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El-Abnoudi's songs: The heart of Egypt and the Arabs

The poetry of Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi has been delivered by lead singers ever since the end of the 1950s. It contributed to recording Egypt’s national battles and shaping its collective consciousness

Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar , Wednesday 16 Apr 2014
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Although poetry is the gospel of the Arabs, its influence on the heart of the nation depends on how it is delivered to the public -- to those who can read and those who cannot. Thus, song has further impacted the heart of the nation thanks to its reaches everyone.

Poets whose verses were sung by lead vocalists of their time had even more influence on their nation's collective conscience than others. Ibn Khaldun was correct in saying, “The first thing to be interrupted in a society when it is disrupted and declining is the song industry.” The song industry, perhaps in a deeper and more immediate way than any other, is an intense and revealing expression of the national condition, of its rise or demise.

When Egypt was boldly advancing to end the monarchy, establish a republic befitting of its prominent historical and civilisational status and throw odious colonialism in the wastebasket of history, literature and art thrived along with the nation's flourishing social, political and economic life. This formed a substantive ground from whence the masters of poetry, literature, music and song from Egypt, and others who immigrated there from sister Arab countries, ascended and soared.

During Nasser's era specifically, the Nasserist project for progress and development on various fronts boosted the capacity for dreaming, poetry, song and music. Despite the lack of true political democracy at the time, the common ground between the Nasserist project and the interests of the people was wide enough to pave the way for public support of Nasser, who became a legendary leader.

In the world of song, cinema, theatre, music, directing and all aspects of art and literature, incredible talents emerged. Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, who appeared at the end of the 1950s, immediately demonstrated a genius for colloquial Egyptian poetry. His uncanny talent was a concentrated expression of the gift of an equally genius people who had formed the dawn of humanity’s conscience, creating a civilisational stockpile and legendary assets of exquisite images and expressions that capture hearts and minds, carrying aloft the most noble values, meanings and situations.

El-Abnoudi’s poetry plays on the strings of the heart, expressing great joy, and deep sorrow at times of defeat – without ever drowning him. Instead, he transforms such emotions into a cauldron of challenge and defiance to open the doors of victory. His poetry boldly soars in free youthful feelings, willing to sacrifice life in defence of the homeland, all things humanitarian, values of freedom, human dignity and social justice, the dreams of ordinary folk who build the glories of this nation and who are the reasons behind its strength and pride.

During Egypt’s national battles, El-Abnoudi was invariably at the forefront of the people's voices, expressing their soul, hopes, sorrows, ability to build and resist. Thus, he was promoted by the people to the exceptional status of prince of the hearts of those who are captivated by vernacular poetry. Through his poetry, which was sung by a generation of leading singers from Egypt and other Arab countries, he achieved outstanding prominence and greatly contributed in building the consciousness of Egypt, its great people and the entire Arab nation.

The High Dam -- Egypt’s grandest project in its modern history and along the long past with which the world's written history begins, and the world's greatest infrastructural feat in the 20th century as admitted even by the Americans themselves who had attempted to obstruct it by all means -- altered the destiny of an entire people. El-Abnoudi’s poetry was the emissary of ordinary Egyptians' dreams and aspirations about the dam. His collection of letters from Haraji El-Got, a labourer at the High Dam, to his wife Fatma Abdel-Ghaffar residing at Jabalayet Al-Far, delved into these dreams.

His poetry -- always a song for the people, never for the rulers -- treated of the dam, of confronting the Zionist enemy, the 1967 defeat, resistance, the war of attrition, the faces of the resistance on the shore, the October War, the Suez Canal, the political settlement by former president Sadat with the Zionist enemy and his subsequent assassination.

His long, rich and creative journey with the legends of Arab song, which will forever remain in our conscience and hearts, saw his collaboration with the immortal prodigy of Arab song Abdel-Halim Hafez on brilliant patriotic, romantic and popular songs. The poet understood Hafez’s professional jealousy and desire to monopolise the greatest of lyricists and composers. Nevertheless, and despite El-Abnoudi’s adoration of Hafez’s voice and the latter's bias towards beauty, nationalism and justice, he remained an uncontrollable flood whose poetry was sung by all the great voices of the time.

Among Hafez' best songs written by El-Abnoudi are “I swear by her skies and soil” and “Your son tells me, oh hero”. Both songs, with music written by Kamal El-Taweel, carry the pledge of resistance and defence of the homeland. “The guns spoke” also asserted a similar call.

However, Hafez' greatest song of all time “The day has passed” remains an exquisite jewel in the crown of national hymns. Written by El-Abnoudi to music by El-Taweel, it was sung by Hafez when Egypt was licking its wounds from the 1967 defeat and shielding itself in its people’s valour and heritage to regain its strength ahead of the war of liberation.

At a time of nationalistic songs celebrating victories that did not exist or odious tunes glorifying the ruler, only a handful of generic patriotic songs such as “My country, I love you” by Mohamed Fawzi and “Travel and see” by Um Kulthoum could be appropriately broadcast. 

