Remembering Mounira Al-Mahdia: Egyptian diva and revolutionary voice

Ahram Online , Saturday 16 May 2020

Better known as 'Sultana of Tarab' or 'The Sultana', Al-Mahdia was born on 16 May 1885 and passed away on 12 March 1965

Mounira Al-Mahdia
Music Diva Mounira Al-Mahdia on the cover of Al-Hessan magazine

16 May marks the 135th birth anniversary of the diva of Egypt's 1920s and 1930s, Mounira Al-Mahdia.

Born on 16 May 1885 as Zakiyya Husayn Mansur, her voice captured millions as she often presented songs expressing her nationalistic passions.

She attended a nuns’ school and became active in theatrical circles at an early age. This is where she acquired her musical knowledge that eventually led to the discovery of her talent. 

She released her first recording in 1906 under the name of Sitt Munira (Lady Munira), though later on she became better known as "Sultana of Tarab" or "The Sultana".

Her first marriage to music manager Mahmoud Gabr helped her solidify her position in the field, allowing Al-Mahdia to become the most sought-after singers of the time, praised by audiences and poets.

Mounira Al-Mahdia
Mounira Al-Mahdia (Photo: Al Ahram)

Al-Mahdia's success was built on several factors. She was the first Egyptian singer to promote what is recognised as "light" music, as opposed to traditional compositions. 

Music and interpretations of Mounira El-Mahdeya marked the beginning of the spread of Egyptian music called "light", which appeared after the Great War and contrary to traditional scholarly music.

She was the first Egyptian woman to have songs recorded on cylinder discs and she stood for women musicians and artists to get their chances in a the male-dominated industry of the time. She was a spokesperson for modernisation and the recognition of women performers.

"In a book on the art of Egyptian singing in the early 20th century, a former dean of the Higher Institute for Arabic Music in Cairo also reflects on the role of Mounira Al-Mahdia, a diva of the time, in promoting the 1919 Revolution, not just through her performances attended by the rich and the growing middle classes, but also through activism that included interventions to secure the release of freedom-fighters and hosting political meetings in her boathouse," writes Dina Ezzat in her 2019 article Egypt's 1919 Revolution: Women’s power, then and now, published in Al-Ahram Weekly.

Mounira Al-Mahdia
Mounira Al-Mahdia (Photo: Al Ahram)

Singing for kings and leaders, she performed in many official celebrations including the National Day of Turkey, during which she sang in front of Kemal Ataturk.

She was among the first women to appear on the cover of Al-Hessan magazine, a publication that focused on women's rights. 

An important cornerstone of Al-Mahdia's career was when she received a role in 1935 film La Coquette (El Ghandourah) starring alongside Ahmed Allam. The film was directed by Mario Volpi.

He performances were not limited to the Egyptian stage, as she often travelled to other North African and Western Asian countries, frequently singing in Morocco and Iraq.

Al-Mahdia died on 12 March 1965 at the age of 80.

Thirteen years after her death, Hassan Al-Imam directed the film Sultana Al-Tarab (1978) recapturing life and career of Al-Mahdia. The film was produced by Sherifa Fadel who also appeared in the leading role.

Mounira Al-Mahdia
Mounira Al-Mahdia (Photo: Al Ahram)

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