Abdul Halim Hafez with Jamal Abdul Nasser Image Credit: Supplied

He was a musical giant amidst world artists. His music is timeless. Egyptian icon Abdul Halim Hafez continues to live on in Arabic music and song long after his death. He remains in the hearts of the old, middle-aged and young, due to the tremendous contributions he made to the music industry. It is no wonder he is still considered among the ‘Great Four of Arab Music’ along with Umm Kulthum, Mohammad Abdul Wahab and Farid Al Atrash. When he died on March 30, 1977, the New York Times referred to Abdul Halim as the Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra of the Arab world.

In his heyday, he was invariably called the ‘King of Romance’, ‘King of Arab Music’, ‘King of Emotions and Feelings’, ‘Ambassador of Love’ and the ‘Son of the Revolution.’

Becoming a cultural icon

During Abdul Halim Hafez’s career, he was loved by millions. Nicknamed the ‘dark-skinned nightingale’ for his sweet, soft and tender voice that was passionate until the end, he become a cultural and artistic phenomenon in Egypt and the Arab world. His was “the sound of resilience” according to Al Ahram, while others complimented his “unique” and “rare” voice.

Well-known Egyptian songwriter Hilmi Bakr put it this way: “His was a unique singing career. His voice wasn’t great or strong but he was in a school of his own in a world of expression and feeling. His voice didn’t depend on its strength or high pitch… it was the expression and feeling in his singing, and the vocabulary of the poet he communicated in harmony during his performance.”

Many others blessed Abdul Halim’s voice, including writers, poets, producers and journalists. They were all as enthralled as his audiences. “His voice is full of feelings and composure,” said late journalist and founder of Akhbar Al Youm, Mustapha Amin. “In his ‘weak’ voice, there was all the pain and sorrow he felt in his heart. His voice reflected his pain loudly.”

Late Syrian poet Nizar Al Qabbani, whose Arabic poem ‘Qari’at Al Fingan’ (or ‘The Fortune Teller’) was the last song Abdul Halim sang in 1977, put it another way: “The secret of Abdul Halim is he sang with power, pride and determination. Challenging the impossible, he sang honestly to the people. That is rare to repeat, and people loved him in the same honest way.”

In an earlier television interview, Abdul Halim said he had been in contact with Al Qabbani, who had sent him the poem directly after it was composed. “Nizar told me, ‘you are daring, you will not be afraid to sing these words’,” Abdul Halim told the interviewer.

Later on, Egyptian writer Anees Mansour was quoted as saying: “Abdul Halim Hafez had the most delicate and saddest of voices, bleeding love and torment.”

Nobel laureate Najeeb Mafouth, himself a literary giant, added: “Hafez had an effective, influential, warm, imaginative and delicate but strong voice. The songs of Abdul Halim Hafez were a key that opened the hearts of people, his revolutionary songs were echoed by everyone.”

A poet and childhood friend of Abdul Halim Hafez’s commented that: “Abdul Halim sung of the dreams and the national project which people had been thirsty for... he was surrounded by [artistic] giants like Salah Jaheen, Kamal Al Taweel and Mohammad Al Mougi and Baliegh Hamadi [who] made him, and he made them.”

Well-known painter, the late Salah Taher, said: “Abdul Halim Hafez is an eastern painter in his songs… there are three principle colours — yellow, red and blue. He collates these colours in his voice. There is a balance, rhythm and response which is akin to the structure of the painting. His voice was a distinctive melody, a structure of smoothness, harmony and interdependence.”

Musical career

Hafez’s musical journey was a long and arduous one of commitment and struggle. Abdul Halim Hafez was his stage name — his real name was Abdul Halim Al Shabana, the fourth child of Shaikh Ali Ismail Shabana. He was born on June 21, 1929, in Al Halawat, 80 kilometres north of Cairo. He was orphaned at an early age. His mother died days after he was born and at the age of five his father died as well. The children were brought up by their maternal uncle. Abdul Halim was always interested in music, and was nurtured by his older brother, Ismail, who was a public school music teacher.

In 1943, Abdul Halim entered the High Arab Music Institute in Cairo, where he learned to play different kinds of instruments such as the oboe, drums, piano, oud, clarinet and guitar. After four years of study he became a music teacher in 1948, which lasted until 1950 when he got his first big break at the Egyptian National Radio Station, playing the oboe.

