Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ballad queen

Moheb Gamil, Fathia Ahmed: Singer of Two Countries, Beirut: Dar Al-Jadid, 2017. pp.165 - Reviewed by Rania Khallaf​

Ballad queen

More than 40 years after her death, Fathia Ahmed — one of the most distinguished singers in early 20th-century Egypt — is finally remembered. The young poet Moheb Gamil’s biography of the all but unknown diva is thoroughly researched and sincerely executed. 

Biographies are a rare treat in Arabic literature, since few writers take on serious research as a rule and publishing houses seldom finance such projects. Shedding light on a significant period in Egyptian history,  this little marvel is illustrated with a wealth of photographs showing Ahmed at various stages of her life, often in the company of such celebrities as Naguib Al-Rihani and Badie Khairi (1918-19). The book is made up of six chapters and four appendices. Each chapter ends with a beautiful portrait of the artist.

Compared to her contemporary Um Kolthoum, Ahmed has solicited little interest over the years. But for Gamil, young as he is, her voice “meant a lot”, as he says in the introduction: “She had a very distinct voice that made her a real diva. The period when I started listening to her songs was an essential stage in my life. I couldn’t avoid my abrupt interest in this peculiar icon, so I embarked on a sincere investigation of her artistic and personal life. But it seems she didn’t like to speak to the media...” 

The lack of precise information or accurate archives in the period 1918-75 proved “shocking”, and Gamil began to sort through conflicting accounts of events and dates, collecting pictures as well as information from a range of archives. Citing his sources with exemplary precision, Gamil provides a comprehensive biography of the singer, making her times come alive.

Ahmed was born in 1905 in Al-Kharanfash in Islamic Cairo. Her father was a well-known munshid, or religious chanter, and it must’ve been through him that she was introduced to Al-Rihani (who praises her in his memoirs as “a charming girl, always smiling”); she evidently became involved in stage musicals at the Rihani Theatre at the age of nine, but she made her first major appearance as a singer in 1918 in a play named Hamar wa Halawa (or “Red and Sweet”), when her salary rose to LE18 per month (an astoundingly high figure for that time). Ahmed also performed with the Amin Sidki and Ali Al-Kassar troupes. 

In 1921 Ahmed made her first journey to Syria with Mahmoud Gabr’s Dar Al-Tamthil Al-Arabi company, a 40-actor troupe with a full orchestra that performed such shows as Carmenia and Haroun Al-Rashid. It seems Ahmed stayed in Syria till 1925, and established the Abiad and Fathia troupe with George Abiad there.

Still, owing to the lack of information, Gamil was unable to find sufficient information about Ahmed’s personal life. The book does not contain anything she ever said, except for a couple of interviews published in different occasions. What it does contain is a record of the songs she performed. The famous hit taqtouqa (a type of light and cheerful song) Ya halawet eddonia ya halawa (or “How sweet life is”), for example, written by Bairam Al-Tonsi and composed by Zakaria Ahmed, was first performed in 1949 as part of an operetta named Doomsday

Gamil also delves into the singer’s vocal characteristics and her artistic achievement. Ahmed left school at the age of nine, yet she enunciated classical Arabic perfectly and performed complex poems throughout her life. She was able to improvise, and was noted for the incredible range of her voice and its flexible timbre. She is known to have collaborated with all the greatest composers of her day: Sayed Darwish, Zakaria Ahmed, Dawoud Hosni, Abul-Ela Mohamed and Ahmed Sabri Al-Nagridi. 

Ballad queen

Because of her mastery of the shorter forms, she became known as the ballad queen. Yet she was able to contribute to the patriotic wave that swept the country on the eve of the British withdrawal in 1956, notably with Al-Galaa (or “Liberation”), an anthem written by Mahmoud Hassan Ismail. She went on contributing to the radio until the early 1960s when she retired. By then she was married to the violinist Ahmed Fouad Allam. She died in the same year as Um Kolthoum, 1975. 

The first appendix collects newspaper material on Ahmed, including quotes by the well-known Abbas Mahmoud Al-Aqqad and Zakaria Ahmed. In the second appendix, Gamil discusses the comparative stardom of Um Kolthoum, Mounira Al-Mahdeya and Ahmed through the 1920s, respectively the Star of the East, the Sultana of Enchantment and the Singer of Two Countries, because Ahmed divided her time between Egypt and Greater Syria. The third and fourth appendices are as comprehensive a discography as Gamil could muster. 

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