Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Me

by Amina Goodyear

Who is Mohamed Abdel Wahab? When I think of Mohamed Abdel Wahab (1901-1991), in my mind, I imagine a young man wearing a red tarboosh, a striped necktie, and a dark cashmere suit with a white hanky in the breast pocket. This is the name of an Egyptian singer, actor, musician and composer who has been in my life, that is, my dance performing life (1966 - present), since day one. Who was this person, this enigma, this hero, this antagonist? I first met him, or rather, his music, on stage while dancing at the Bagdad in San Francisco. My boss, Yousef Kouyoumjian, violinist and owner of the club was playing Fantasy Nahawand, which was composed by Mohamed Abdel Wahab. 

I was a brand-new dancer who didn't know much about Arabic culture, Arabic music, the Arabic language or even the food, for that matter. In fact, I could hardly remember my newly given Arabic name which was Amina. In those days, I actually had to write it down in order to remember it. And here I was, dancing to a song called Fantasy Nahawand. It was a beautiful song with many mood and rhythm changes and invoked images of foreign and exotic places, but what did Nahawand mean? At least "fantasy" was an English word. Nahawand must have been a place, I guessed, in Arabia. Over time, I learned I was so wrong, but also so right. Nahawand was the name of a maqam.  Great! What was a maqam? Easy! A maqam is a musical mode, much like a musical scale such as do, re, mi, fa, sol, but really it's not. A maqam is kind of like a place, and it travels on the musical scales. But it also can take side trips such as half a note up, quarter note down and back up again, but this time flat, as in A flat, or E half flat and so on. It can sound much like playing the cracks between the black notes on the piano keys and in some instances, to the Western ear, it can sound out of key. But when these meandering weird notes are all put together, they are really mesmerizingly beautiful in sound and even very addictive to the ear. 

This was my introduction to Arabic culture, language, and music. It seems like it is what it is, but really it's just complicated and vague. So, back to Mohamed Abdel Wahab's song Fantasy Nahawand. It was a beautiful exotic dance piece and Nahawand was not a place in Arabia, it was a maqam, and a lot of Arabic melodies that kind of sounded Western in an Oriental way were in Nahawand. Enough said on Nahawand and maqam, I just wanted to explain my feelings about how I heard the song and its relationship to me, who was at that time, an American novice belly dancer. 

Yes, I knew who Mohamed Abdel Wahab was. To me, he was an Egyptian composer who seemed to compose Orientalist type music. But what I later learned was that he was much more important and he was called the "father of modern Arabic song" and he was indeed a pioneer. He single-handedly crossed the bridge between traditional Arabic music (traditional Arabic music that was already influenced by the music of Egypt's conquerors of the Ottoman Empire) and the music of the West. He was loved and revered by many for his innovations and others abhorred him because of his innovations. 

"No city has a more active café life than Cairo. Even in the morning the little iron tables on the pavement are thronged. Whenever you pass a cafe there are numbers of tarbushes to be seen both outside and inside. A few people may be playing dice or dominos. But the mass are reading newspapers and talking politics" ("Middle Eastern Cities 1900-1950" by British visitor Fyfe 1911, quoted from Ayalon 1997)

Growing up in Cairo in the early 1900's, Abdel Wahab was a product of this multi-cultural environment with its "beautiful people". The people were probably the same people as the people of the "cafe society", in Paris, London or other European large cosmopolitan cities in the early 1900's. These people left a huge cultural and musical impression on him. At that time, many of Cairo's educated elite wished to emulate the sophisticated Europeans and Abdel Wahab was no exception. 

