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"A dazzling masterpiece."-Nigrizia
"A total immersion into the Arab world's magic and charm."-Avvenimenti
"Om Kalthoum is great. She really is."-Bob Dylan
The story of the Arab world's greatest and most popular singer, Umm Kulthum, told through the eyes of the poet Ahmad Rami, who wrote her lyrics and loved her in vain all his life. Spanning five decades in the history of modern Egypt, this passionate tale of love and longing provides a key to understanding the soul, the aspirations, and the disappointments of the Arab world.
Selim Nassib is also the author of Un amant en Palestine, about the secret relationship between Lebanese-Palestinian banker Albert Pharaon and Golda Meir. Nassib is well known for his journalism and his work as a foreign correspondent.
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I LOVED YOU FOR YOUR VOICE
By Selim Nassib
Europa EditionsSelim Nassib
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI recognized the children timidly murmuring their names; I had opened my arms to those who were born while my back was turned. My mother continually put more food on my plate, watching me as if she thought I might swallow up my native country in one meal. She did not take her eyes off me: I was her flesh. The expansive body of my family took me in, pressing around me, squeezing-the same blood, the same organs. In the end it was slightly repugnant. But why am I telling myself stories, I had been missing all that; and I was aware of that, in the midst of manly embraces, of laughter, and in the midst of the Arabic, above all, once again, both near and far, the background music of that magnificent language, my true country.
There was ululating, there were questions. I'd known Paris, I'd tasted of the fruit: but how was I to tell the story? My mother and my sister Salwa exchanged expectant silences; they alone could measure my three years of absence. My five other brothers and sisters couldn't count. I had returned, with my degree from the Sorbonne, and I was head of the family at the age of twenty-three. I would think back on my room in Paris with regret. There, I had been no one.
Muhammad got me out of there, Muhammad Abd al-Wahab, my only friend. With his western-style suit and histarboosh. He'd whisked me away, and we were walking down the middle of the street, carefree, adolescent, together. We were almost the same age, but for him everything had already opened up. He was a singer, composer, and musician; his talent was dazzling. I could never understand why he chose me for his friend. He'd come to spend a week in Paris; he'd pushed open the door of my room, he'd slept on the floor, we never left one another.
And now he was taking me with him, he wanted to impress me. I'd missed Independence Day, the crowds in the street, the overwhelming joy. I didn't know what I'd missed; even the air must have had a different smell to it. I was looking, breathing: nothing had changed, fortunately. The shops, the loud nocturnal sounds, the rattle of the trams and their smell of electricity: this was the real Cairo. I was dazed by how different everything was from Paris. The warm air surrounded us. Streets disappeared along the tram rails, small shops gleamed in the gaslight, the Orient lay hiding behind the feminine calligraphy of shop signs. Displays of spices, fruit, and coffee; men waiting for friends as always, none of those things had changed. As if the first breath of cooler air was a signal: the nocturnal life was now underway.
We paid and went through the gates into the garden of Ezbekia, and I was suddenly fully immersed in the knowledge that I had arrived. Trees and lanes formed a familiar geography, but it was above all the music and the noise: an oasis of sound that I could have recognized with my eyes closed. I had never left.
A crowd was waiting outside the little theatre. There were, as always, fewer women than men, but there were more tarbooshes than turbans, and more hats than tarbooshes. I was wearing my Basque beret; Muhammad was bare-headed. People recognized him and stood aside to let him pass. With the part in his disheveled hair, he looked a bit like Jean Cocteau. The hall could contain only about one hundred people, and we got the last seats. People spilled into the aisles and sat cross-legged on the floor.
The group was already on the stage, two peasants wearing the long brown jubbah, with turbans on their heads, two sheiks who had come straight from their village; in front of them, in the middle, a boy sat motionless, terrified, his hands held together over his stomach, severe in the way adolescents can be. Only his hands and face were visible: he had a round, slightly fleshy face, which might have been ugly without his huge black eyes. In spite of the heat and the projectors, a Bedouin cape covered his body and a headpiece held in place by two rings was tied under his chin.
Nothing was happening, people were talking, the young man didn't know how to proceed. He sang out a note above the crowd. It was the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Koran. His voice was childish and unsure, but unusual, driven by a rare force, an endless expiration. The boy started the second phrase on a deep note, and his voice rose gradually, holding the note and causing it to vibrate. People responded with a murmur of approval. The holy text unwound on his voice; he was careful to preserve between each phrase an intake of breath that nothing could disturb. The voice rose again in the middle of the pause, to climb into the trebles, then trill for a long time on the highest note. The final call lingered suspended in the air.
