It was 47 years ago, on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, that Abdel-Halim Hafez received one of the greatest ovations of his career with the song “Jesus.”
On 17 November 1967, only a few months after the heavy military defeat that Egypt and other "front line" Arab countries suffered at the hands of the Israeli military, Halim echoed the sentiments of pain that many Arabs felt with a song that recalled the pain of Jesus Christ as he was being crucified. An image of the victim, it was supposed to reflect the suffering of Nasser, the Arab world’s most popular leader ever.
"Jesus" (Massih) was a trademark of the months and years that followed until the death of Nasser in September 1970. It was shelved for decades later, especially after the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal and the rise of political Islam under Sadat that de facto prohibited the glorification of Jesus Christ.
This year, however, as the state-run and private radio and TV channels were marking the 37th anniversary of the death of Halim, the icon of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, 'Massih' — along with many other patriotic songs performed by Halim — was aired repeatedly.
“We have been using a good part of the airtime dedicated to the songs of Abdel-Halim Hafez to play the patriotic songs, and they have been very well received,” said Nadia, a producer at the state-run radio.
Halim is granted no less than three hours per day on the different radio stations, including three fixed items at 7pm, 9pm and 11pm on three respective stations.
During this airtime, Nadia said, the most popular of the patriotic songs have been ‘A People’s Story’ (Hekayet Shaab) that recalls the public support that Nasser garnered to construct the High Dam and ‘The Day had Passed By’ (Adda Elnahar), which Halim performed along with 'Massih' in the wake of the 1967 defeat.
The patriotic songs of Halim are often narration of a story whereby "the leader" — in this case the legendary Gamal Abdel Nasser — and the people with joint dedication surmount difficulties and reverse defeats.
“With the deliberately orchestrated parallel that the state media and private media are trying to draw between Nasser and [Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi, this patriotic section of Halim’s discography is found to be very fitting. And for sure there is a certain mood that is being orchestrated there,” said Ziad Akl, a political sociologist.
It was last autumn that the state media machinery started to design and draw a parallel between Nasser, who is still upheld in the collective Egyptian consciousness as the "leader who cared most for the people," and El-Sisi, who is being portrayed "as the military leader who sided with the public will" to end the disastrous rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Nadia, who asked that her last name to be withheld, the “orders were issued late September, or early October, around that time, to include the patriotic songs in the fixed segments for Halim, as well as in the selected songs aired during the rest of the day.”
According to Akl, it is very clear that around that time the idea of promoting El-Sisi's presidency prospects was being fermented.
During last week, as the anniversary of Halim’s death was marked, starting 30 March, the day he died in a London hospital in 1977, the patriotic songs took over the otherwise rich discography of love songs that are embedded in the minds of hearts of no less than four generations.
“It is true, however, that the overwhelming mood in Egypt these days is a patriotic mood; we cannot overlook this fact,” said Amr Khafaguie, commentator and talk show host on the private ONTV.
Khafaguie’s show this year on Halim’s death anniversary was fully dedicated to the patriotic songs, rather than on the love songs, accented in the show of last year.
“It was unavoidable. This is where the public mood is today. I could not escape it,” Khafaguie said.
According to Khafaguie, the attention that Halim’s patriotic discography is getting goes beyond an orchestrated process by the campaigners of El-Sisi to shed a Nasser aura on the man who is a president-in-waiting. This, he argued, would be an oversimplification of the reach of Halim's patriotic songs.
“Halim’s patriotic songs offer three key themes: victory, defeat and resistance. How you listen to them really depends on where you stand. But for sure, they were no mere propaganda songs,” Khafaugie said.
Halim’s patriotic songs were mostly written by prominent poets Salah Jahin — author of ‘A People's Story’ — and Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi — author of ‘Jesus’. The music was composed and mixed by Kamal El-Tawil, Balighe Hamdi and Ali Ismail.
“They are legends in their own right. Those were no mere propaganda machinery — not by any stretch of imagination. They really felt and believed,” Khafaguie argued.
This is precisely, argues Akl, what the “early campaigners of El-Sisi must have thought of when they opted for Abdel Halim Hafez." “They were keen that the man (El-Sisi) would not be strictly associated with a very poor quality song ‘Blessed Be Your Hands’ (Teslam Alayadi) that was found off-putting even by some of El-Sisi’s hardcore supporters. They had nothing better to offer and they opted for the trusted quality of Abdel-Halim Hafez,” he argued.
“Arts are reflection of the times. The songs of Halim, as those of Oum Kolthoum, were reflections of these years. You cannot expect this quality to be produced in these days. And you may not necessarily secure the same effect of these very songs on the people today as you would have gotten back in the 1950 and 1960s, for sure,” argues Khafaguie.
Writer and theatre-maker Salam Youssri is not expecting the same influence of the Halim songs, or for that matter any other patriotic songs produced at that era — including Oum Kolthoum or the more popular art presented by Imam and Negum — to have the same influence today as they did back then, no matter how many times they are aired.
“There is the state of mind of the people that decides to a great deal the influence. The songs in and by themselves are very beautiful and I have personally loved Halim’s patriotic songs for long. But the impact is a product of the singer and the audience,” he said.
According to Youssri, “It is possible in a very rare moment of time that the impact could be almost reproduced; it happened with the song ‘Picture’ (Soura) of Abdel-Halim that was played over and over again during the 18 days of the January 25 Revolution in Tahrir Square. But that was a moment where the people were in that particular mindset that happened to exactly match the prevailing mood when the song was produced.”
According to both Khafaguie and Youssri, there is always a certain influence that Halim songs — “I think more Halim's voice,” said Youssri — will produce, even in changing times.
Hamdi Hafez, a seller at a music store in Downtown Cairo supports this argument. “We have been seeing a much higher demand for patriotic songs, especially with the anniversary this year. It is probably because these songs are put on air a lot more these days than they used to be during the last 37 years,” he argued.
According to Hafez, some of the songs his clients are asking for have never been produced on CDs — or even on older cassette tapes.
Keenness to stimulate the Nasser era's sense of ultra-patriotism is said by Nadia to have been a source of interest in digging deeper into the “forgotten discs of Abdel-Halim Hafez and to resurrect some of the forgotten songs — mostly patriotic but also love songs."