|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
19 - 25 October 2000
Issue No. 504
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Gilgamesh in loveFrom oppressed Iraq, a Babylonian legend is revived
Profile by Amira Howeidy
The king had laid himself down and will not rise again,
The lord of Kullab will not rise again;
He overcame evil, he will not come again;
Though he was strong of arm he will not rise again
-- The Epic of Gilgamesh --
The knight in shining armour sings to his loved one, pleading for her passion. He speaks all the words of love; he will die if she doesn't love him back. He's ready to do anything: change the calendar, erase the seasons, destroy his birth certificate, even kill himself for her. He challenges her to find a home like his mouth, a bed as warm as his eyes, a lover like him, or an age as golden as his.
He is Kazem Al-Saher.
She is any woman listening. And this is the 21st century. Such words of love should no longer have the power to move in our times. Yet they do.
He was performing recently in the Mediterranean summer resort of Marina: over 7,000 screaming fans were watching him live, and tens of thousands on TV. Clad in an elegant black suit and white shirt, he glances at the crowds facing him. A state of frenzy overwhelms the audience the moment he appears on stage.
He is calm and his sharp features are soft as he sings Al-Hobb Al-Mustahil (Impossible Love). For several hours, Al-Saher is the passionate lover of Layla, the heroine of all love stories in the Arab consciousness.
The next day, leading Al-Ahram columnist Ahmed Bahgat devotes his widely read column to the event. "Al-Saher portrays a lover that has ceased to exist... a lover whose wish is to die of love," Bahgat writes. This is reminiscent, he argues, of the 'ishq (passion) of Bani 'Athra, known for their celebration of platonic love.
Bahgat continued: "And when someone asked one of them, 'why do you die of love?', the lover replied: 'Our eyes see what yours cannot." This true lover whose clothes caught fire is the lover reincarnated by Al-Saher's songs. He has revived our hunger for romance..."
Indeed, Abdel-Halim Hafez is gone, and 41-year-old Al-Saher remains the sole icon of true romance in the world of Arabic music today.
Of course, comparing Al-Saher with the iconic, almost sainted Abdel-Halim is tantamount to blasphemy as far as many are concerned; others will criticise the Iraqi singer purely out of jealousy. Both groups aside, the simple fact is that he is the best known -- and most highly paid -- Arab singer of his time.
Yet he has "no idea" of distribution figures. "I measure my success and popularity on stage, by the reaction of the people. Did you see Marina?"
Who didn't? The concert's success sparked debate within the music industry and in just about every household across the nation.
Angry press reports criticised Al-Saher for bringing in 14 Iraqi musicians to perform with his band, "at a time when hundreds of Egyptian musicians are unemployed." Others claimed that he paid the television officials who organised the Marina concert to get his way as far as organisation and timing were concerned. The chairman of the Musicians' Syndicate, Helmi Amin even accused Al-Saher of violating the syndicate's bylaws by allowing Iraqi musicians to perform with him. Even jealous Egyptian husbands joined in, and several police stations reported cases of wives who accused their spouses of physically abusing them because they were listening to Al-Saher. Some went so far as to divorce their wives, according to one press report.
It has become customary, too, to hear of young girls who run away from home to meet Al-Saher, or at least attend one of his concerts.
I didn't run away from home, but it still took me two years to meet Kazem Al-Saher. Here I am, sitting only a few inches away from the man millions of women dream of meeting in person. When we had spoken over the phone a few days before, he was casual and warm. Is it really him? I asked myself as he spoke. When we finally met, I asked him again: Why is it so impossible to meet you? But secretly I was wondering: Are you behaving like a star now, ignoring journalists' requests to see you?
He promised to meet me at the sound studio where he was recording. I showed up on time, but was told he had just left. Where did he go? I demanded, more than a little miffed by this point. "He's working out," was the reply. I drove to the gym. The receptionist let me in and I marched toward him. He was on the bench, on his back, lifting weights very seriously. As soon as he became aware of my presence, he leapt up and headed for the door. It was now or never, and I was ready for a fight. After all, he had been unfair.
"Will you or will you not give me time for an interview?" I snapped impatiently, expecting an outraged response. "Let's talk outside," he said, so quietly that for an instant I thought it was a ploy, and that he would flee. He didn't. As we walked towards the four chairs clustered in the gym's small reception area, I noticed: he is shorter than he looks on stage. He was still panting from the workout, and tiny trickles of sweat lined his forehead and shivered on his cropped, spiky black hair. "Do you have your tape recorder?" he asked. Yes. "OK, let's begin." At that moment, a Saudi couple with a baby walked by. The man froze. "Kazem Al-Saher?" he gasped in disbelief as he shook hands with him, including me for good measure. After all, I was seated next to the most popular Iraqi figure in modern history. The man requested a picture with the baby. Al-Saher acquiesced willingly and even volunteered to hold the baby himself, but suggested that they move to the other side of the room, "because it's a bit cold here and the baby might catch a cold." For a few moments he was totally carried away, hugging the baby, posing with it, smiling and singing what seemed to be a traditional Iraqi children's song. When we resume the interview, he is relaxed and seems less exhausted.