It really wasn't until the revolution in 1952, that the city really embraced Egyptianess. Before that, it was built by and inhabited by almost everyone but the Egyptians. So it only seemed natural for Abdel Wahab to be influenced by others. Architecturally, the modern part of Cairo is European in lay-out and in character and Cairo's elite were European in influence, as well dressed men in suits sporting walking sticks and finely coiffed women in European garb contributed to the cosmopolitan scenery of the city. These were the beautiful people and Abdel Wahab wanted to and spent his early days fitting in with the scenery. It only seemed fitting that he, as well as many of his colleagues, had become enamored of things European such as their music. He grew up near Muski in Cairo which was close to Ezbekiya Park, a neighborhood known for its cluster of musical theaters and also for the Sha'rani mosque. His father and uncle, both imams at the mosque, exposed him to koranic recitations and hymns, but Abdel Wahab, the bohemian, was more drawn to the theater and was known to sing "art songs" during the theatrical shows' intermissions. Growing up and wanting to be sophisticated and culturally advanced like Egypt's colonists made Abdel Wahab the composer that we know today. These were his formative years and these were the years that he experimented with fusing Arabic music with that of the West.

His mentor, the prominent "Prince of Poets" Ahmed Shawqi (1868-1932), was European educated and was known for admiring and studying Shakespeare while maintaining Arabic literary tradition and the qasida. Ahmed Shawqi, Cairo's poet laureate, took the young and impressionable Abdel Wahab under his wing and exposed him to classical music and other aspects of Western culture. He even allotted his young protégé', Abdel Wahab, a suite in his home in Giza so Wahab could fully immerse himself in the fusion of Eastern/Western culture. 

In Shawqi's circle, Abdel Wahab was eventually given the opportunity to sing and perform a qasida with a full range of emotional and artistic license. A qasida is a form of lyric poetry originating in pre-Islamic Arabia. The classic form of qasida maintains a single elaborate meter throughout the poem in which every line rhymes. I believe that Mohamed Abdel Wahab also wanted to be part of Ahmed Shawqi's world, and after visiting Paris himself, Abdel Wahab was filled with new inspirations. He broke with tradition and introduced a more lighthearted romantic image and westernized sound to the long-suffering angst called Arabic music. And so, Mohamed Abdel Wahab found his musical roots in Cairo, a city that in certain neighborhoods in the early 1900's was probably more European in feeling than it was Egyptian.

When I think about the cafes, casinos and salas in Cairo around Mohamed Ali Street, Ezbekiya Park and Emad el Din Street, I wonder about Cairo's "beautiful people". When I imagine those "beautiful people", the men in their suits, a carnation in the lapel, their tarbooshes and walking sticks, the women in their fancy French bejeweled silk couture gowns, furs (yes, even in Cairo), silk stockings, high heels and finely coiffed hair, I imagine the days of Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Om Kalthoum, Farid, Asmahan, and King Farouk. I imagine elaborate salons and dinner parties in villas as well as the salas around Opera Square. And always there was entertainment. In the salas there may have been revues with multiple dancers, but there were always singers who sometimes accompanied the dancers just as seen in the Egyptian black and white movies. There was Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Farid, Asmahan, Mohamed Fawzy, Karim Mahmoud and more. Maybe there was even Om Kalthoum (1901-1975). Yes, even Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Om, the great diva, sang in clubs around Opera Square.

Those days when the "beautiful people" were listening to Django Reinhardt, Billie Holliday Josephine Baker and Lena Horn in Europe and America, Cairo's "beautiful people" were starting to listen to the tangos of Abdel Wahab and his fellow singers in Cairo's clubs that embraced the European sounds.

Artists can't always live without patrons and artists such as Abdel Wahab, Farid and Asmahan fell into this category. They probably were "sitting with the customers". And yes, there was drinking, smoking and gambling as well since these were cosmopolitan times. For sure Cairo was a very different city than it is now. It was a party town and King Farouk and his Kingdom enjoyed its parties. Asmahan was a new up and coming threat to Om's kingdom as she was younger and considered more beautiful. Although she had an incredible voice, it was often inferred that she was hired for other than her voice. And Mohamed Abdel Wahab was known to be a ladies' man and a fine dresser replete with the tarboosh. He was a symbol of the gentleman left over from the Turkish Empire. He was an Egyptian gentleman wishing to be European. And although it was rumored that Om Kalthoum was in love with someone from the King's court, she maintained her dignity by remaining the bint il beled. Bint il beled is not just a name of one of Abdel Wahab's songs, it also means the "daughter of the country" and implies that the girl/woman is modest, honorable and chaste. Om especially chose to clothe herself in more traditional and conservative clothing and did not openly party as her peers did. She chose to keep the image of bint il beled.

