|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
photos: Mohamed Mos'ad
Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
First impressions can be deceptive. Mohamed Tharwat, pop singer and benefactor of orphans, turns up wearing an expensive-looking jumper -- black with a menacing red square in the centre. He must dash off to the barber's before the photo session, he excuses himself in a businesslike fashion: it won't take long; can we bear with him? He doesn't wait for an answer. Instead, he gives the driver directions. He is obviously a man of action. We're there in a couple of minutes, but his barber hasn't opened shop yet. It's fast approaching noon, and he's visibly irritated. He wrings his hands one moment and restlessly fingers his prayer beads the next.
"The problem these days is that everybody stays up late watching television and can't get up in the morning." He shrugs and launches into a familiar tirade against the moral bankruptcy of our age with a fervour men much older than himself frequently let slip. "We live in a society where people rarely accept responsibility for their own errors," he states, staring me squarely in the face. He speaks in the deliberate tones of a politician or a religious leader.
Rosebud mouth, clean-shaven and the most striking blue-black, thick and meticulously coiffed hair. Obviously, the barber's job was well worth the visit.
The encroachments of fame do not appear to frighten or even unnerve Tharwat. He is the first to admit that he has not reached the heights of his artistic accomplishment. In any case, he asserts, being the best is never as important as being engaged in whatever one is doing. It's the old-fashioned attitude: what matters is not whether you win or lose, but how you live your life. "I have attempted to take the path my gut dictates, not do what I was supposed to do," Tharwat explains. "And if it achieves some larger purpose than entertainment, all the better."
Tharwat will not disclose his age, and I fail to extract the information from him in an unguarded moment. He hails from a traditional and religious family. He leads the prayers -- he has a beautiful voice. He makes a wonderful muezzin. The call to prayer was so ingrained in his psyche as a youth that it has become a part of his innermost being. Qur'anic recitals were de rigueur in his childhood. The sacred text was also the first source of inspiration for his songs and music.
Tanta is famous for its sheikhs: El-Husari, Mustafa Ismail El-Naqshabandi, El-Sayed El-Badawi... Tharwat is acutely conscious of his hometown's heritage, and was never an impetuous young rebel. He was thrown straight in at the deep end. He may have sung with Mama Samiha on stage, but at school he was hardworking and studious. His parents were against a musical career for their gifted son. They insisted on him having what they considered a proper education, and he had to put his singing aspirations on hold. He did not let them down, though: he excelled in his studies, completed his secondary education with flying colours and enrolled at Cairo University to study mechanical engineering. His parents were delighted and thereafter encouraged him to cut his own way through the snarled world of show business.
This strict upbringing has much to do with his approach to pedagogy, one feels. "Children these days are being brought up in an entirely profane environment," he states, choosing his words with care. I steal a glance at his other listeners. They obviously take this stern prognostication very seriously.
Can the rot be stopped? "Yes, but a proper religious upbringing and the preservation of our traditional customs are the prerequisite," he assures.
Little would you expect that behind the highly polished exterior throbs a heart of gold. Charity requires commitment and Mohamed Tharwat thoroughly understands this. This is why he set up the Tharwat Foundation in 1990. The orphanage he runs in Tanta, 93km north of Cairo in the heart of the Nile Delta, provides a home for 50 orphaned boys and girls. The children are grouped in families of four to five "siblings," each with their "mother" -- a certified nurse with proven competence in child care. The vital self-assurance such care produces among orphans, Tharwat believes, leads to changes that are both tangible and sustainable.
"Prospective mothers undergo a rigorous examination before we accept them. Moreover, there is a probation period during which the mothers are tested and evaluated. Children with special needs are allocated mothers who are best suited and qualified to do the job," Tharwat says. And it is a job: the mothers do not work on a voluntary basis, but receive a salary, he explains.
When the orphans first arrive, you can see the crushing disappointment in their faces, Tharwat explains. They are fearful and uncertain about their future. Some do not even know how to respond to loving kindness. Some become hardened survival strategists, resignedly adjusted to the rigours of life on the streets. Stoically, knowing they will never make it in life, they fall into a life of crime and destitution.
Sometimes, therefore, changing attitudes is as effective as giving alms, Tharwat argues. He urges his associates in the business and show business worlds to give generously to help change those attitudes that brand orphans for life with the cruel marks of delinquency and despondency. He talks of the importance of building the skills and developing the self- esteem of children who have lost their parents. His orphanage facilitates home-learning programmes, play schemes and mutual support groups for adolescents.
