Warda al-Jazairia: The Lives and Loves

File picture dated 21 August 2008 shows Warda al-Jazairia, one of the Arab world's most famous Divas, during her memorable performance on the steps of the Bacchus Temple in the Roman Acropolis of Baalbek in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. Warda died of a heart attack at her apartment in Cairo late on 17 May 2012, according to her family. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Barrak)

By: Rana Hayeck

Published Friday, May 18, 2012

The beloved singer, who passed away last night, had a long and passionate affair with Lebanon. Al-Akhbar held this interview with her just before her very last concert in Beirut last year.

She has called many places home in her 72 years. She has sung of revolutions, homelands and love, shaken hands with presidents, and rubbed shoulders with the stars of a golden age. She has been married twice, suffered long bouts of illness and undergone surgery, and repeatedly returned to the limelight. Warda Muhammad al-Fatouki has lived many lives since her birth in 1939.

Bright and vivacious, she retains her unpretentious charm and self-confident spontaneity. Warda al-Jazairia quickly and effortlessly makes everyone around her feel at ease. She may be a giant of the stage who once gave a two-hour rendition of the song Balash Tefariq(No Need to Leave), but she is also a mother and grandmother, and “the best cook there is,” according to her son Riad, who sat in on our interview in her Beirut hotel ahead of her concert on 2 September 2011.

The gourmet star – whose specialities include harira, couscous and rabbit – praises the use of wine in cooking, as it “gives meat a wonderful flavor.” That is how she spends her time when at her home overlooking the Nile in Egypt. “Cooking, looking after my beloved cats, and listening to old songs. These days I keep replaying Muhammad el-Mougi’s song Lazem Neftereq (We Must Separate) and Baligh Hamdi’s Bawadaak(I’m Saying Goodbye to You),” she said.

At one stage, after a long illness and a liver transplant in 2001, she thought her artistic life was over. “I locked up my house in Cairo and went to Algeria where I spent four years convalescing with my son and his family. I passed my time watching TV, cooking, and singing in the garden.”

But that ended when she got a phone call from the organizing committee of the Baalbak Festival, inviting her to sing at the 2005 event. “That made me think: no, the world hasn’t come to an end.”

As well as her mother having been Lebanese, Warda confesses to a special affection for Lebanon as the county which reunited her with her fans six years ago. The temples of Baalbak were the stage for her comeback.

That was not, in fact, the first time Warda relaunched her career from Lebanon. The country was part of her formative years in the late 1950s. At the time her family had just been deported from France after the authorities found an arms cache in the bar owned by her Algerian father, who was involved in the independence struggle.

The young woman with the alluring voice first made her name in Beirut and Damascus. “I started out singing revolutionary songs,” she said. She proudly recounts how the “Raees”(President), as she still refers to the late Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser, personally requested that she be given a part in Mohammed Abdel Wahab’s operatic production Al-Watan al-Akbar (The Greater Homeland) in 1958. He had heard her singing Algerian patriotic songs on Syrian radio during the union between Egypt and Syria.

It was also from that platform that Warda was plucked by Egyptian producer and director Hilmi Rafla, and given her first movie role in 1962.

“I was the first artist from the Arab Maghreb to move to Egypt after the dancer Laila al-Jazairia, who collaborated with Fareed al-Atrash,” said Warda. She has no time for borders between the Arab Mashreq and Maghreb, nor between East and West. For her, Lebanon is “in my blood”, Egypt – where “the revolution was a must” – is “my beloved,” and Paris “belongs to my childhood.” But the great passion she inherited from her father is Algeria.

“Dad taught me to love my country when we were living in Paris,” she says. But despite the ravages inflicted by French colonialism on the land of a million and a half martyrs, she believes “people must put the past behind them, and not nurture hatred.”

It is hard to imagine hatred being nurtured by this lady, whose eyes gleam child-like with a mixture of kindness and acceptance. She is not without regrets, but does not dwell on remembering the mistakes of the past, because “fate plays a part in this.”

Fate may have had a part in this woman’s life, but the chief role in determining it was played by her own resolve.

As a child in Paris, after her talent became apparent - and she was always trying to get hold of Mohammed Abdel Wahab records - she says she became over-confident. “I was arrogant and conceited,” thinking herself better than all her teachers and fellow pupils in music class. Even so, the first time the 10-year-old was put on a stage behind a microphone at a school concert in 1949, she broke down in tears. After composing herself, she gave a rendition of Asmahan songs which captivated the audience and earned her thunderous applause.

Thus began her relationship with audiences which she later developed in Lebanon. It was here, early on in her professional career, she said, “that I learned how to communicate with an audience and befriend it.”

The love songs she began signing after she first moved to Cairo in the early 1960s won her many more audiences. In Egypt she was sought out by the best-known composers of the time, including Riad al-Sunbati who wrote Balash Tefarraq and Ya Habibi La Tuulli(My Love, Don’t Tell Me). They developed a close friendship, and she named her son after him.

In the mid-1960s “fate” took Warda back to Algeria where she married diplomat Jamal al-Qasry, who made it a condition that she abandon her musical career. But after giving birth to her children Riad and Widad, her resolve got the better of her again. She accepted an invitation from President Houari Boumedienne to sing at Algeria’s independence anniversary celebrations in 1972. Her husband decided not to stand in her way, and the divorce was amicable. “We were more in agreement then than when we decided to get married,” she laughed.

Thus began a new stage in her musical life. She returned to Cairo and to stardom, and not only because she married the man who wrote the songs that made her most famous, composer Baligh Hamdi. She also worked with many of the other top composers and lyricists of the day.

Hamdi “was a failure as a husband, but a musical and artistic genius,” she said.

She also performed in a number of films, including Sawt al-Hubb (Voice of Love) in 1973 and Hikayati Maa al-Zaman (My Tale With Time) in 1974.

Does Warda ever think of retiring? “Yes. After every operation I have,” she replied.

But a glint in her eye tells us the opposite.

We’d love to have Warda back, again and again.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

The interview with Warda al-Jazairia was conducted and published in Arabic in September 2011.

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