Aznavour and Egypt

Mohamed Salmawy
Thursday 11 Oct 2018

The connection of Charles Aznavour to the Arab world, and Egypt in particular, was deep, but skipped in commentaries after his recent death

I was amazed to find that French media coverage of the life of the legend of French chanson, Charles Aznavour, who passed away 1 October, mentioned nothing on his frequent visits to Egypt.

Reports spoke at length of his worldwide tours: to the US, Japan, all European countries, as well as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But Egypt was left out, although he visited it at least three times.

The first time was in 1952, before he made his ascent as one of the most celebrated singers in France. He was accompanying the French Umm Kalthoum, Edith Piaf, for whom he was a songwriter. Piaf performed a single concert, in that visit, at the American University in Cairo’s Ewart Hall.

Aznavour’s last visit to Egypt was in 2008. On that occasion, I invited him and his family to stay at my small farm in Dahshour, amidst the palm groves in that idyllic rural area near the foot of the eternal Dahshour Pyramids and remote from all the to-do of hotels, the theatre and formal parties.

The French artist’s connection with the Arab world and its artists remained uninterrupted between that first and last visit. He was infatuated with Umm Kalthoum whose music, he told me, he first heard during a visit to Morocco.

He was a friend of Farid Al-Atrash and he met Fairouz and her husband, Assi Rahbani, during a visit to Lebanon. He related to me the occasion of his visit to their home in Bikfaya.

By the time Aznavour came to Cairo in 2008, aged 84, he had become as much a symbol of France as Umm Kalthoum was a symbol of Egypt and Louis Armstrong (who also visited Egypt) was an American symbol.

His concert at the Cairo Opera House thrilled and enchanted audiences and, the following day, he expressed how much this pleased him as we strolled beneath the winter sun amidst the Dahshour palm groves. He began to take pictures of Sneferu’s pyramid, which is unlike any of the other Egyptian pyramids. 

“At my age, this camera is my memory which doesn’t forget anything,” he said. In response to his question about Sneferu, I said that he was the father of Khufu, the first to build a true pyramid after the phase of stepped pyramids in the Old Kingdom. Khufu used his father’s “Red Pyramid” as a model for the Great Pyramid of Giza.

“I know the son, of course. But not the father,” Aznavour said, adding: “Which shows you how young I am!”

Some may not know that Aznavour had a difficult time at the outset of career when he was ridiculed for his short stature, unattractiveness, and that gravelly quivering voice that grated on ears familiar with the then popular silky vocal style of French crooners such as Jean Sablon and Tino Rossi.

Aznavour, the son of Armenian immigrants from Georgia in the Soviet Union and originally named Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, told me that he was so pained by the attacks against him in his early career that he decided to leave France.

He chose Canada as the place of his voluntary exile and spent the next five years honing his talents and simultaneously expanding his intellectual horizons through reading.

When he returned to Paris, Edith Piaf was the first to notice his unique musical and poetic gifts. She performed some songs that he wrote for her which, in turn, drew attention to him.

He then began to sing his own compositions. But it was La Mamma, which he wrote in the early 1960s, that catapulted him to the front ranks of French vocalists, after which he quickly acquired worldwide fame.

In addition to the warmth and emotive impact of his unparalleled voice, he enthralled audiences with the originality of his music, which drew on many classical music techniques, and the lyricism of his lyrics, which are works of poetry in their own right.

During his visit here, he gave me an anthology of short stories that had authored and that had appeared in France a few months earlier. As he presented me with that gift, he said, “I write literature like you. Are you going to try to sing like me?”

Like any great artist, Aznavour had a patriotic side which led him to support the cause of the people whose ethnicity he shares, the Armenians.

He admitted to me that he knew very little about Armenia before 1963 when he visited it for the first time during a concert tour in the Soviet Union.

However, it was not until the catastrophic earthquake in 1988 that he began to emotionally identify with Armenia. The devastating quake with its epicentre at Spitak killed at least 50,000 people and left another half a million homeless.

“The earthquake awakened in me the memory of the massacre of Armenians by the Turks, so I established the Aznavour for Armenia charity to help Armenians in the Soviet Union.

My greatest joy was in 1991 when Armenia became independent from the Soviet Union, which was something that I had never imagined would happen in my lifetime.” At the time when Aznavour died at the beginning of this month, he had been booked to perform in Yerevan some days later.

If the French press ignored Aznavour’s visits to Egypt, and his last visit in particular which, he told me, he would remember for the rest of his life, his connection to this part of the world was more extensive and deeper.

He performed in the Jarash festival in Jordan and gave several concerts in Beirut. During his stay at my farm in Dahshour, I discovered another link between Aznavour and the Arab world.

Some members of his family had accompanied him on that visit, including his son, Nicolas, and his wife about whom I learned that one of her parents was from Morocco and the other from Tahiti.

Also, his daughter, Katia, is married to an Algerian, Rashid. But the French press had little time for such details.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:  Aznavour and Egypt

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