his parents to ask hers for her hand in marriage. While lyrically, it’s a representation of the typical conservative façade of the Arab world, in the film, the scene is a collaborative, joyful fiesta where all the neighbours turn into musicians and dancers accompanying her, very publicly, in their houses and on their
This song is a tongue twister, and quite naturally its performer, Nagah Al Mogi is in fact a comedian, not a vocalist. It’s a melodic monologue from the film “Shawareh Min Nar” (Streets of Fire) where Mogi performs the rhyme on stage in a cynical manner to a crowd of gangs. It sounds like it’s describing a story about a group of people as told by a man called Hankoura. Sometimes the sentences make sense, and at others, even to versed Egyptian slang speakers, they remain simply word assemblies to accomplish a rhyme.
This song is from a scene from the film “Lahn Al Wafaa” (The tune of loyalty). Here, the scene doesn’t really illustrate the song. Marie Ezzedine beautifully performs the song on stage with a classical belly dancer entourage to a seated audience, while singing the story of a handsome man on the balcony, abiding by the longing-for-the-lover leitmotif in Egyptian music. What’s interesting here though is that unlike the usual set-up where the female figure is the unattainable, far personality, the man is the mysterious character on the balcony, letting the woman do whatever possible for him to appear.
Salah Jahin was a leading Egyptian poet, lyricist, playwright and cartoonist. This song is a lesser-known gem of his body of work. A Pianolla is an accordion that plays automatically with a crank and was popular among street performers in Egypt. The song is about a very tired street performer that despite being hungry and poor will always dance, sing and entertain, with the chorus, “Kidaho, Kidaho, Kidaho,” literally meaning “Like this! Like this! Like this!”
In a scene from the film, “I’tarafat Zawj” (Confessions of a Husband), platinum blonde Tita Saleh coyly walks around an equally elegant crowd singing to her tender lover, “Remember when you kissed my head so it healed?” She dances to comedian Fouad El Mohandess’s banjo guitar solo as both entertain the rather complacent aristocrat audience in a domestic setting. With exaggerated rhymes and pronunciation, Tita flirts and meddles with both men and women in her audience, while singing to her absent, tender lover.
In the film “Al Telmeeza” (The Student) Shadia’s character is in love with Hassan, a young man from a wealthy family. As his family refuses his marriage from someone of a lower social class, their relationship is almost impossible. In this song, she sings to him, telling him that she’s come ahead of time to their rendezvous because she wants to see him arrive. She wants to hold his hands, and feel him close. In her song, she narrates a transformation from informality to formality, as if reciting her metamorphosis from shabby to chic. She puts on a good dress, wears heals and does her hair. Finally, with a slight pause, she confesses that every Thursday, she dreams of him as her beautiful groom.
‘Ya Mostapha’ is a multilingual song written in French, Italian and Arabic. Made famous by Bob Azzam in 1960, its cheeky lyrics, “Chérie je t’aime, chérie je t’adore – como la salsa del pomodoro” (Darling, I love you, darling, I adore you – like tomato sauce) are said to represent the absurd cosmopolitan colonial times of Egypt, hailed by the monarchy and ridiculed by the nationalists who eventually took power, overthrowing King Farouk and his version of la dolce vita.
The image of Oum Kolthoum is rarely one of movement and physical expression. She is iconified within her evening-gown performances with a mysterious handkerchief on stage. This song however shows Oum Kolthoum as a dynamic figure in an interactive dialogue where her song is in fact a series of answers to questions such as, “Is the kiss Halal or Haram?” The song sets her on a different type of pedestal, Halal being ‘okay’ religiously, and Haram the condemnable opposite, she must be of high authority for her answers to be legitimate. “Is love Halal or Haram?” In the song, she allows both in abundance, and acts as a controversial female priestess for the inquiring Bedouin tribe.
‘Mashrabshi El Shay,’ is another song showing peculiar intersections between East and West, this time declaring, “I don’t drink tea, I prefer drinking “gazouza” (with reference to “boisson gazeuse” or soda”. Layla Nazmi offers a cheeky performance of the popular song, flirting with the concept of an alternative to the existing savoir-vivre of a young Arab woman.
Layla Nazmi performed this song in a grand concert in January 16, 1971 celebrating the completion of the Aswan Dam project. It’s a song that deals humorously with prejudices in Egyptian society through light comparisons between the singer and her ‘opponent’ in grabbing the groom. “If she’s whiter than me, some powder will whiten me,” she says, followed by “If she’s taller than me, some heels will make me taller.”
“El Tochti Alli” is a song originally performed in the egyptian movie “Adrift on the Nile” which was released in the early 70s. The plot of the film revolves around a group of people wanting to escape from the surrounding ignorance and so they gather at a meeting point and experience life through hashish, alcohol and music. The film is thought to be a direct critique of the art suppression and censure during the Jamal Abdel Nasser period. “El Tocthi Alli” is a song about a woman being invited to take a shower by the water basin
‘Salametha Oum Hassan’ is one of Ahmad Adaweyya’s most famous songs, with over a million cassettes sold. In an interview in ‘Al-Siyasa’ newspaper, he said that he became popular because his music talks to the working class from which he receives his authority directly. “The working class wants to listen to my music under the heat of the sun,” he states, “not [like classical Tarab] under candle-light.” In this song in particular, Adaweyya comforts “Oum Hassan” (Hassan’s mother) and prays she gets better after she has been affected by envy and ‘the evil eye.’ In ‘Salametha Oum Hassan,’ Adaweyya speaks in Egyptian street slang, like all of his songs, making his work very representative of the urban reality of his time, sans institutionalized moral paradigms.
This song is part of Egyptian folklore, and as it passed from generation to another, it acquired many meanings depending on its context. Its principle refrain translates to “the doorstep is glass and the stairs are made of nylon,” which got fans and sceptics into an interesting dilemma. Some say it means that the glass refers to something neat and expensive while nylon is cheap, implying that although the façade looks good, inside is the opposite. Others link glass and nylon’s fragility (as material) to the poor social conditions of Egyptian youth getting ready to get married. The rather controversial explanations take the marriage theory into another dimension, explaining the nylon stairs as a woman’s pantyhose and the fragile glass doorstep as her virginity.
Ziad El Ahmadiye: Music Arrangement | Vocals & Oud
Yasmina Fayed: Vocals
Ziad Jaafar: Violin | Vocals
Bahaa Daou: Percussions
Samah Abi El Mona: Accordion
Lina Sahab: Vocals
Roy Dib: Vocals
Ahmad Khateeb: Vocals
Randa Makhoul: Oriental Dancer
Hisham Jaber: Artistic Director
Wissam Dalati: Costume Designer
Nadim Saoma: Visuals and Light Design
Elia El Haddad: Sound Engineer
Lara Nassar: Stage manager and Light operator
Iyad Cheikh: Stage Technician
Hagop Jinbashian: Stage Technician
Sarah Nohra: Production Manager
Marjane Shatila: Assistant Production
Lara Nohra: Marketing
Poster Designer: Regina Semaan