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Κυριακή, 20 Μαΐου 2007


The café chantants of early 20th-century Cairo resonated with the melodious strains of singer Naima Al-Misriya, yet there is but scant evidence of her existence in the literature of the time.
There are some promotional posters nonetheless, and notifications of performances in magazines like Rose El-Youssef. Mercifully for present-day commentators, a few 78 rpm grammophone recordings exist, and these afford tangible enough evidence of the singer's career -- tones that only require that much tweaking to turn into a scream, sung to hypnotic music with singularly catchy lyrics. Hers was a soulful voice, melancholy, reminiscent of the blues, with the vast majority of the songs speaking of unrequited love. Gozi iggawaz allaya, wel henna lessa fi ideyya (My husband is betrothed to another even as my wedding henna is still fresh on my hands), for example, is typical of the genre.
There is real humour in such lamentations. The songs speak of overwhelming dejection, perhaps with a hint of low self-esteem, yet they maintain a humorous perspective. Possibly it was the perfect way to deal with her impossible social reality. In that day and age women performers ran away from home, breaking out of the confines of the family, to pursue their careers; they often changed their names. Their new identities brought them freedom and fame, but family and friends deserted them; they were stygmatised as awalim, literally "women in the know" -- in much the sense implied by the biblical tree of knowledge.
Naima had been married at 15, given birth to a baby girl at 16, and been divorced, much to the consternation of her outraged family, at 17. She was cut off, having done the unspeakable, dishonoured her lineage. As far as they were concerned, she might as well be dead. "Her story rings a surprisingly contemporary note," muses Heba Farid, director of the Naima Al-Misriya Project -- and a matrilineal descendant of the celebrated chanteuse. The project seeks to reconstruct and document Naima's professional and personal life.
As yet in the early stages of her work, Farid's immediate goal is to produce an academic paper to be expanded into a book -- a resource, the first of its kind, containing photographs, archival material and as comprehensive as possible an account of the singer's biography. Another objective of the project is to compile a musical catalogue of Naima's songs, with information on composers and lyricists, and CDs of existing recordings. Yet another aim of Farid's is to produce a documentary film to comprise "my own artistic statement on my great grandmother's career."
Introduced on stage as Al-Usta Naima Al- Misriya, Farid explains, Naima was from then on treated as a family heirloom -- locked away and seldom spoken of subsequently. If members of the family brought up her name at all, they tended to speak in hushed tones.
The singer led what might be termed an alternative life. Her sister, Fatma, was also a divorcee with a daughter. The two became social outcasts, they lived together with their daughters in a single household, four women sharing a life in which men, uncharacteristically of the times, remained but a transitory presence, arriving and departing unceremoniously.
Though the outline of her biography seems clear enough, there are many missing pieces in the puzzle of the chanteuse's life. Naima insisted on adding "Al-Misriya" to her stage name, even though her father was not an Egyptian national; nor was the name Naima real, on her birth in 1894 the singer was christened Zeinab.
Unlike most awalim of her day, Naima hailed from a particularly wealthy background -- her father a Moroccan merchant who settled in Egypt, her mother the daughter of a landowner from Assiut -- which suggests a rare spirit of independence and exemplary determination on her part; in a sense she became an outcast by choice. "Naima died when I was seven or eight," Farid says. I have but vague memories of her. But I inherited her bedroom furniture." The outcast was to dedicate her life to music, becoming a professional at a time when women performers were social pariahs. "Rose El- Youssef published photographs of Naima," Farid goes on, "and it ran advertisements of where she was to perform. We have place names and dates of performances."
Naima Al-Misriya's singing career centered on Egypt, but she did travel extensively: one Al-Shamia (the Damascan) took her to the Levant to perform. We know from photographs that Naima stayed for long periods in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Baghdad. Likewise she performed mostly live, but she had successful records as well. The gramophone was invented in Europe in 1903, and by 1904 the first musical recording in Egypt had taken place. Recording companies were to mushroom in Cairo and Alexandria in the next few years, and Naima's singing debut was to come in 1911. "Naima had a very special audience," Farid says. "We know the nightclubs she used to sing in." But we know that her audience extended beyond the clientele of these nightclubs, for she was nicknamed Malikat Al-Istiwanat (Queen of the Gramophones).
One fully appreciates the magnitude of Naima's achievement only when one realises to what extent the image of the singer in the first half of last century was negative. The awalim were ostracised because of their ostensibly decadent lifestyles, but no one differentiated between a career in singing and its alleged moral implications.
For Naima was far more than an exotic chanteuse flitting across the path of Sayyid Darwish and other trailblazers of the time. She seems to have had working relations with a number of professionals, and she was unequivocally part of the scene. She sang Ya Balah Zaghloul by Sayyid Darwish, as well as the scandalously suggestive Irkhi Es- Sitara (Let the curtain down), which causes an uproar to this day. Another hit was Ashkou illa Allah (I pour my heart out to God), composed by Salama Hegazy, no less. Yet another bombshell was Taala ya shater nerouh El-Anater (Come, clever clogs, let's go to Al- Qanater), a song that remained popular long after Naima's demise. We know she studied the oud, possibly under Sayyed Darwish, and there are references to her playing the oud during her own performances. Her style is said to have been distinctive, all her own, a unique contribution.
Her first champion, and mentor, was Sayyed Darwish. Rumours were flying around at the time of the supposedly lurid relationship that brought them together. There is no hard evidence, only scuttlebutt. "We take exception to the historical text," Farid insists. "All it amounts to is reprinting hearsay." After the Sayyed Darwish phase -- the composer was soon to die -- there was a Zakariya Ahmed phase. Darwish is reported to have said, "I was at Naima's house teaching her music." The press at the time played on the insinuation that they had an affair.
Part of the complication involved in researching Naima's career is that music in those days was copyrighted to the composer, never to the singer. This meant that both Mounira Al-Mahdeya -- perhaps the best known singing star of the time -- and Naima could sing the same songs by Zakariya Ahmed. Hits from the Zakareya Ahmed period include Ha'a kollo illa kidda, roughly translated as "All but that", and Bahebak Ibada wa Urbak Saada (My love for you is worship and your proximity is joy). This composer too visited her at her home; he continued to do so, in fact, well into the 1960s, long after she had retired from singing (she did so in 1937, because her daughter Aziza was about to get married).
"There was obviously a strong friendship between them that was not strictly restricted to work." Such is Farid's reading of the fact. Yet it is equally interesting to note that, not wanting to compromise her daughter's future (no respectable bride could have a chanteuse for a mother), Naima ultimately gave in to convention. Naima was to die peacefully in her sleep, at a ripe old age, on 3 December 1976.
Farid has a particularly poignant photograph of a matronly Naima reading the Quran on the beach. "That is Ras Al-Barr in 1964." Barefoot, cross-legged, with a headscarf tightly wrapped around her forehead, Naima pores over the Quran in a summery short-sleeved frock with a cheerful floral pattern. Towards the end of her life she turned religious, Farid explains, but not in a very conventional way. Hers was the ways of the Sufis. She was even into the zar, a traditional form of exorcism with much music, incantation and drumming. In her own artistic fashion, and in line with her newly adopted conventionality, she yearned for spirituality. Her life, which Farid seeks to document, remains a fascinating instance of transgression, uniquely rewarding.

By Gamal Nkrumah

2 σχόλια:

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