Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
24 Feb. - 1 March 2000
Issue No. 470
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

A turban for a lute

When he played, the Arab world listened. Amira El-Noshokaty remembers her grandfather, Zakariya Ahmed
Zakariya Ahmed Zakariya Ahmed
At the beginning and at the end:
Zakariya Ahmed (1898-1961)

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Education at the time was limited primarily to Al-Azhar, but this young sheikh's turban -- the symbol of his status as a religious scholar -- never hid his passion for music. Brought up in a very conservative family, he broke all the rules. Between divine and mortal rhythms, he saw no contradiction.

Zakariya Ahmed (b. 1898) was the famous Egyptian composer who composed 1,070 melodies, 56 operettas and 191 soundtracks to Egyptian films. He died 39 years ago this month, on 14 February 1961.

To a family that drew pride from its dual heritage of Bedouin chivalry and religious learning -- its members included the chiefs of Fayoum's Merziban tribe as well as prestigious Azharites -- educating their long-awaited son was among the necessities of life. And so Zakariya entered Al-Azhar, where he excelled in the seven ways of reading the Qur'an. To the young sheikh, however, chanting was by no means limited to the holy verses. His passion for secular music led him to abandon Al-Azhar altogether. Having failed to adapt to other schools, Zakariya seemed to spend his days singing. Finally, his father left matters of education to his trusted friend, Sheikh Darwish Al-Hariri, who in turn introduced young Zakariya to Sheikh Ali Mahmoud, the famous Qur'an reciter of Al-Hussein Mosque. Sheikh Ali instructed him further in the sacred art of Qur'anic recitation, taught him the biography of the Prophet Mohamed, and sang with him songs of praise. The young sheikh thus received education, fame and status with his mentor's assistance.

For years, Ahmed studied music. At the time, singers and composers could be sheikhs as well. It was an era during which the tune of the call to prayer differed according to the days of the week. Ahmed grew up to cherish the various harmonies that seemed to mark out the rhythm of his life.

One of Confucius's sayings hung on the wall of his bedroom: "It matters not who makes my people's laws, as long as I make their music." Next to it were pictures of Al-Zanati Khalifa and Abu Zeid Al-Hilali (legendary folk heroes). By the age of 20, Ahmed had already composed his own religious songs, even creating new versions of popular songs.

In 1919, Ahmed married Hanem, the sister-in-law of his first tutor, Sheikh Darwish El-Hariri. The union bore 10 children and lasted a lifetime. In 1919, too, Ahmed began to tour the mawalid of Egypt. At this time, the pious turban served to dissimulate messages exchanged by members of the resistance movement, as Ahmed travelled across the country. During the Revolution and the years that followed, he composed several patriotic songs: among them, Qal Ya Saad Min Zayyak Za'im (Saad, Who Is As Great a Leader?) was sung by Abdel-Salam El-Banna, and played at the beginning of all plays at the Majestic Theatre.

In 1924, Dawlat Al-Hazz (Country of Fortune) appeared. It was the first musical play on which Ahmed worked, composing seven of the 11 songs. Playwright Amin Sidqi chose a faraway land for his parable of corruption and despotism.

That, however, was only the beginning. In the years that followed, he composed music for the Naguib El-Rihani troupe's performances: Yasmina, which appeared in 1928 at Al-Kassar Theatre; Hakim Al-Zaman (The Wise Man of the Age); and Al-Prince Al-Saghir (The Little Prince). For the Okasha Troupe, he composed to the music to Ali Baba at the National Theatre; Youm Al-Qiyama (Judgement Day, 1940); and Aziza wa Younis in 1945 (the latter two in collaboration with Beiram El-Tunsi, who wrote the lyrics).

Among his major contributions to Arabic music was his discovery of a young moulid singer in Simbillawein (Daqahliya governorate) in 1918. A few years later, she would become known as the Star of the East -- she was none other than the legendary Umm Kulthoum. Having heard about another genius who composed and sang all his songs in a small café in Alexandria, Ahmed traveled to meet Sayed Darwish, whom he befriended. Darwish was already adulated, but his move to Cairo, at Ahmed's instigation, boosted his career. Darwish's life was tragically short, but his music is a fundamental part of the Arab world's heritage. Ahmed himself cherished it, often saying that Darwish had remained faithful to the true spirit of Arabic music.

Although he felt the importance of remaining faithful to tradition, Ahmed was also something of a pioneer, especially in the Taqtuqa form (short, catchy ditties). He introduced major variations to the classical form, which was essentially a repetition of a basic phrase and melody. Well acquainted with the science of metrics, he was able to break away from the conventional Taqtuqa by using different metres, granting each couplet a different tune, and matching only the first and last verse. In 1925, he composed both his and Umm Kulthoum's first Taqtuqa, Illi Habbik Ya Hanah (Joy to He Who Loved You)

Culture in all its forms had its place in Ahmed's life. He held a salon at his home every Thursday, bringing together artists, writers, singers and poets. The room was always full of people, chattering, singing and giving readings of poetry or prose. His eldest daughter, Karama, remembers these evenings well: she used to creep into the room every Thursday and sit in a corner, trying to remain unobtrusive so she could retain her privileged status as the only one of Ahmed's children permitted to attend these special events.

In the golden age of music, Ahmed was a celebrity. He composed 46 of Umm Kulthoum's songs. The lyrics were printed in Al-Ahram to satisfy popular demand; mass audiences flocked to her weekly concerts or crowded around the radio set to listen to Ana Fi Intizarak (I Am Waiting for You), Ahl Al-Hawa (People of Love) and many others. With Umm Kulthoum's magnificent voice, Beiram El-Tunsi's brilliant lyrics and Zakariya Ahmed's enchanting music, there was no room for anything but ecstasy.

In 1932, Ahmed worked on the first Egyptian musical film, Unshoudat Al-Fouad (The Heart's Hymn), starring Nadra and George Abiad. Famous poet Khalil Mutran wrote the lyrics that were set to Ahmed's music.

As a man, he was a very caring person and a faithful friend. His house was a refuge for anyone who needed help. His best friend and poet Beiram El-Tunsi was exiled to Tunisia in 1920, after writing lyrics that had offended the king. After four months of exile, El-Tunsi left clandestinely. On his way to France, he jumped ship, and spent two weeks in hiding at Ahmed's house.

"My father used to have his trousers tailored with wide pockets, in which he would carefully place Beiram's poetry and take it with him wherever he went," remembers Karama.

He was often seen in an elegant white suit -- but it never remained white for long, as he was always bringing stray puppies home or buying a basket of muddy produce from a street vendor on the corner.

"Why not just give her money?" his wife would protest. "Because she would simply take the money and keep sitting there with her child in the cold, waiting to sell her radishes," he usually riposted.

Tahani, his youngest daughter, remembers him as "the best father figure you could imagine. He was very democratic, sometimes granting his daughters more freedom than his sons." Indeed, he allowed her older sister to join a sailing tour along the Mediterranean coast unaccompanied.

Although he spoke only Arabic, he wished his children to be bilingual "and have a window on the other side of the world". He passed on his passion for the Arabic language to them, however, often organising reading and writing competitions to make learning fun.

"Whichever of us memorised part of the Qur'an received a reward of LE5," remembers Tahani .

He was known for his dignity, and his reluctance to mingle with high society. He refused to attend events to which he felt he had been invited with condescension; and, at the premiere of one of the last songs he composed for Umm Kulthoum, he could be found in Darb Al-Masmat, singing at the wedding of an old friend's daughter.

He was a man of music and faith -- mortal, of course; but his legacy lives on.

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