Calls of "God is Great!" could be heard. But from the boy, nothing. His eyes still downcast, without the slightest acknowledgment of the audience, until he started up again, and a wave of heat rose to my face, the verses he was uttering were mine, I had written them just before my departure: Passion is betrayed through the eyes. My poem, on those Bedouin lips. I turned to Muhammad: so that was it. I smiled at him but felt like hiding. There was something disagreeable to me about the adolescent's singing. The power, timbre, and mastery of breath were remarkable, it wasn't that, but his voice crept into me despite myself, filled me with something so natural it was obscene, unconscious of itself. Sometimes when a note dropped, a slight hoarseness gave off a whiff of sensuality, something unveiled. I was very ill at ease.
He trembled in his devotion and my words were transformed into what they meant to say; even I believed they were real. They were no longer my words but the thing itself, the feeling, my intimate secret laid bare before everyone. The song was not emerging from his throat alone; his entire body seemed to be quivering, almost wringing itself to project the song. A motionless trance. This smooth-cheeked boy was able to incarnate the pain and the sweetness which I heard myself expressing for the first time, through him. It was inside him.
I knew the melody: Sheik Abu al-Ela had composed it and sung it, he'd had it recorded on an old seventy-eight record. The young man followed the tune through its tiniest nuances; he was utterly faithful to it. His voice made the difference. I'd shaped the letters, but he breathed life into them, there was no end to it. I recognized the final verse: "My secret, and yours, who will protect them?"
I was not returning as a stranger: this was Muhammad's gift. He had not anticipated this almost painful emotion, and I did not want to reveal it to him, so I stood up for the ovation. The young Bedouin was also on his feet. He was trying to return from the absence which had seized hold of him; no one could understand that as well as I. He bowed, his arms flung back. As he moved, the sides of his black cape opened; he closed them again with an abrupt gesture. It didn't take more than a second, but as the garment slipped open, I had time to glimpse the curve of a breast beneath the rough peasant's clothing.
It was with an almost immodest gesture that she flung off her headpiece and released her thick black hair. This evening, I sang for you: those were her first words. No pallor lingered on her face, there was no reason for it any more. She was a Bedouin, not even a Bedouin, a simple peasant girl from a tiny village, Tammay al-Zahayrah, in the delta. The two other people with her were her father, sheik of the local mosque, and her brother, who was also a sheik; it was a family business, in a way. There was something indecent about a girl on stage, but she could earn in one evening what her father earned in a month. Hence the disguise.
"I was afraid; it was your poem, and you were there."
I couldn't fathom it, she was still a boy-girl in my eyes, it was not something you could obliterate just like that: that hint of the hermaphrodite and the beauty of her voice seemed mysteriously linked. It was fascinating and rather monstrous. I was troubled; in that moment and the one which followed, no words came to me. Muhammad stood next to me, the two sheiks stood near their protegee, smiling: it was ridiculous. I took her hand and raised it to my lips, a silent homage, that should suffice, but her fingers relaxed at once, her arm opened and followed my movement. I could feel the slight physical urgency, her invisible acceptance. She gave a little laugh of contentment. A spark lit her eyes, the fraction of a second: I could see it distinctly, her sharp gaze, of pure power, pure delight.
"We are very flattered ... it's a great honor ... a man like yourself ..."
Sheik Ibrahim came to my rescue, that's what social niceties are for, without a certain ritual one is torn apart.
"She sang my poem, the honor was all mine."
I was saying this to the father, but his daughter's eyes never left mine. There was something Asian about the way she screwed up her eyes, and she was reading my lips, even into my mind, openly, as if she were at home.
"Why don't you write for me?" she asked in a low voice.
"I will write for you."
"Write things that I can sing."
"I'm not sure I understand,"
"How many people understand your words? I mean ordinary people, peasants ... To sing Passion Is Betrayed, I had to ask for help from Sheik Abu al-Ela."
"Poetry is written in classical Arabic."
"Give it up for me, keep it for others. Why can't there be poetry in a language which everyone understands, why not?"
Muhammad was looking at me, dumbfounded. He sang my texts, he was my friend, he would never have dared to ask me such a thing. This young girl whom I had just met: he heard me, and I heard myself, reply:
"I don't know if I can manage it ... I can try."
"I'm leaving tomorrow for the seaside with my parents, to Ras-el-Bar, we'll be spending the summer there. When I get back, come and see me. I live on Kola Street, in Abdine-Sheik Abu al-Ela will tell you where."
She gave a slight laugh. She turned to her father, her palms open; she was restoring the power to him.
Excerpted from I LOVED YOU FOR YOUR VOICE by Selim Nassib Excerpted by permission.
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