Postponed owing to measures intended to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, but finally and triumphantly opening to enthusiastic audiences with the partial lifting of French restrictions last week, the Arab Divas exhibition at the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris is a survey of the careers of some of the Arab world’s best-known female singers, particularly those who flourished during the middle decades of the last century from the 1930s to 1960s.
Their names will be familiar to all Arab and many foreign audiences, and as the exhibition explains, most of them were either Egyptian or enjoyed a close relationship with Egypt. Arab divas such as, pre-eminently, the Egyptian singer and film actress Umm Kulthoum and the originally Lebanese, but naturalised Egyptian, singer Asmahan figure prominently in the exhibition, as do the Algerian singer Warda and the Lebanese singer Fayrouz.
As the exhibition explains, these women were very much more than simply singers, being both important national figures in the countries from which they came and internationally recognised symbols of the Arab world. In fact, according to exhibition curators Hanna Boghanim and Elodie Bouffard, it is exactly this combination of factors that makes the female singers presented in the exhibition into divas, since this is a label that can legitimately be used for only a very few female singers and perhaps cannot obviously be used for any today.
An Arab diva is first and foremost a singer of genius “with an unparalleled gift and extraordinary charisma,” Boghanim and Bouffard write. But she is also a “woman of the avant-garde who has been able to overcome the obstacles and constraints of the patriarchal society in which she has grown up.” She is a singer and performer who has attracted audiences across the Arab world and who is still recognised as being an important part of a common Arab heritage. Aside from the quality of her singing and the success of her career, a true diva must play a larger cultural and national role.
The exhibition begins by setting the Arab diva back into the context from which she came, in many cases Egypt in the 1920s or in the years immediately following the First World War. This was a period of great national hopes and widespread social change, and it was one that saw new opportunities opening up for women from perhaps particularly the growing middle classes who were beginning to claim the right to education, to a greater measure of independence and control over their life choices, and to pursue their own careers.
While some of the women identified in the section of the exhibition on the growth of Egyptian feminism in the 1920s, notably after the foundation of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, were from the upper classes and were not themselves minded to pursue business careers, this was not the case for those who took advantage of the same general movement of social change in order to set up their own businesses within an entertainment industry that was itself growing exponentially at the time.
Women like Badia Massabni and Mounira al-Mahdiyya, both originally singers and actresses in one or other of Cairo’s growing number of cabarets, moved swiftly into films when the Egyptian film industry began to take off in the later 1920s. Massabni, originally from Lebanon, was the owner of the famous Casino Badia in Cairo’s Opera Square, later a favourite hang-out of former Egyptian king Farouk and also, perhaps earlier in the day, the venue for the intellectual meetings favoured by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. These women were ready to exploit the new media of radio and recorded music that were finding growing audiences at the time.
Bahiga Hafez, as well as being a leading actress, was also the producer of the film Zeinab, released in 1930, along with other films. Aziza Amir co-directed Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile) with Ahmed Galal, also playing the leading role, before going on to act in and produce multiple further films. Assia Dagher, also starting out as an actress, later became a major shareholder in a film-production company and helped to launch the careers not only of her niece Mary Queeny but also some decades later of the well-known director Youssef Chahine.
The kind of business sense that so characterised the career of many later female singers and actresses, perhaps most famously Umm Kulthoum, was thus there from the start in the 1920s, with many of the early female stars being at least as careful to manage their public image and the development of their careers. With the growth of radio and the recorded music industry came new illustrated magazines for fans eager to see pictures of and to read articles about their favourite stars.
This part of the exhibition argues that these factors should be taken into account when aiming to explain the sudden appearance of the professional female singer in Egypt in the 1920s and her rapid ascension to stardom and eventually to diva status just a few years later.
The development of the new media produced new audiences for female singers who previously would likely have been singing at mainly private events. The social changes that saw new roles opening up for women, expressed through the feminist movement and the new educational and employment opportunities for at least middle-class urban women, helped to change attitudes among the wider public to the idea of seeing women in film and on the stage.
