Speaking to the woman who helped put it there, Nader Habib
finds solace in the online music of Mounira El-Mahdiyah
In an unprecedented move the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, on the audio section of the web site Dhakirat Misr Al-Mu'asirah (Modern Memory of Egypt), managed to archive over 100 eminently enjoyable songs in the beautiful voice of Mounira El-Mahdiya (b. Zakiya Hassan Mansour in 1885, d. 1965), the greatest Egyptian singer between the two world wars also known as the Sultana of tarab or musical enchantment. Browsing the site gives access to rare recordings of well-known songs seldom heard in their original formulation and others as yet unheard since they were written.
Many are in the light form of the taqtouqah, which developed as a result of interaction between musicians from the Mashriq with the music of the Maghreb and reached its apogee in the 1940s. The form of the taqtouqah requires a particular kind of composition combined with lyrics written accordingly in the framework of zajal as well as complete command of the maqam or mode in which it is composed, since it involves variations in tune that must not break the rules of the maqam. Ba'd el 'asha yehla el hazar wel farfasha (After dinner is a good time for fun and jokes), Yamama beda wemnen agibha (A white pigeon and where to get it) and Asmar malak rohi (A dark one who possessed my soul), for example: glorious tributes to a genre all but for forgotten.The Sultana's repertoire also includes remarkable poems, generally in classical Arabic, and Maghreb-originating muwwashahat -- Ya farid al husn (You of the unique beauty), for example -- as well as examples of the comic "monologue" -- Aghir 'alek mel-nassim (I am jealous of the breeze) -- and straightforward songs: Haweit bekhatri (I loved by my own will), Tutankhamen or Ya ward ya foll ya yasmine (Roses and jasmines).
The archive, which has been converted from original recordings, comes from various sources, notable among which are contributions from record collectors.According to Suzanne Abed, a researcher with the Modern Memory project, the site includes a comprehensive biography of the Sultana as well as a voice interview in which she tells the story of her career and discusses her works. Mahdiyya's corpus, Abed added, includes 37 poems, 100 taqtouqahs, 16 tunes, eight songs in the form of the dor, seven "monologues" and four mawwals or ballads as well as 42 musical plays. The archive is as such better seen as a selection rather than a comprehensive collection of her works, but it will be a handful for even the least casual listener.Abed went on to point out that Mahdiya was born in the governorate of Sharqiya.
Her father died while she was still a baby and she was brought up by an elder sister, married to a landowner and living in Alexandria where Mahdiya went to school. Yet her link with Zaqaziq, the capital of Shrqiya, was never severed; and she worked as a takht or small orchestra singer performing at weddings and celebrations there. It was at one such event that Mohammad Farag, a friend of one of Cairo's music halls, discovered her talent. He encouraged her to move to where fame and the limelight awaited her.
She spent her first few days in Cairo, in 1905, at the café Farag managed. Soon she was well known as a singer and Oriental dancer at the cafés and bars of Azbakiyah.In the summer of 1915, Aziz Eid gave her a spot between the acts in one performance by his popular comic troupe, which at the time included as yet rising stars in the world of performance like Naguib El-Rihani, Stephan Rosti, Rose El-Yusef and Hassan Fayeq -- some of the greatest pillars of Egyptian theatre and cinema. Their performances, in the course of which Mahdiya made her first large-audience appearance, took place at the Printania Theatre. Mahdiya performed some of the poems set to music by Sheikh Salama Hegazi and she played the role of a young man in love, Hassan.
The Aziz Eid troupe became significantly more popular after she started appearing.Abed indicates that Mahdiya was the first Egyptian woman to appear on stage, barging in on the scene with remarkable courage. By 1917 she had her own troupe, named after her and modeled on the troupe of Sheikh Salama Hegazi, playing the roles he played in the same operettas dressed up as a man. Among the most successful of these plays was Carmen, but the troupe also presented Thais, based on the western opera and known for its European music. Thais proved less popular than Carmen, however, and in 1926 the troupe staged Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, which Sayed Darwish had started composing when he died and which Mohammad Abdelwahab completed. The tunes were better suited to Abdelwahab's voice than the Sultana's, though, and her moon started to wane, together with the moon of musical theatre. Known at the start of her career as Esset Mounira, she was later known as First Lady of Azbakiya and finally as the Sultana. Mahdiya received the award of excellence at the Ministry of Public Works' musical theatre competition in 1926. Over the next 20 years, Mahdiya stopped performing in public. It was not until 1948 that she rented out the Badia Massabni Hall at Opera Square, renaming it Nuzhat Al-Nufouss (meaning The Holiday of the Soul); the press referred to the event as "a breeze of freedom". Mahdiya went back to singing but success was not as forthcoming. Notably, in 1935, she made her first film, El-Ghandourah (The Belle), directed by Mario Folpi.
At the time her house was a gathering point for intellectuals and politicians from Egypt and the Levant. Towards the end of her life Mahdiya would move to a house within the same compound in which she had built herself a grave.Abed was eager to point out that Mahdiya was involved in the women's liberation movement, and led a nationalist movement through her theatre and singing, eventually receiving the Medal of the Arts of the First Order from the state. On Science Day in 1961, President Nasser gave her the Medal of the Arts and Sciences of the First Order, and she was repeatedly rewarded in Morocco, Tunisia and other Arab countries. She died when she was nearly 80, and her career was the subject of a major documentary in the 1970s.