This was his launchpad into the world of singing, according to music professor Dr Zain Nassar of the High Institute for Criticism in the Art Academy in Cairo. “People forget he was a professional musician who played the oboe in the Orchestra of the Egyptian National Radio,” Nassar said.

“The nature of the oboe allows the player to hold deep amounts of breath in his chest, which he lets out in a concentrated way through the narrow tube leading to the mouth of the instrument,” Nassar explains on Al Moheet, an Arabic website. “This process benefited Hafez when he turned to singing for he was able to sing long beautiful sentences without cutting them short to take in his breath.”

From the early 1950s, Abdul Halim’s live concerts were an immediate hit with his audiences. He started singing patriotic songs and emotional love songs in an auspicious musical career that spanned nearly three decades. Despite being diagnosed with belherzia, a rare parasitic waterborne disease he contracted at a young age which contributed to his death, it never effected his emotional attachment to singing. Rather, it added to his commitment to being a great, popular artist.

Sadness behind the song

But there was a twist in his tale. In the early 1950s, his songs were happy, jolly and hopeful. Abdul Halim reflected the beauty of life when he sung about the morning, night, silence, dreams, dawn and so forth. This changed after 1955, when belherzia started taking its toll on him. The production, composition and writing of his songs continued at top speed, and Abdul Halim Hafez proved to be a prolific artist. But there was a much sadder tone to his voice and his music.

Mustapha Al Darmani, writing in Al Ahram in the early 1970s, reflected on this. “I remember how he used to make millions happy with his great songs, but at the same time he was very sad because of his illness and travels to London to be treated. This was reflected in [the song] ‘Tear of Sadness’,” he said. “Hafez used to hide his melancholy from his audiences, as if he was happy singing while attracting the ovations of audiences without them knowing of his pain and internal sadness.”

The rise of Abdul Halim Hafez in the early 1950s came during a period of political, economic and cultural upheaval in Egypt. The music scene was changing. Music professor Walid Shousha, of the Fine Art Academy and former curator of the Umm Kulthum Museum, elaborated: “The rise of Abdul Halim Hafez came during a critical transition phase for music, one that was commanded by the ‘masters of melody’: the trio of composers in Riyadh Al Sunbati, Mohammad Al Qassabji and Zakria Ahmad who monopolised the music scene and composed for Umm Kulthum.”

“The end of the 1940s witnessed the emergence of new blood in the form of the young Mohammad Abdul Wahab who was a ‘factory of new thoughts’,” according to Shousha. “The trio was exhausted, which gave way to new voices and a new musical messages based on different cultural themes set by the new Egyptian republic signified by the military coup of 1952 by colonel Jamal Abdul Nasser.

“There was the emergence of new natural voices and new lyrics with composers like Kamal Al Taweel, Baligh Hamdi and Mohammad Al Mougi and these relate to the Abdul Halim Hafez generation who were presenting different models of music”, he said.

“This was a new era as Abdul Halim was a youth making music; he had a youthful spirit and much of his art was out of spontaneity, from his lack of experience and the intense emotion he was not able to control. Because of his youth, there was a daring element to what he did.”

This may not be how the ‘dark-skiined nightingale’ thought of himself, however. His spontaneity and intense emotion made him want to create a new style for his singing, and he was helped by the composers he was surrounded by. This new style was enchanting for audiences whose musical tastes were changing according to the era of the 1950s and 1960s where Egyptian society was becoming much more globalised and open to the world.

Abdul Halim Hafez used to say: “I am a style [icon] and don’t copy anyone”. According to Nassar, Abdul Halim was very sharp: he planned his style by himself and he wanted to be distinctive and distinguished despite the fact he was surrounded by the musical styles of giants like Umm Kulthum and Farid Al Atrash. At first, Nasser says Abdul Halim was attacked because critics felt his style was western, but eventually “he presented a new successful experience with a new colour in song that didn’t differ much from Arabic music.”

