Abdel Halim Hafez’s first appearance on the national theatre in Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria in the summer of 1951 was not as glamorous as he had hoped.
His new song, Safeeni Marra (Be Nice To Me Once), met boos, tomatoes and flying eggs.
The audience wanted him to perform other songs for well-known singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab. But Abdel Halim refused, insisting on performing his song, which led the organisers to kick him off stage.
But after the Egyptian revolution in 1952, Abdel Halim sang the same song at a ceremony held at the el-Andalos Park in central Cairo. This time it was well received.
He then followed it with songs such as Fouq al-Shouq (On the Thorns) and Ala Ad al-Shouq (As Much as the Passion), performed also in his distinctive new style of singing.
Abdel Halim radically transformed the modern Arabic song in terms of lyrics, melodies and performing – and was even sampled by American music superstar Jay-Z several decades later.
But the phenomenon did not always meet approval by his contemporaries in the Egyptian music scene.
His style was rejected by composer Riyad al-Sunbati, who wrote one operetta for Hafez called Lahn al-Wafaa (Melody of Loyalty) in the early 1950s.
Al-Sunbati preferred Abdel Halim’s brother Ismail Shabana, saying that he had a voice that was stronger and calmer.
However, Abdel Halim was well-received by musician Mohamed Abdel Wahab, who realised – after some hesitation – that his was the voice of the future, so he cofounded the company Voice of Art with him.
Abdel Halim, who came from the heart of Egyptian countryside and was diagnosed in his childhood with schistosomiasis (an acute and chronic parasitic disease), was fortunate that his emergence coincided with the beginning of the July 23 revolution.
This gave him the opportunity to sing many songs that turned him into a revolutionary figure during President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, until his death in September 1970.
Abdel Halim knew at the beginning of the revolution that Abdel Nasser would be the future leader – and Abdel Nasser knew that Abdel Halim would be the voice to transfer his ideas to the people.
Abdel Halim sang numerous patriotic songs during that period, a body of music that assured him a permanent place in the hearts of Arabs.
Some of those songs include Al-Sadd al-‘Aali (The High Dam), Hekayet Shaab (The Story of a Nation) and Thawretna al-Masriyya (Our Egyptian Revolution).
Singer of the masses
The late writer Yusuf Idris believed that Abdel Halim was of particular importance in Egyptians’ lives and the 1952 revolution.
Nizar Qabbani, the famous Arab poet, agreed with this view, saying that Abdel Halim was a singer of the masses who led his people with his voice, and was Abdel Nasser’s real ministry of communication.
Israel was also aware of this fact: Moshe Dayan, its then defence minister, said: “Abdel Halim is Abdel Nasser’s hand in influencing Arab masses, and we must remove this hand or scrape it off”.
Egypt’s defeat in the June war of 1967 was personally painful to Abdel Halim.
In collaboration with Abdul Rahman al-Abnudi, a well-known poet, Halim performed many songs expressing the bitterness of the defeat, most famously Adda al-Nahar (The Day has Passed) and Fedai (Freedom Fighter).
He also sang for Jerusalem his famous song, Christ, at the The Royal Albert Hall in London.
A part of the songs says:
“Now, O Jerusalem, your son is like Christ; a stranger, a stranger
The crown of thorns on his forehead, and over his shoulder is the cross
Betrayed, betrayed by the same Jews
Your son, O Jerusalem, just like Christ, must return … on the same land.”
Over the course of those years, his emotionally charged songs affirmed his popularity, and his fame extended into cinema, starring in films such as in Melody of Loyalty, Dalila, Love Story, Sins and My Father is on the Tree.
Tensions and disputes
Abdel Halim’s years of artistic glory were not immune from disputes and tensions.
In 1964, he was caught up in a public dispute with internationally renowned singer Umm Kalthoum at the end of her Revolution Anniversary concert, which was attended by Abdel Nasser.
Abdel Halim appeared on the stage angrily after the party, protesting against Umm Kulthum’s late-night performance.
“Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab insisted that I sing at this time, and I do not know if it is an honour or a prank,” Abdel Halim said.
Umm Kulthum was furious and insisted that Abdel Halim should never share the Revolution Anniversary concert stage with her again.
Abdel Halim had a spat with yet another famous musician of the time, Farid al-Atrash.
For 25 years, Farid had monopolised singing at Sham Ennessim (Egyptian spring holiday), but when he moved to Beirut in 1966, Abdel Halim took his place.
However, in 1970 Farid made a surprise comeback and took back his place as the central figure of Sham Ennessim celebrations, a return that was not well received by Abdel Halim.
This time, it was Abdel Nasser who intervened. He ordered that television and public media broadcast Farid’s concert, and that Abdel Halim’s performance be recorded and aired on TV the following day, while being broadcast live by Sawt al-Arab radio.
Abdel Halim also had a dispute with his old friend and writer, Ihsan Abd al-Quddous, who wrote the book on which Abdel Halim’s film, Lost Between Heaven and Earth, was based.
Abdel Halim was angry when he read the script that told the story of a famous singer who pretended to be ill to draw attention to himself.
The plot shocked Abdel Halim, and as a result, the two men’s long-standing friendship was ruined.
Many of his contemporaries, such as Mohammed Rushdie, Muharram Fouad, Maher al-Attar and others, accused him of antagonising them and trying to monopolise the spotlight.
Abdel Halim defended himself in a television interview a few months before his death. He said he only had one new song a year because of his health, so asked how could he be in the way of anyone?
A tragic end
Despite all of his success and fame, Abdel Halim’s career was destined for a sad ending after he clashed with his audience at the 1976 Spring Festival, where he performed yearly.
Abdel Halim was singing The Cup Reader, a poem by poet Nizar Qabbani, for the first time, when a group of people started interrupting him by whistling and shouting.
Abdel Halim tried to calm them down, but with no luck.
He then stopped singing and angrily told them: “I can whistle and shout like you, too!”
And he did. He whistled at them while grabbing a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
Following this incident, Abdel Halim was subjected to a fierce media campaign which forced him to come out and apologise.
It was not long after that Abdel Halim’s health deteriorated.
During his regular check-up at King’s College Hospital in London in early 1977, Halim’s doctor discovered that there was bleeding in his oesophagus that required a liver transplant, a surgery that was relatively new at the time.
Abdel Halim rejected the operation and, going against the doctors’ advice, insisted that the focus should only be on stopping the bleeding.
His heart stopped as medical staff were trying to stop the bleeding. He passed away on the evening of March 30, 1977, at the age of 48.
More than four decades on, Abdel Halim’s songs and music live on through the lives and memory of many people and artists around the world.