El-Abnoudi, however, gave us “The day has passed” – brilliantly performed by Hafez – brooding over the profound pain and injured dignity that afflicted Egypt but ending with a heroic call to resistance, rallying the will of the people to defend their land: “Forever for the day, our nation loves the ode of the day; when it passes in the alleys in front of every house.”

This song, along with two others by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab – “Arms from my country” and “As long as I have hope and my gun” – and two more by Fayza Ahmed – “My Cairo my love” and “Street of Hope” – were the main songs expressing the wound of the defeat while strengthening the will of Egyptians and Arabs to resist and achieve victory out of the impossible.

With Hafez, El-Abnoudi also gave us celebrations of triumph with “Good morning, Sinai” and many others. Together, they additionally delivered some of the best popular and romantic tunes – such as “The hugs of lovers” and “Love is mine”, among others – that made this duo a unique wonder in the charm and beauty of their songs.

El-Abnoudi also had a long track with Fayza Ahmed, the 'Nightingale of the East' who delivered some of the most memorable Arab songs. This legendary chanteuse has a unique voice with an unmatched three-dimensional ring to it surpassing imagination and reaching beyond ordinary human abilities who later surfaced. It is interlaced with deep and tender feelings and adorned with all the beauty of Arab song. It flows with astonishing spontaneity from a singer who appears naturally at ease in song, like a shepherd girl unconscientiously singing to herself in open meadows. Her captivating voice combines both beauty and talent, and even though her strong voice could perform miracles, she always chose songs rooted in feelings and not in exhibition of virtuosity.

El-Abnoudi wrote “My love, oh mother” – a daring tune with raw feelings, as was “He leaned on me”. “He is with me” has the charm, purity and simple emotions of ordinary lovers with its brilliant lyrics that start with, “As long as he is with me, and we share our bread and laughter and drink tea.” “Thinking of you”, which we took for a romantic song, was in fact a gentle reproach to late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It begins with: “Thinking of you, oh great one; but as long as you are so aloof, you will not see my condition, oh dark-skinned one.” The music to all these songs was composed by the great Mohamed Sultan.

In a relatively older radio interview, El-Abnoudi told us his opinion of the singers who sang his poetry and the music writers who transformed his verses into songs that have come to inhabit the emotions of the Arab nation from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. He said that Sultan “transformed my popular songs that Fayza Ahmed sang into a romantic condition. How beautiful it is for vernacular song, with its fresh spirit and popular rhythms, to be coupled with sophistication, majesty and romance.”

With the great singer Shadia, there were several songs including “Not even 100 compare to you, oh hazel-eyed one” and “The girl is a lump of sugar”. But the two best works with this wonderful chanteuse are “He said goodbye to me”, for which Mohamed El-Mogui, one of the greatest Arab musicians ever, composed the music; and “Oh, dark-skinned one” by another great composer, Baligh Hamdi. “He said goodbye to me” tells of a man who learns the bitterness of saying goodbye to loved ones when he is arrested, which El-Abnoudi immortalised in this unforgettable song to El-Mogui’s sorrowful tune and Shadia’s magical, heartfelt performance.

Nagat El-Saghira, with her warm soft voice described by El-Abnoudi as diamond-like, sang several of his songs. The most stunning of those was “The sun will once again rise” which was largely taken for a romantic song although it was the poet’s way of expressing his deep sorrow over the disintegration of the leftist movement and his demand for freedom and justice in the 1960s. In it, he is hopeful the movement would return to defend the rights of the people. His even greater song by Nagat is “The eyes of the heart”, better known among younger generations.

With the late Warda, who had a strong voice with remarkable texture, El-Abnoudi gave us several amazing songs, most prominently “Before Today” – a sweet dedication to his current wife Nihal Kamal in which he declared his feelings towards her as though his life had only begun with their encounter.

El-Abnoudi was prolific with his companion and the one closest to his grassroots spirit, the late Mohamed Rushdi. Best known are “The night the dear one came to me and knocked on the door”, “Adawiya”, “From my hometown”, “Silver chains”, “Make way for light” and “Waheeba”. The beginning of “Waheeba” details a charm only known to rural folk when describing a spring night: “Night is falling on the houses and meadows, the crescent moon whispers to the crops; your sleepy eyes that snub, and the eyes of all the men in the village are awake; standing under the tree wondering, is this an orange or my heart.”

With the generation of Mohamed Mounir, Ali El-Haggar, Hani Shaker and Mohamed Tharwat, El-Abnoudi gave us some of the best patriotic, romantic and popular songs. The theme song to the series Zifta Republic, sung by the charming Mounir, is perhaps that generation's most stunning of songs by El-Abnoudi.

If we look at what El-Abnoudi offered these great singers, and others, we can honestly say that the contributions of this innovative explosive talent and rebellious wild spirit in forming the consciousness of Egypt and the Arab nation gives him sublime status. It makes him a genuine river of creativity and munificence, a valuable ingredient of the soul of a nation that formed the dawn of all human conscience.

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