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Book Review: A concise history of Abdel-Halim Hafez’s songs, and much more

Dina Ezzat , Friday 8 Nov 2019

As 2019 draws to a close, Ahram Online’s Books section will review some of this year’s well-received titles.

Mawsoat Abdel-Halim Hafez (“The Encyclopaedia of Abdel-Halim Hafez’s Discography”), by Amr Fatehi, Cairo: Al-Karma, 2019.

He was born in 1929, and at 20 he graduated from the Music Institute in Cairo. After two years, he began a singing career that would take him to the heights of stardom in the Arab world.

He went on to pass away suddenly in the spring of 1977 from ill health, at the age of just 47.

Today, close to half of the Egyptian population, and maybe even the Arab world, was born after his sad demise.

Abdel-Halim Hafez, or Halim as his fans used to call him, is perhaps best known for his love songs. However, unlike Charles Aznavour and Frank Sinatra, who he is sometimes compared to, Halim had a very sad life that was punctuated by illness.

Halim was known to be ill, lonely and in pain during his career due to his poor health and his failed love affairs. This added a certain aura to his 200-plus songs.

Over 40 years after his death, Halim’s songs are still very much celebrated, particularly his best-known ones, although those that are still heard on air regularly are usually just a small part of an otherwise very rich and very diverse discography.

This is one reason that makes Amr Fatehi’s book, which came out on what would have been Halim’s 90th birthday, particularly interesting.

The book, which is close to 300 pages long, shows us that while we might think that we know Halim’s songs very well, we are in fact missing out on so much.

Most people today, including people who were alive during Halim’s lifetime, would argue that Safini Mara (“Be Kind to Me if Only Once”) is perhaps Halim’s first song. In fact, this was his 38th song, and it came out on 16 April 1953.

Halim’s first song is actually Zekrayat (“Memories”) which came out on 5 March 1951, when he still went by his original name, Abdel-Halim Shababna. He later decided to change to a name that associated him with a prominent radio anchor of the time, Hafez Abdel-Wahab, to credit his kind support.

Zekrayatis in fact one of 24 songs that Halim performed for composer Abdel-Hamid Tawfik Zaki, whose name is often overlooked when compared to other prominent composers that Halim worked with, including Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Mohamed El-Moguie, Kamal El-Tawil and Baligh Hamdy.

And this is perhaps one of the key points of the book, which is the culmination of six years of diligent research by Fatehi: it shows that the discography of the first three years of Halim’s career is either almost totally forgotten.

Most people would think of songs like Ala Ad El-Shoq (“By The Love in My Eyes”), Fi Youm, Fi Shahr, Fi Sana (“In a Day, a Month or a Year”), or Balash Eitab (“Refrain From the Blame”) when they think of Halim and El-Tawil’s joint work.

Not many would think of Shakwa (“Complaint”), which is the first song that El-Tawil composed for Halim in 1951.

But in addition to telling us about the songs from Halim’s discography that only a few of us would remember, or for that matter even know, Fatehi’s book explains to us why we are confused about the order of his songs, and which came first.

Safini Marais in fact the song that Halim himself credited with attracting the attention of the audience to his art.

Ala Ad El-Shoq, meanwhile, wasthe song that Halim himself said made the audience recognise him as a singer they should follow.

Fatehi also tells his readers that, in addition to his many other songs, Halim did in fact perform songs that were featured as the theme songs of radio programmes, like the comedy show Saa l-Albak (“An Hour for Your Heart”) upon its start in 1952, or of foreign films.

It also informs the readers that Halim had successful duets with female singers like Fayda Kamel and Yossr Tawfik, and not just Shadiah, as many would have thought.

In fact, the book offers its reader a concise resume of these two artists, as it does with every other artist that is mentioned by Fatehi, be they famous or not.

The reader thus begins to realise that Halim’s association with the 1952 revolution was almost instant. His first pro-1952 piece was in November, only four months after the Free Officers’ take-over. It came under the title of “My Blue Collar” – a direct association with the socialism that the revolution aimed to promote, especially in its first years.

Fatehi also informs his reader that Halim was convinced, or at least said, that his patriotic songs were “a contribution to a war” for liberation and development as “they promoted patriotism.”

In fact, Fatehi’s book quotes Salah Jahin, the prominent poet who takes credit for the majority of Halim’s patriotic songs, as saying that, “had it not been for Halim, it might have never been possible for these patriotic songs to echo in the people’s minds and hearts.”

The book is full of rich detail about the way Halim worked his way up to the top of the ladder, and his dedication to modernising and diversifying Egyptian music. It covers his friendships and fallouts with composers, producers and lyricists.

It also has some rather peculiar accounts, including one about Halim’s association with King Hassan of Morocco, for whom Halim performed some birthday songs.

Halim’s movies, and the recordings he made of songs that were originally performed by other singers, like Oum Kalthoum, Farid Al-Atrash and Layla Mourad, are all explained in this book.

This book might well be a detailed handbook of Halim’s discography, but it is in fact much more than that, because it shows a lot about the making of songs and about the artists who take credit for the golden days of Egyptian singers.

The cover, which carries an iconic shot of Halim’s last performance in 1976, when he sang Qariat El-Fingal (“The Coffee-Cup Reader”) is not otherwise very alluring, but despite its rather plain title and its cover, the book is certainly a piece of history that is worth reading.

It is written in easy-to-read language, and has a limited selection of rare pictures of the covers of his musical releases and his film posters.

It is very different from the gossipy and uninformative material that is often written about this iconic singer, whose songs have aged beautifully.

The publisher dedicates the book “to the fans of Abdel-Halim Hafez.” It could have also been dedicated to the memory of a singer whose history deserved a proper, thorough telling, which is what this book sets out to offer.


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