As Abdel Wahab experimented and gained in popularity in his new avant-garde musical forms, he almost single-handedly transformed the music not only in Egypt, but also throughout the Arab world from the Maghreb to Iraq. So when he was inventing a new sound, a westernized sound, his archrival Om was struggling to stay on top by maintaining her beledy and traditional roots.

I picture a westernized Abdel Wahab wearing a tarboosh in the movie "The White Rose" Al Ward al Baida. This film, made in 1933, was one of the first talking films made in Egypt. It was also a groundbreaking movie because it was a musical. Before this film, music could only be recorded in short blips available on 78-rpm records. This film with the ability to record longer passages totally revolutionized the musical recording industry and with Abdel Wahab as the composer, it revolutionized the style of music being created. The musical scores were copied after Western compositions with everything written and set whereas traditional Arabic music and song relied on improvisation 

In this film, Abdel Wahab is just an impoverished clerk, educated, wearing a suit and a tarboosh, but nevertheless, just a clerk, who falls in love with a woman of higher class who is the daughter of his employer. He woos her through song, but who is he? He's only a clerk and an amateur part-time musician. A famous scene in the movie shows him looking for inspiration and guidance from a few photos in his apartment. One is of Abdu al Hamuli (1836-1901), Abdel Wahab's musical "grandfather" considered to be the father of modern Arabic music and another is of Sayed Darwish (1892-1923), whose legacy Abdel Wahab inherited when he filled Sayed Darwish's role of Antonio (in Antony and Cleopatra) upon Sayed Darwish's untimely and early death. 

In the film, Abdel Wahab finally won the heroine when he moved from the role of amateur to professional musician. The songs in the film broke away from authentic Arabic music tradition and merged with Western musical and rhythmic ideas including the use of Latin rhythms. Abdel Wahab not only created a stir as he broke away from the traditional improvisational elements of Arabic song with his written compositions, but he also broke all box office records. This movie that was the first musical and transitional film from the silents to the talkies, also inspired his rival, Om Kalthoum. She was soon to consider appearing in movies also and starred in her first film "Widad" in 1936 in order to improve upon her "waning" popularity. In her films she left traditional Arabic music behind as she sang with huge Western style orchestras rather than with the traditional Arabic takht. A takht was the traditional Arabic ensemble usually comprised of four or five musicians playing the oud, the kanun, the nai, the kamanja and the riq.

When I hear music, any kind of music, I generally envision stories or at least emotions. I am a visual dancer. I see stories in the music and Mohamed Abdel Wahab gave me many stories as he transitioned from his pure traditional Eastern musical roots and invented new music by including his much loved Westernized compositions - some of which sounded literally lifted from various European and Russian scores. 

Mohamed Abdel Wahab died in May 1991 and coincidentally in August 1991 I produced my Second Annual Dancing Fashion Show A Tribute to the Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab. The music I chose for the opening vignette was Hazihi Laylati, "This is my Night" (1968 for Om Kalthoum). In this classic piece one can hear the modern sounds of the electric guitar, accordion, something sounding like castanets, the rumba beat and of course maqsoum, the all pervading, all time favorite modern dance beat, combined with the traditional Arabic instruments, rhythms and the Tarabic voice of "The Star of the East", Om Kalthoum. His genius was his ability to effectively integrate a wide variety of foreign styles and instrumentations with authentic Arabic music that also included Om's great and traditional voice. 

We may know Om Kalthoum's songs mostly as the ones written by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, but the truth is that Abdel Wahab didn't even start writing for Om until around the last ten years of her life. They were roughly the same age and shared experiences with the many changes in Egyptian cultural and political history from the Ottoman Empire through British colonialism, King Farouk's decadence and Nasser's liberating regime. They shared parallel careers in Cairo. But they also suffered from that old syndrome of "there can only be one number one star". They had a major difference in viewpoints in their approach to the music. Where Om essentially tried to keep her music culturally intact, Abdel Wahab was experimenting with fusing Arabic music with European and Russian compositions and adding a large European symphonic sound and modern instruments such as the accordion, the keyboard, the saxophone, and the electric guitar.  But because of Egypt's political problems, it seems that nationalism and President Nasser finally brought the two competitive stars together. 