Why is it so difficult to meet you? I asked again. "Reporters have no problem meeting me, why was it a problem for you?" he responds. When I spontaneously accused him of arrogance, he offered a better explanation. "An artist like myself is responsible for the words of the songs, the music, the studio, the [video] shoot, and the ideas. I'm even responsible for my clothes. So I really don't have that much time for anything else. I also find that I can express myself in many ways other than talking."
The truth is, he simply doesn't have a full time manager. He doesn't have a fixed address. No bodyguards. And "no country either, so stop blaming me," he says gently.
When his fame was established in Egypt in 1996, Al-Saher was seen as Iraq's best-kept secret. His incredibly moving love songs in various Arab dialects were the first challenge to the cultural and political isolation forced on Iraq when sanctions were imposed in 1990 following its invasion of Kuwait. Until he emerged, even the country's name bore negative connotations thanks to the Western-driven anti-Saddam Hussein media. Arab TV channels jumped on the same bandwagon quite blithely, without pausing to think of the consequences on the Iraqi people.
Although the two Gulf wars caused Iraq as a nation to suffer greatly, it still remained the land that was the cultural focal point of the region until very recently in modern history. It was in Baghdad that Arabic poetry was born through the likes of Abul-Alaa Al-Ma'arri and, in modern times, through Nazek Al-Mala'ika and Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati. From plastic arts to music, Iraqis were always pioneers.
But that was several decades ago, and Al-Saher knows it well.
"I was raised in a rather difficult, but extremely rich environment. I am from the country of suffering... I come from the country of the Iraqi maqam..."
He was born in 1959 in Mosul, northern Iraq. His father was a soldier in the royal army and later worked in a furniture shop. The father's modest income made it necessary for Al-Saher and his nine siblings to work when they were children.
By the age of 12, Al-Saher had decided he loved music and poetry. He sold his bike, he says, to buy an oud. As a young boy, he was deeply influenced by the Iraqi maqam and enrolled in the Musical Institute of Baghdad to master it. It took him many years of struggling to establish his fame as both a singer and composer in Iraq. As the Iraq-Iran war drew to and end in 1989, Al-Saher's fame slowly extended across the borders to neighbouring countries. By 1990, incredible fame seemed inevitable; his popularity continued to grow throughout the Arab world. But Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 put an end to this success. Al-Saher could no longer be seen or heard on television or the radio anywhere in the Arab world. "I really can't describe what happened to me back then. The war made many countries forget that Iraqi citizens are also Arabs," he says, the pain evident in his voice. Some even advised him to abandon his dreams, because it was "all over" for him.
All that changed, though. His songs broke down the barriers and his Gulf audience in particular embraced him. His single Salamtak Mi'l-Aah (Get Well Soon, which he addressed to Iraq) was a hit in almost every Arab country and finally introduced him to the Egyptians. By 1995, when he settled in Cairo, Al-Saher's songs were focused more on the qasida and his records were consistently topping the list of best-selling albums.
Armed with his solid academic background and his passion for music, Al-Saher carefully selected the most touching of Nizar Qabbani's odes, set them to music and charmed the Egyptians.
"I know Egyptians love the qasida most," he smiles. How could they not? For decades, the music scene was occupied by shallow pop songs belted out by singers renowned less for their vocal talents than for their irrepressible energy. Although the consensus was that this was not music, the Egyptians couldn't exactly shut their ears. Enter Al-Saher with his album In the School of Love. Tens of thousands of fans knew the words by heart:
Your love, my lady, taught me the worst habits
It taught me to read my coffee cup a thousand times each night,
Try herbal medicine and knock at the doors of fortunetellers
It taught me to go out and count the pavements,
To follow your face in the rain
And search for it by the light of the cars at night
However, for many years, he was marked as the man who sings Zidini 'Ishqan (Give me More Passion). Again, Qabbani's words stuck.
I am the oldest city of sadness
And my wound is a cryptic hieroglyph
My pain is a flock of doves that stretches from Baghdad to China
This was followed by a series of successful albums that contained qasa'id, mostly by Qabbani, as well as other songs that ranged from Iraqi folklore to modern, cheerful dance tunes.
As he progressed, however, Al-Saher made a point of proving that, although he composes the music to all his songs -- 150 of them so far -- he is capable of producing fresh and innovative harmonies each time. He also insists that his complete orchestra use a wide array of instruments in each song. The length of the qasida gave him space to compose complex music notes and allows for variation in the same song. Ana wa Layla (Layla and I) is a case in point; the melody seems to change almost entirely as the qasida develops. The introduction to this song, as is the case with all his qasa'id, is the most impressive, opera-like part.
Despite its complexity, Ana wa Layla was a hit as soon as it was released in 1998. To Al-Saher's surprise, the audience begged for "Layla" at the '98 Marina concert. He apologized: "I'm really sorry, I can't sing Ana wa Layla, it needs a lot of practice and we haven't done that," he told the thousands of fans massed in front of him. And that is typical: he will never perform a song unless he is sure he masters it perfectly.
The album that followed, Habibti wal-Matar (My Love and the Rain) contained five qasa'id by Qabbani. The posters that came along with it also featured Al-Saher's new, sleek look. His Travolta-like hair was now much shorter, modern, and clipped into a tiny fringe over his forehead. He donned stylish black outfits and was quoted everywhere saying "black is my favourite colour." (When we met at the gym, he was indeed wearing black workout gear and running shoes.) His new look was shown to advantage in professional shots, truly becoming of the star/idol figure. The shy Iraqi boy inside Al-Saher isn't scared of the camera anymore. He knows how to pose, looking directly at the lens, firing that I-know-I'm-good-looking look that so few women can actually resist. And onstage, he carries himself more gracefully.
He's also single now. No one really knows why or how, but Al-Saher and his wife (who is also his cousin), who married when they were both 18, are now divorced. His two sons Wessam, 18, and Amr, 14, live with her in Toronto. Al-Saher says he lives alone. When I ask him if he is happy, he replies instantly: "Professionally, yet; personally, no."
"There's no stability in my life. My life is moving from one hotel to the other, airports and studios," he explains. Such a traditional reply demands a traditional question. Is this the price of stardom? "Many singers can sit at home and maintain a stable lifestyle. But I could only do that if I was just a singer. I would sit at home too, call the composers from time to time and ask 'So, do you have anything new?' All I would have to do is listen to what they offer and, if I like it, do the song. But I can't do any of that. Because I compose my own songs, I'm constantly searching for new things. I don't want my fans to say 'We trusted Kazem and he let us down.' So I can't have a quiet or stable life."
But he prefers to be quiet when it comes to politics. "I have no political opinions whatsoever. Please don't ask me about politics," he says. "I don't like to talk about these things. Ask me about my humanity, my duties toward my people and the children of my country."
Still, even before he performed songs such as Ah Ya Arab (Oh, Arabs) and Jaffat Dama'irkum (Your Conscience Has Withered) -- direct political statements condemning the passivity of Arab governments toward the dangerously high death toll amongst Iraqi children -- the mere fact that Al-Saher was a famous Iraqi singer at this particular time meant that he was a de facto ambassador to his country.
After more than a decade of composing and performing love songs, Al-Saher's ambition is taking him to opera. "I want to do the Epic of Gilgamesh," he says enthusiastically. "It's going to be very difficult; it will take three years at least. I want to do it right, and I want it to be modern and contemporary."
Difficult seems a mild description of such a grand work. This, after all, is one of the greatest and most ancient epics of humanity. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the renowned king of Uruk in Mesopotamia, miraculously preserved on clay tablets deciphered only in the last century, tells of his long and arduous journey to the Spring of Youth, of his encounters with monsters and gods and of his friendship with Enkidu, the wild man from the hills.
As a mixture of pure adventure, morality and tragedy, the story of Gilgamesh and his futile search for immortality transcends the barriers of time, for it revolves around fundamental forces and human problems common throughout the centuries.
Why Gilgamesh? "As children in school, it was the tradition to watch it annually at the theatre," he says, "I loved it."
The arduous task of modernising the epic, he explains, has been delegated to a group of Iraqi musicians and renowned Iraqi poet Abdel-Razeq Abdel-Wahed. The surprise, however, is that Al-Saher will not necessarily play the character of Gilgamesh. "There will be a large number of professional singers in this opera or musical, so I don't necessarily have to play the lead."
Next month, he'll be in the United States. According to various press reports, Al-Saher is starring in a big-budget movie that will be shot there. But he's not revealing any details. "We're just talking," he says, "but no agreements have been made."
Such fame is a huge responsibility, he agrees. Every hour of the day is calculated to serve his profession, whether directly or indirectly. When he's not traveling to perform in concerts or shoot his video clips, Al-Saher is in Cairo and occasionally the US. In Cairo, he spends endless hours in the studio recording, rehearsing and taking care of every intricate detail that has to do with his songs. He then works out and says he goes to bed early. In the US, he wakes up early, has breakfast, then goes "to school to study English, which I began learning two years ago." After lunch, he goes to the gym. This is followed by a vocal training session. "Then I just write my notes or read. That's all there is to it, really."
Although it's difficult to believe that the Love God leads such a simple, almost mundane life, this is Al-Saher's version. The moment I put my tape recorder in my bag, he suddenly cheers up and starts chatting. He tells me he's fed up of waiting for his interior designer to finish revamping his apartment, which overlooks the Nile. He gets quite friendly and volunteers to tell me, with a boyish grin, that the theme is "ancient" upon his request, because he loves "prehistoric things."
He wants to launch his own website too. Really, I ask, what will you put on it? "I don't know," he grins boyishly. But if he made it from Iraq to the height of contemporary music glory, he'll figure it out.
photos: Sherif Sonbol
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