Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
27 April - 3 May 2000
Issue No. 479
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April memories, April tunes

Mekkawi Jahin
The memorable duo. Left: Sayed Mekkawi; right: Salah Jahin
THE TWO close friends who collaborated on the phenomenally popular puppet theatre classic, Al-Laila Al-Kabira, are both icons, though the younger of the two approaches legendary status. They both died on 21 April: Salah Jahin, following personal and political disappointments, in 1986; Sayed Mekkawi, having conducted a long and remarkable career, in 1997. Both, for their work and social-cultural presence, deserve more than fond remembrance.

Famous for his cartoons as well as the colloquial Arabic quatrains he began writing in 1959 (arguably the greatest popular poetic achievement of the last 50 years), Jahin contributed to every artistic milieu of his time as poet, lyricist, cartoonist, journalist, script writer and actor. Born in 1930, he was the pampered child of the educated middle class -- sensitive, bright, beloved, fat. When in a 1960 interview he declared that, if he had a chance to start again from scratch, he would endeavour to become a ballet dancer, the response solicited much understandable laughter. But the discrepancy between his physical appearance and such a latent desire is not as incongruous as it might seem. Mentally, after all, Jahin can quite justly be compared to a butterfly. His words, his drawings, his thoughts danced, and his profound capacity for joy turned social and political issues, everyday life and even the hardest philosophical questions into a rare, uniquely Egyptian music.

He embraced the cause of the July 1952 Revolution and became Nasser's voice in the 1960s, providing, among others, singing icon Abdel-Halim Hafiz with the lyrics for many of his patriotic-nationalist songs. He died defeated, having said that with the death of Nasser in 1970 and the sudden shift in political orientation he felt increasingly like Hamlet, with Sadat embodying the treacherous Claudius. Easily, and without stellar pretensions, he befriended everybody who was anybody through the years, notably actress Soad Hosni.

The prolific blind composer whose life course would come to a less dramatic end on the same day 11 years later was one such friend. In an interview conducted shortly before he died, Mekkawi spoke thus of his initial meeting with Jahin: "It was as if I had completely lost my way and was wandering purposelessly until I met him; I was lost and he found me." He had been given a poem to set to music. Struck by its almost miraculous simplicity and immediate appeal, he began searching for the man who wrote it. Jahin, he was to find out, was familiar with many of his songs and seeking him out too. In this sense they complemented each other: Jahin appreciated Mekkawi's musical erudition, the way his tunes exemplified true Egyptian enchantment; Mekkawi, besides his admiration for Jahin's talent, found in him a teacher and confidante. "I could tell him what I could tell no one else." Elsewhere Mekkawi explains how, without Jahin's patience and creativity, he would never have understood how the earth could be round, or what the difference might be between red and blue.

Born in 1927, Mekkawi, who had lost his sight at the age of two, achieved local fame as a reciter of the Quran in the neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab while still in his early teens. At the age of 13, listening to records, his attention was drawn to music -- a much wider arena in which his voice and eventually his compositional talent could operate. For a while he sang, but even after composing his first song in 1951 (a somewhat forgotten patriotic song, Afdiki bidami ya Masr) and, despite a decidedly secular position in society and the media, Mekkawi preserved significant aspects of the appearance, attitude and mannerisms of the moqri'' or fiqi -- the reciter of the Quran, a musically oriented, normally blind religious type of figure regrettably no longer as present in Egyptian cultural life as once was the case.

Aside from furnishing some of the best singers of his day (among others, Laila Mourad, Nagat El-Saghira, Sabah, Fayza Ahmed, Mohamed Abdel-Motelib) with memorable tunes, Mekkawi often sang his own and other people's compositions -- an aspect of his career that he did not pursue commercially. His initial collaboration with Jahin engendered an interminable series of plays and musicals, including author Tawfiq El-Hakim's Al-Safqa (The Deal), many of which were for the puppet theatre. The duo were actually responsible for the puppet theatre renaissance which occurred in their heyday. His televised serial on the theme of El-Mesaharati (the man whose job it is to wake people up for their last meal before sunrise during the month of Ramadan), with lyrics by colloquial Arabic poet Fouad Haddad, demonstrates yet another one of his inimitable feats. He composed only one song for Umm Kulthoum: her last.

Youssef Rakha

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