As the exhibition reminds visitors, it was only in 1922 that Hoda Sharaawi, the aristocratic founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, publicly unveiled at the Cairo Railway Station on her way back from a congress in Rome. Just a few years later, it had become normal to see professional female actresses and singers taking on major film roles and doing photo-shoots for the illustrated magazines that had grown up with the entertainment industry, among them Al-Kawakib, Al-Masrah, and later Al-Studio.
DIVA CAREERS: The details of particularly the early divas’ careers perhaps underline some of these factors, as well as the speed with which social attitudes changed. While the first divas were often from minority groups or had come to Egypt from abroad, it was not long before the first Egyptian Muslim women started to pursue artistic careers.
Mounira al-Mahdiyya was perhaps the first, the exhibition says, enjoying a singing career that extended from the 1910s to the 1930s before fading out before the Second World War. But she was swiftly followed by others, including of course Umm Kulthoum whose social origins were rather different from those of some of the other divas presented in the exhibition.
Bahiga Hafez and Assia Dagher came from upper middle-class or aristocratic urban families, and they were used to dealing with professional people from many walks of life, including from abroad. As the exhibition notes, sequences in early films could be made or edited at the Gaumont Studios in Paris with outdoor sequences being put together in Egypt, and many early singers signed contracts with foreign record companies for international distribution, including the Syro-Lebanese Baidophone and the international HMV-EMI.
Umm Kulthoum, on the other hand, was not from an urban or upper-class background, and for this reason she was later able to exploit an “authentic” Egyptian image at the expense of some of her foreign competitors, notably, but not only, Asmahan.
However, she was also able to take control of the business side of her work very quickly, and for French academic Frédéric Lagrange, writing in the exhibition catalogue, this also goes to show the speed with which society as a whole was modernising, while retaining its authentic roots. Umm Kulthoum, a young woman from the Egyptian countryside brought up in a traditional and conservative atmosphere, was able to transform herself into a modern and emancipated woman, while retaining the connection to the people from whom she came.
In the person of Umm Kulthoum, Lagrange writes, there came together “all the ideological, societal, and identity debates” that took place in Egypt for much of the last century. “She was above all an Egyptian national project… [incarnating] all the questions about the reconciliation between modernity and authenticity and all the aspirations about the role of women in the newly independent nation that took place in the first three-quarters of the 20th century” in Egypt.
Her career might almost be an image of the kind of modernisation without the loss of authenticity presented in the character of Zohra in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Miramar. This sociological mode of analysis explains in part the close connection between Umm Kulthoum and the post-1952 regime of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, where there was a similar emphasis on modernisation with the restoration of authentic Egyptian elements after years of foreign, or foreign-inspired, rule and a new political and cultural role given to the popular, or non-elite, social classes from which Umm Kulthoum came.
There are many other divas whose lives and careers are examined in a similar way in the exhibition, among them the Algerian singer Warda and the Lebanese singer Fayrouz. In both these cases, the singing was only part of the appeal, with these women coming to incarnate a certain idea of restored Algerian nationhood, in the case of Warda, and of Lebanese specificity, the country’s mixed character being part of its identity, in the person of Fayrouz.
Finally, the exhibition goes on to consider another generation of Arab female singers whose careers in some respects were modelled on, and in others were a reaction against, the trailblazing generation of diva pioneers, among them singers and actresses like Sabah, Hind Rostom, Samia Gamal, Faten Hamama, Souad Hosni, Tahiya Cariocca, Dalida, and Laila Mourad.
In retrospect, the golden age of the Arab diva, over by the 1970s the exhibition says, can be seen as a kind of dream-like parenthesis in wider Arab history, the hundreds of musical comedies produced between the 1930s and the 1960s that served as the vehicle and foundation of many of these women’s careers having an innocence about them that is reminiscent of late 19th-century French painting or Viennese waltzes, making them obvious objects of nostalgia for a world in which the centre of gravity has since been shifting with rapid speed.
By the 1970s, the dream-world of the Arab diva was threatened if not over, a victim of politics and new processes of social change. But like all dream-worlds, now bathed in a golden retrospective light, the world of glamour, social hope, and aspiration represented by the Arab diva can still command enormous loyalty, continuing to exist as a kind of standing rebuke to a greyer and more disenchanted world.
Divas, d’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, until 25 July.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly