“Al-Andaleeb” (the Nightingale) is the name journalist Galeel al-Bindari gave Abdel Halim Hafez, perfectly describing one of the sweetest voices the Arab world has known.
Little did the audience of the National Theater of Alexandria know that the slight, sweet-looking young man they were making fun of one hot summer night in 1951 would become a legend equaled only by Om Kulthoum in the East, and Elvis Presley in the West. The 22-year-old Abdel Halim Shabana would only months later become Abdel Halim Hafez, known to millions of listeners as Halim, the singer who embodied the dreams, loves, hopes and aspirations of millions of Egyptians and Arabs.
That sad summer performance was to be the last professional failure in the life of Halim. Magdy al-Amrousy, Halim's friend, lawyer and confidante, recounts how Halim was asked by the stubborn Alexandria listeners to sing songs of composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab or Abdel Aziz Mahmoud. “Abdel Halim insisted on singing his own songs “Safini Marra” (Be Truthful With Me) and “Ya Helw Yasmar” (Dark Pretty One) and people kept jeering. The then-unknown singer stopped the musicians with a hand signal and, turning to the audience, said “I came to sing my own songs, and will never sing anybody else's” says al-Amrousy. Dancer Tahia Karioka - who happened to be performing at the same time - encouraged him, saying people did not yet understand his music and insisted Halim take his money from the director of the theater. Halim flatly refused.
No stranger to sadness, Halim was born on June 21, 1929, in Halawat village, Sharqia governorate, losing his mother a week after his birth, his father six months later. His sister, Aliyya, two years his senior, was the only mother he had in the first years of his life. In 1935, his maternal uncle was forced to send him to an orphanage, for it had become too expensive to take care of his sister's children. Actress Nadia Lotfy, who starred in two of Halim's most popular films, “al Khataya” (Sins) and “Abi Fawk al-Shagara” (My Father Up the Tree), notes that although Halim was always the soul of any social gathering, “You could see the sadness in a corner of his eye, hiding there even in his most joyous moments.”
A life spent battling with bilharzia, a common ailment among villagers, deprived Halim of enjoying his unrivaled success to the fullest. His untreated sickness led to complications that were further compounded by his very small liver, a congenital abnormality, according to Mohammed Shabana, Halim's nephew. From the age of 26, Halim suffered innumerable bouts of internal bleeding and had to endure 17 operations.
Lebanese writer Abdel Majid Trad points to one element that probably added another sad dimension to Halim's character - his unfulfilled love life. According to Trad, Halim's first love, Laila, died before they were able to consummate their marriage and his later love affairs never lasted because his illness was always a barrier. “He had to travel, both on business and for treatment, and thus never found it in his heart to tie any woman to him,” Trad says.
It soon became obvious to everyone surrounding Halim that his career was the avenue into which he channeled all his energies. He worked hard on presenting his audiences with nothing but the best. “He never sang one word he did not like,” says al-Amrousy. “So much so that Halim spent LE 68,000 in phone calls to track down Syrian poet Nizar Qabbany because he wanted to change two words he felt uncomfortable with in “Qariat al-Fingan (the Fortuneteller),” his last and favorite song –Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)