'I had an Egyptian wife, she passed away a long time ago and I decided to marry journalism. No children. I love classical music and opera, as well as some music by Umm Kulthoum, Abdel-Halim, Fairuz... My three extracurricular passions: history, geography and music'
"I love them as I do my own children. Each child has a bed and a wardrobe," he says. "I make sure that when I visit with them during the Eid, each child has new clothes to mark the celebrations." Those who marry receive an apartment in one of the new satellite cities on the outskirts of Cairo, and are presented with a LE10,000 cheque. It goes without saying that Tharwat sings at their nuptials.
Tharwat harbours no naive illusions that he can provide for all the orphans he encounters, however. His goal is to do the best he can for those orphans in his charge. He knows the damage to society as a whole children's exclusion from proper education at a very early age can do. On the children, such marginalisation has lifelong consequences. "Only the very best care and education will do," he says. Accordingly, he endeavours to provide good schooling and recreational facilities for the orphans in his care. As part of the timetable, pupils are able to work toward vocational qualifications. He also stresses religious education, which he deems essential for the children's spiritual and emotional well-being. Each child has a savings account opened upon enrolment in the orphanage.
Tharwat gives the impression of being earnest and amicable, although his geniality is laced with the wariness of one who does not relish the recollection of unpleasant encounters with the media in the past. Somewhat square but nice to know, Tharwat comes across as someone unduly conscientious, one who does everything by the book. The Qur'an is unquestionably his pathfinder.
In life, and in his songs, he is proud of what he contentedly terms his "Egyptianness." He is what in custom and lore is called "ibn balad" and "gada'," loosely meaning "an Egyptian through and through" and "a man of his word" respectively. He rises at the crack of dawn, in sharp contrast to most actors and performing artists who do not rise before noon.
Tharwat's gracious wife Nahed hurries into the kitchen to prepare tea and snacks, and we fall hungrily on his other projects. He is as much a businessman as a performer. An engineer by profession, he cleverly uses his contacts and associates in show business to further his business interests. "Yes, I am a businessman. I am an engineer who takes his profession seriously," he explains. In fairness, the Tharwat Foundation is a rich topic on its own.
Tharwat is genial, in the confident manner of those who think deeply and constructively. Courteous and soft-spoken, he talks readily and extensively about subjects dear to his heart. Nahed, a graduate of Cairo University's Faculty of Fine Arts, is from the eminent Shalaqani family. She is his best friend and trusted business partner as well as being the manager of his domestic affairs. "We met through her late father. I wanted to grow bananas in the desert. My father-in-law was the country's leading banana cultivator, with vast plantations in Qalyubiya [to the immediate north of Cairo], Tharwat remembers. "He advised me to abandon my plans, which he explained were doomed to failure because the banana tree thrives in fertile, well-watered land. We immediately struck up a firm friendship: he considered me a son. He used to weep when I sang songs of praise for the Prophet Mohamed. 'I hope that you will be his bride,' he confided in his daughter."
The couple were married in 1988. Their daughter, Dalia, has a "promising voice" and his son Ahmed sings the songs of Abdel-Wahab and Abdel-Halim Hafez as well as his father's songs. Musical talent clearly runs in the family.
Tharwat is not camera-shy, but he is just as happy working away from the prying eyes of the press. He is happiest when time-tested procedures are being followed, and most secure when receiving and implementing professional advice. He leans back with an odd air of confidence that also betrays a certain vulnerability. His gaze is fixed on the camera and only very occasionally does he look his interlocutor directly in the eye; mostly to press a point or to assess the impact of a comment he has just made.
No crazed teenage fans pursue him about Cairo, scream wildly at his concerts, or plaster the walls of their bedrooms with his posters. Indeed, there is something consciously sanitised about the way his nationalist songs blur the usual emotional battle lines. In some circles, Tharwat is regarded as too much the darling of the Egyptian political establishment. His rather austere style of pop, with its strong nationalistic mood, goes down well with policy-makers, critics and educators. "I sing national songs. I am not a government spokesman," he protests. He has always thrived on raw talent and he has, after all, a good singing voice.
Tharwat is not one for dancing and gyrating on stage. His bearing is dignified, and especially so when singing for children -- his genre of choice. He loves to set an example. He sees himself as a role model for the youngsters, he insists, quite convincingly. He knows that low self- esteem and bad upbringing stifle bold dreams for the future. That is why he wants to give the children at his orphanage a good start in life.
