When the Arabs exported the tarab
Jamal Boushaba - 26/01/2016
Oh night, or my eyes (to translate Yalil, yaâyn), the last graphic novel of Lamia Ziadé, blends erudition, melancholy and lightness to build a remarkable narrative of the glorious history of tarab, the Egyptian song, cabaret and cinema that have rocked the Arab world, from Morocco to Lebanon, for over fifty years. A time when a powerful wind of freedom and creativity blew throughout the Middle East.
Apart from the obvious nostalgia inspired by the the images, sounds and texts of that time - which according to the author begins with the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and ends with the war in Lebanon in 1975 - what interests us today about the reconstruction of that period of freedom and creativity is the contrasting state of apocalyptic chaos that the region has fallen into currently.
Lamia Ziadé is Lebanese. That's why she doesn't forget to mention the contribution by a large number of artists from that region, which she calls Cham, made to tarab, whose capital was of course Cairo.
What happened in the meantime? Why is the Levant only a valley of tears and fire now? Imperialism and interventionism of foreign powers do not explain everything. The famous Arab Nahda has painfully failed. Why did it only get to involve an elite disconnected from the wider population? The answer is not so simple! Hard question!
Here is a small gallery inspired by the work of Lamia Ziadé, which we are sure will give you a guilty pleasure.
Hoda Chaaraoui, from the harem to the revolution
She was born in a harem guarded by eunuchs. Her father was a high-ranking pacha. At 13 years she married a cousin of hers.
During the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, Hoda Chaaraoui marched through the streets leading a group of three hundred women of high society. Sure, they were all veiled as they should be, but the Egyptian women claimed their rights, a historic first.
1923. On her return from Rome, where she attended her first international feminist conference, Hoda Chaaraoui and her partner Ceza Nabaraoui take off the veil and get off the train. After the first moment of surprise, the public that came to meet them at the station in Cairo starts applauding. This gesture will be repeated by many others, including the very influential Saphia Zaghloul. The latter removes her veil in the middle of the crowd that came to greet her husband Saad Zaghloul, famous nationalist leader, when he returned from exile.
Rose el Youssef, from theatre to journalism
Her real name was Fatma. Her mother had died in childbirth, in Beirut. Her father, a wealthy businessman, travels the length and breadth of the Ottoman Empire. He entrusts his daughter to a Christian family who calls her Rose. One day, the board stops arriving. The girl is abandoned to her fate. She must be 13 years old.
Alexandria. Rose frequents the theater world, composed largely of Lebanese Christians. A particular Aziz Eid takes her by the hand. At 14 years, her acting career takes off. In 1925 she puts an end to her career in the theater, leaving the Ramsès company of Youssef Wahbi, the most famous one in Cairo. She founds a magazine to which she gives her name.
Initially devoted entirely to artistic activities, Rose el Youssef begins gradually to treat social and political issues, it does not hesitate to oppose the British, to criticize the king or to defend women. Caricatures are given ample space in the magazine. Because of her impertinence, Rose ends up in prison. Rose el Youssef still continues to be published in Cairo today.
Badia Massabni, choreographer and the queen of the night
She too was born in Beirut, in a Christian family of very modest conditions. She was raped at the age of seven. Her brothers, who were violent alcoholics, never forgave her.
1926. After many years of wandering and living in misery with her mother, from Beirut to Cairo passing from Argentina - with "pauses" in brothels, a fake marriage and a large number of "appearances" in several cabarets of the Middle East - Badia Massabni opens her own place.
Located in the famous Emad Eddin Street between the Majestice and the Semiramis, not far from the Marie Mansour Hall, the Badia Hall quickly becomes the most famous cabaret of Cairo.
In her club, frequented by both Egyptian and British officials, Badia offers an alternation of European and Oriental acts. But the great work of Badia Massabni will be to revolutionize, literally, the oriental dance, the so-called belly dancing. She will be the first to make the young dancers of her company wear the famous half-naked costume, consisting of a two pieces of fine muslin, adorned with beads, that made many generations dream! A great consumer of American musical comedies, Badia Massabni will transform the movements and choreography of her shows inspired by different dances that arise in this period so rich in terms of creativity.
Under the protective wings of Badia Massabni two exceptional dancers will come out: the very voluptuous Taheya Carioca and and the no less sensual Samia Gamal. Both will quickly become the bright stars of Egyptian cinema.
From its beginnings, in fact, the cinema rests on the almost systematic presence of at least one sequence of oriental dance in every movie, combined with a nice and long song, even if often not consistent with the script, it must be said.
Ruined by her lovers and stripped of all her possessions by her nephew, the former queen who had undisputedly dominated Cairene and Alexandrian nights thanks to her winter and summer casinos, will end her days in a small farm in the Bekaa Valley, on the road Beirut to Damascus. She will sell cheese, fruit juice and sandwiches. During their tour in the region, Taheya Carioca and Samia Gamal never failed to visit her, to hug the woman who had taught them everything.
Abdelwahab, Oriental dandy and musical genius
He was born two years after the twentieth century, the son of a muezzin and reader of the Koran at the Saïdi al Shaarani mosque in Cairo. His father dreams of a career for his son at Al Azhar University. But he decides otherwise. At a very early age he starts attending wedding parties, to appreciate and study singing. At ten years of age, as a child prodigy, takes stage for the first time. At thirteen he records his first album. The following year he is noticed by Ahmed Shawki at the Hotel Stephen in Alexandria. The prince of poets asks to meet the boy.