The singer’s friend, poet Abdul Rahman Al Abnoudi, reflected: “His distinguished style was built because of the fact he was a close friend to most successful Egyptian poets, including Salah Jaheen, Morsy Jameel Aziz and Hassan Al Sayed. These poets allowed him to develop in the way he wanted to.”

“Hafez’s relationship with his co-workers was a partnership in creative production as he knew how to choose his songs and often discussed the ideas and lyrics with us,” Abnoudi added, emphasising the fact he adopted a ‘workshop style’ in working with poets and composers.

Today, this is clear when watching many of his concerts on tape and on the internet. The Egyptian singer had a relaxed style, evident in the way he would involve the audiences in intense, rhythmical clapping during his concerts, both in the musical interludes and while singing. He would chat with members of the orchestra, drawing their attention and even joking with them both during rehearsals and whilst leading them live. His was a relaxed and smiling style that carried warmth.

It is said he made 300 recordings in his lifetime, but there was more to come.

From song to screen

While his singing career was in full swing, Abdul Halim’s film acting career was also taking off. Abdul Halim made around 16 motion pictures, his first two involving just his voice. One of these earlier films, ‘Bread Seller’ in 1953, starred the late well-known Egyptian actor Shukri Sirhan who was supposedly singing, but with Abdul Halim’s voice. This was only a brief stint, and subsequently Abdul Halim sang as himself in all of his films. In 1956 he starred in Dalila, the first colour film in Egypt and the Arab world. He co-starred with famed Egyptian actors of the time such as Zobayda Tharwat, Shadia and Rushdi Abatha.

His acting career continued until 1968 when he made the controversial film ‘Abi Fouq Al Shajra’ (‘My Father Atop a Tree’), starring Nadia Lutfi and Mirvat Amin. It was filmed on location in Alexandria and Lebanon, and written by top playwright and novelist Ihsaan Abdul Qadoos. Audiences were happy with the film and it was seen all over the Arab world, although critics considered some scenes to be too daring.

But the daring element reflected the life of Abdul Halim, who throughout his career played alongside lovable actors such as Faten Hamama, Foad Al Muhandis, Omar Al Sharif, Salah Abu Yousef, Zienat Sidqi, Lubna Abdul Aziz, Soad Husni, Ahmad Ramzi, Imad Hamdi and Yousef Shabaan. They were household names in Egypt and the Arab world.

Shadia, who starred with Abdul Halim in three films, boosting his film career in 1955, 1956 and 1967, was glowing with praise. “He sent the giants around him to tears. He is a feeling artist who protected his art with careful detail,” she once commented.

Abdul Halim Hafez remained an eligible bachelor until the day he died. He was married to his music, his songs, and the illness he was afflicted with all his life, undergoing nearly 60 operations and telling people “this is my fate.” Yet he was romantically associated with different women, according to Omnia Saeed, who wrote about the five women Abdul Halim was thought to have been associated with over the years in Egypt, Morocco, Paris and Lebanon.

His real love was Egyptian heart-throb and actress Soad Husni. It was rumoured they were married for six years but this was never confirmed, and his friend and lawyer, Majdi Al Amrousi totally rejected the notion. “The reason for this rumour was Hafez used to spend time in her flat in Al Zamalek, which is near his flat overlooking the fish garden,” he said.

Abdul Halim’s personal physician Dr Hisham Issa, in his book Halim wa Ina (Halim and I), said: “Soad was the real love in his life and this is the only time he wanted to get married. I can only say he searched for another Soad Husni all the time.”

His musical performances extended beyond the geography of Egypt. He performed concerts all over the Arab world in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait, and sang for Algeria when it gained independence. As well as becoming friends with Abdul Nasser, he befriended the late king Hussein of Jordan, the late King Hassan II of Morocco as well as one-time Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba.

When he died, the whole of Egypt rose to commemorate him and take his coffin to its final resting place in Cairo. It was a day of national mourning, and it is said that over two million people attended his funeral.

As the funeral procession passed, it was reported that a number of young women threw themselves out of their balconies. It was the end of an important cultural and historical era that has since continued into the bindings of Egyptian life. After several decades, at the time of the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt in 2011, his songs blasted through speakers as part of a great revolutionary era. Their momentum has been maintained ever since. “He is a person that transcends time,” says Egyptian television host Dr Hala Sirhan.

Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.