Tharwat is known in show business not only as a good voice, but also for his nice personality. To his friends and fans, he personifies generosity and warmth. Many of his fellow artists are among the staunchest supporters of the orphanage scheme. "God has given me a talent, and I must in turn use it for the public good." He is proud that the lurid life of many of his fellow artists has not lured him. He is not surrounded by doting glamour girls, as some of his peers in show business are.
A less proficient performer than Amr Diab, and less amusing in his observation of social mores than Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, he has strengths that outweigh these limitations. Tharwat lacks the passion and bitter irony of Kazem Al-Saher and the raw sensuousness of Ali El- Haggar. His inflection is somewhat lacking in acerbity, the critical bite so obligatory in Arabic songs. But these seeming drawbacks do not make him any less of a singer. Despite lyrics as free of pop sentiment as Nawrus, or Seagull, his fans' loyalty remains strong. He considers himself a peer of Medhat Saleh, Iman El- Toukhi, Suzanne Attiya and Nadia Mustafa. "I am proud to belong to that generation of artists," Tharwat says, his fingers playing in the air as if he were plucking the strings of a guitar.
His popularity is not confined to Egypt but stretches across the Arab world. He was just back from Libya where he recorded a song, Shams Al-Shita, or Winter Sun. He is a regular star performer at such prestigious music festivals as Carthage, and has sung at Syria's Song Festival of Love and Peace, Iraq's Art Festival and the United Arab Emirates Festival of Song. In these Arab countries, Tharwat receives the red carpet treatment and is received by adulating crowds.
He is not partial to the inscrutable lyrics of some younger generation performers, but instead prefers tried and true genres, songs that appeal to the sensibilities of his society. He sticks to simple love lyrics, nursery rhymes and a repertoire best suited to a children's' choir. Appealing directly to the little ones with his lyrics, Tharwat is also good at using melody and improvisation to highlight meaning and mood.
Influential musical figures gave him many hints on stagecraft. And his talent was recognised early on. Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, perhaps Egypt's most influential musician, composer and singer, saw the promise in his voice. Tharwat considers his song Masriyatna, Hamaha Allah (God Protect Our Egyptianness, 1984), composed by Abdel-Wahab, a watershed in his singing career. Abdel-Wahab also composed Al-Ard Al-Tayiba (The Good Earth). Tharwat acknowledges the influences of Abdel- Wahab and other musical giants. Their stamp of approval was a great boon, especially when he was taking his first faltering steps. His big break came in 1977. "That's when my singing career took off," he says, his face lighting up in fond remembrance.
Tharwat did not take singing lessons, but won first prize in 1977 at a Supreme Council for Youth and Sports national competition. Abdel-Moneim El- Hariri took up his cause and introduced him to the world of cinema. Tharwat sang in the film Athwab Min Al-Ward (Rose Dresses) starring Safaa Abul- Seoud -- another pioneering children's programme presenter and actress.
Soon after in that most fateful year, the distinguished composer Mohamed Sultan composed a song especially for Tharwat: Halat Hobb (A State of Love), with lyrics by Mohamed Hamza. From then on, there was no stopping Tharwat. The reviews were all good and he won standing ovations every night wherever he performed.
Early on in his career, he stared in several films, chief among them Ibn Min fil-Mugtama? (The Son of Which Important Person?). Further extending his interest in cinema and television, he acted in soap operas such as Al-Ghufran (Forgiveness); Tadabir Al-Dunya (The Affairs of the World); Abwab Al- Amal (Doors of Hope). On stage, there was Mohamed Fadel's Aga'eb (Wonders).
His musical career blossomed thanks to numerous songs by Egypt's most notable poets and composers -- Mursi Gamil Aziz, Abdel-Fattah Mustafa, Abdel- Rahman El-Abnoudi, Ma'amoun El-Shinnawi and last but not least Baligh Hamdi. Film scores and theme music for television soon followed. Some songs, however, received critical plaudits but sold poorly. Nevertheless, a whole generation grew up on Mona Ya Mona, a ballad whose blend of stirring emotion and catchy rhythm formed the template for subsequent hits like Nawrus. Few singers could evoke the yearning depths of adolescent heartbreak with quite the impact of Tharwat's baritone croon. Even in this age of digital music, affection and thoughtfulness must come first.
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