Ahmed Shawki Bey is at that time the most prominent figure in the realm of Arabic literature. Because of his patriotic poems, the British have sent him into exile for many years. He is also a rich and a refined man. He moves with his young protege to his sumptuous villa in Giza.
From that moment, Mohamed Abdelwahab frequents trendy bars, and the literary lounges and the
circles of power. He learns French, discovers silk dressing gowns, patent leather shoes, tuxedos and cigarettes. The two men spend the winter in Cairo, the summer in Lebanon, the fall in Paris. Whenever the young man sings the poems of his mentor, it is a triumph.
The physiognomy and dandy ways of Mohamed Abdelwahab, along with his incredible voice, contribute to earn him a phenomenal reputation at the cinema.
Abdelwahab is not a handsome actor with a sweet voice, or vice versa. He is a composer capable of innovating and a formidable producer. Well before the end of the twenties, he founds the traditional tarab that interweaves jazz, rumba and tango.
Abdelwahab passes away in 1992, surrounded by great respect. He had retired from public life since the eighties, surrounding his private life with an aura of mystery. We know that he married three times and left numerous descendants.
Oum Kalthoum, the absolute diva
She was born around 1904 in a poor village in the Nile Delta. Her father was the imam of the mosque. At five years of age she enrolls at kouttab where she learns the Koran by heart.
The imam, his son and his grandson perform religious songs at weddings in the region. Oum Kalthoum learns everything. One day she replaces her sick brother, dressed as a male. She must be 8 years old. Her exceptional voice quickly turns her into an attraction in the region. She starts earning money.
Her imam father is a pious man. Oum Kalthoum sings dressed in loose, asexual clothing, in places where alcohol is not served. She is always surrounded by her male relatives, guarantors of the honor of the clan.
From village to village, from success to success, Oum Kalthoum fatally arrives in the salons of the Cairene bourgeoisie, that on one hand is fascinated by the power of her androgynous voice, and on the the other hand is seduced by the original Arab-Bedouin purity and the themes that she interprets. Nationalists like her. Hoda Shaaraoui often invites her to perform in militants' meetings.
Never! The rough males in galabbiyyeh and keffieh that surround her used to drool over her, as we would say today. Arab-Bedouin poetry, yes! The fellahin, no! Criticism rains down from all sides. In her magazine, Rose el Youssef suggests the singer to adopt a takht (small musical training) as it should be, adapting to the new times.
Gradually, with difficulty but not discouraged, Oum Kalthoum separates herself from her kinship and changes skin. Two men, struck by her exceptional talent, will contribute to her metamorphosis: the poet Ahmad Rami and composer Mohamed Qasabgi.
Oum Kalthoum now sports a curly hairdo. She wears tailored dresses, adorned with a string of pearls. She feeds on literature and Arabic poetry. She learns the basics of French, the language common in the salons of the cosmopolitan Egyptian bourgeoisie, although the country is under the influence of English.
Nevertheless, the future absolute diva who will rule over the Arab world and beyond, will always keep a clear austerity attributable to her pious peasant origins. No extravagant makeup, nor plunging necklines. Crystallizing, in the third part of her life, a now iconic image: black tailleur in the city, long dress with pearls and strictly long sleeves on stage. All highlighted by her indispensible chignon and sixties style eyglasses.
Oum Kalthoum doesn't smoke or drink. There were no reports of any husbands or lovers: only two desperate admirers, Ahmad Rami and Qasabgi. The diva, known by her irascible character, will treat them badly until the end, also from the economic point of view. Her numerous enemies, have circulated the rumor that the Sitte (the Lady) preferred women, since there was no man in her life. But nothing was ever proven.
Oum Kalthoum has known how to make use of the radio, the most powerful media of her time, as no one before her. All the first thursdays of the month she interpreted a new song on air. To be more stimulated, but also to benefit from the famous "Ya Allah!" necessary to set the rhythm at the concerts, which lasted an average of two hours. She pretended that there was the audience during recording. They were two hours in which millions and millions of followers, from Morocco to Lebanon, remained literally hypnotized by this out of the ordinary voice.
On February 4, 1975 Radio Misr interrupted its broadcasts to air verses from the Koran. The funeral of Oum Kalthoum were just as impressive as that of Nasser, the pan-Arab leader that Sitte had supported. With her, a certain Arab world is gone too. Or rather, a certain idea of the Arab world...
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Lebanese author and artist, lives in Paris.
Born in Beirut.
She is 7 years old at the beginning of hte Lebanon war. Her Maronite family does not leave the country
She begins studying at the Penninghen School of Graphic Arts, in Paris.
She debuts at designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake. She illustrates children's books and publishes erotic drawings. Her work is inspired by Pop Art.
Pubblica presso l’editore Denoël la sua prima graphicnovel, Bye ByeBabylone, che racconta i primi anni della guerra attraverso i suoi ricordi di bambina.
Publishes her first graphicnovel Bye Bye Babylone (Denoël publishing house), which tells the early years of the war through her childhood memories.