They bonded and put aside their decades long rivalries and differences more for the sake of Egypt than for art and collaborated with the song Enta Omri, "You are my Life". This song is thought by some to be the best lyrical music ever written. Enta Omri was the first song Abdel Wahab wrote for Om and it became one of their most popular works. This was in 1964 and the song was written when they both were already over sixty years of age. Many people consider their careers are over when they're in their sixties. For Om and Abdel Wahab, it was only another chapter in their life. Here we have Om singing one of her greatest songs, Enta Omri, You are my life", at the ripe age of 64 years. 

A year later in 1965 Om Kalthoum sang Amal Hayati, "Hope of my Life", which was also written by Mohamed Abdel Wahab. In the next ten years Om sang what I consider to be some of my favorite songs of all time. She sang them when she was in her sixties and seventies and they were written by Mohamed Abdel Wahab who was also the same age.

Most of the music we use and find in CDs today really is from a 50-year span of time between 1940 to about 1990. This time span started with the boom of Egypt's Golden Age of Cinema with music, romantic lead singers and dancing girls. It came from Egypt's glorious and impressive black and white movie musicals and Badia Masabni's theatrical spectaculars. We must remember that Mohamed Abdel Wahab and his contemporaries such as Farid el Atrash and even Om Kalthoum, "cut their teeth" in the theatres adjoining Mohamed Ali Street. And due to the budding film industry's limited resources and budgets, often-times Badia's wonderful revues were what we saw in the Golden Age black and whites movies. We can thank these films for keeping and preserving some of the songs from that time, otherwise they might have never have been recorded. Today, usually if we hear a great new piece it usually is a cover of an older song from that earlier time span. 

With the exception of Abdel Halim Hafez (1929-1977) who was in and out of his life and who also in later years became a good friend, Abdel Wahab only wrote songs for female singers and for himself. Abdel Halim was the only male singer exception. I learned that Abdel Wahab had made it a point to record himself singing a song that he would give to another singer. I suppose this was his way of showing proof of ownership or was some sort of early copyright protection.

Maybe because I started performing in the sixties it was quite natural for the musicians to play all the popular songs from "back home". Remember that these musicians were the new immigrants and they were remembering the songs and happiness of their youth. I enjoyed trying to recreate scenes from films using the colorful and visual songs of Mohamed Abdel Wahab. It was great, very satisfying and enjoyable to realize that my musical education was happening at the same time that this music was coming into being.

In the seventies Om Kalthoum and Abdel Halim died. Abdel Wahab outlived them and remained composing. With the exception of Min Gehr Leh which he released just before he died in 1991, he had pretty much stopped singing. And in the seventies, I had decided that I didn't want to continue dancing because I was getting old. After all, who wanted to look at a 35-year-old dancer? Certainly not me! The audience craved young dancers. So I quit dancing. I quit for all of almost a week and lay on my living room sofa depressed, thinking my life was over. I lay in the dark playing my favorite song of all time, Cleopatra, which was written by....Mohamed Abdel Wahab, of course! In the dark, amidst my tears of depression and despair, I heard Abdel Wahab talking to me, singing to me, playing for me with absolutely spellbinding and hypnotic music and lyrics. Laylouna khamron, we ashwaakon toughanni hawlana. "Our night is wine and surrounded by singing desires". and then it repeated over and over: toughanni, toughanni, toughanni, "sing to me, sing to me, sing to me". How could I quit dancing? Abdel Wahab was telling me to continue and so I immediately called Yousef and told him I needed to come back to work. I didn't care if I was 35; I wasn't ready to quit just yet. Abdel Wahab didn't want me to. He was saving my life.