The King, Salonaz Sami contends, remains the King
"We have to head out early," I breathed into the phone. At the other end my Iraqi-Canadian friend moaned again. "Otherwise we'll be stuck in traffic." By 7.30pm, as planned, my old tired car living up to the occasion, Hadeel, her little sister -- visiting from Canada, and I were on our way to the Opera House grounds, where, in the Summer Theatre, -- as I had found out 10 days before, initially on Facebook.com -- my idol Mohamed Mounir was performing on Friday 13 July. Hadeel was not the only one: all my friends, all fans, were meeting me there. Finally, I thought to myself as I prepared myself for the evening, I will see and hear the Nubian superstar in the flesh once again. I was not the only one -- anti-riot police at the gates testified to the popularity of the King, as Mounir is sometimes known after the title of one of his songs, and having passed the checkpoint with the code word "Mounir", parking proved next to impossible to find. "We should've set out earlier," smiled Hadeel.
As we approached that part of the parking with a newly set up stage in the open air, on foot, the security presence was saying less and less about Mounir's popularity than official excess: two separate metal detectors, two meticulous purse searches, one very scary sniffing dog. We could only be thankful that there were separate entrances for the two sexes, which speeded things up considerably as far as we were concerned. But it was two hours before the concert would start -- at 10, and we decided to sit down on the asphalt and watch fellow audience members: here were hundreds upon hundreds of fans, representing every conceivable social class, economic background and intellectual persuasion: working-class families, middle-class students in hijab, expats, intellectuals... Periodically cheering would rise, only to die down again when people realised that whoever they had noticed walking along on stage was not Mounir but someone else. My other friends did not arrive until 10.20 and still there was nothing. It never crossed our minds to leave but others were getting impatient. "This is ridiculous," I heard one man tell his wife. "It's 11.20. Let's go!" Like many others who had been about to leave, however, no sooner had they taken a few steps in the direction of the gate than they changed their mind and headed back to the Summer Theatre. Ten minutes after Hadeel insisted that we get closer to the stage -- it was her competitive obsession, she explained -- the cheering became positively insane as the 53-year-old arrived in white shirt, linen trousers and trademark bead necklace. He was smiling.
The passion of the audience greeting him brought tears to my eyes. "I missed you," he said into the microphone. "We love you," everyone cried out. "Once you understand what he is all about," Noha El-Deeb, one 28-year-old audience member, later said, "you can't help loving him." One foreign newspaper had advised visitors to Egypt to do three things: see the Pyramids, drink Nile water and listen to Mohamed Mounir. Thanking the Opera House for making the reunion possible, Mounir explained that he was hoping -- and trying to hold the next concert at the seaside. "You be the sand," he added. "I will be the water!" People were listening attentively -- the hush was incredible -- but once the music started they were not only swaying but singing along. There were dazzling special effects on stage -- fireworks, smoke, bubbles, flames -- and the band was in its element. A few songs down the line Mounir politely asked people to switch off their mobile phones. "Don't you think," he said, "our lives are becoming dangerously dependent on machines? Wouldn't you rather listen than click away with your mobile phone cameras?" As if by magic, hundreds of arms raised to take a picture of him were lowered; people were reaching for their phones to switch them off. Dedicating the next song to the late composer Hassan Abul-Seoud, Mounir said, "he was a magnificent person as well as a magnificent composer and I was very fortunate to work with him."
It was at this point that Mounir announced that two singers who were among the audience would be joining him: "Mai Kassab, everyone!" The young Rotana star walked demurely on stage, and the first thing she said was, "I am here as one of your fans who waited for hours for you to arrive." The two managed to enthral the audience with Min Awwel Lamsah (From the First Touch), one of Mounir's most beautiful love songs. The second guest, Tamer Hosni -- the heart throb beloved of teenage girls who went to prison for avoiding military service and gained notoriety after he was dubbed "generation king", was not received with the same enthusiasm. "Step down. step down," people were yelling. "Mounir's the only King." They only quietened down on Mounir's request: "Give him a chance to talk." And Hosni, saying he was only there because Mounir was his mentor and that Mounir will always be king, explained that it was Mohamed El-Sobki, the producer of his film Omar wa Salma who came up with that name, not him. "We all make mistakes," Mounir commented, referring to Hosni forging a passport to avoid conscription. "What's important is that we learn from them. I went to the army myself back in 1974, with [star singer] Ali El-Haggar. I came out with a million friends." When all three singers performed Alli Sotak Belghona (a song from Youssef Chahine's Al-Maseer, Destiny), people could not help singing along.
Walid El-Shahed, 29, explained Mounir's status with particular eloquence: "He is not only the country's most popular singer, he is also a symbol. Look around -- all those people together say something about him. He's the master." Voices were echoing even louder than Mounir's. Metwalli, another fan, butted in: "His music can change your mood in a fraction of a second, turning the saddest moment into a happy one. Even after he is gone, God forbid, his songs will remain popular for centuries." El-Deeb said it was as much about his charisma and the intrinsic appeal of his voice as the effort he has exerted in renewing music, fusing Nubian melodies with reggae, funk, classical Arabic music and elements of jazz and blues: "His rhythms and melodies gave him a direct line to the young, and he managed to speak to their dreams." Nor, as is the case with so many others, did he stick with love as the only theme of his songs: he found lyrics reflecting a very wide range of concerns, from the political to the philosophical and even spiritual; his name became synonymous with intellectual liberty, renewal and hope in the face of despair. It wasn't until 2.30am that some 25,000 of Mounir's fans let him go at last; on the way to the car we could barely lift our feet, but it had been worth it. A sense of calm descended on us as we finally headed home in my car.
Mounir, who was born to a Nubian family in Aswan, shared his father's passion not only for politics but for music and song at a time of looming war and economic instability. He was often invited by friends and family to sing on various social occasions. After completing secondary school, he went to Cairo to study photography at the Faculty of Applied Arts. While in Cairo, he tried repeatedly to meet with the late composer Baligh Hamdi, who would eventually praise his voice. Lyricist Abdel-Rehim Mansour later introduced him to the Nubian composer-singer Ahmed Mounib, whose songs filled Mounir's first few albums; since Alimouni 'Eneiki (Your eyes taught me, 1977), his first album, he has produced 23 albums and more than 220 songs. It took a while for people to accept his casual style of clothing and laid back approach at a time when singers still wore suits to their concerts and appeared in front of full-scale orchestras. He soon came to define an approach to life. "I have a dream of a better human being and better living standards. I hate corruption and fear, I love dreams that are reasonably conceived, based on logic." All the films in which Mounir starred were engaged with social and historical themes. In Al-Maseer, for example, he played Marwan, a wandering singer in 12th-century Muslim Spain fighting against the rising fundamentalism alongside the philosopher Averroes. "Marwan and I are one and the same," he once said. "An ambitious artist who believes that nothing about art is sinful."
There is talk of Chahine making biopic of Mounir's life; Mounir will be honoured in this year's Arab Music Festival for his lifetime's achievement. According to musical authority Ratiba El-Hifni, the festival's chairwoman, "he has his own unique style that he managed to maintain and develop through the years. There is no one like him." For the first time ever, Mounir is due to give a concert at the Opera House Main Hall to mark its 20th anniversary.