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Published on August 23, 2001

The king is in the house

Everyone knows Adawiya. Many have strong feelings against him; most of them have never heard him sing. “It’s enough to look at him,” they claim. Well, the man is no beauty king: short, swarthy, coarse blow-dried hair, a lopsided mouth, and shiny suits. Many men, however, would break a leg to master the effect he has on a crowd — especially on women. Once Adawiya is on stage, spectators instantly lose their elegant, arrogant poise and climb on the very tables for lack of space on the dance floor — at any five-star hotel. Yes, he comes from the pits and, yes, his original trade was plumbing. But no, he is not an imbecile.

Where exactly he was born is irrelevant: one haara is as good as the next. It all began during primary school. He would skip classes and go to Mohamed Ali Street, where he listened in awe; listened, and sometimes joined “the masters of saltana.” He eventually quit school altogether and moved to “that magic street,” where he embarked on his own career. “My brothers were ashamed of me — my family is from Upper Egypt, remember — because they could not accept that a man would sing, especially among belly-dancers. But I liked to sing, what could I do? I felt it was a gift from God that I simply had to make use of.”

But what precisely is saltana? To most people the word evokes derogatory connotations of a drugged state, the very state they imagine Adawiya to be in all his waking hours (“I could have a nice loaded shisha in the privacy of my home or among friends, but does that really matter?”). Adawiya clarifies at length: “I am a saltangi. Saltana is my thing — I can sing, and alternate between, different Oriental maqamat: from the rasd, I can slide into nahawand, then into higaz; I can play with sika and move to bayati, to saba. This is saltana — it’s all in the maqam. That, I have achieved after a tough and tempestuous life. I have, basically, seen the depth of the pits when I started from the very bottom of the ladder — Ahmed Adawiya has really scraped the rocks with his bare hands. It is my singing experience in mulids and tents that founded my entire career. My own talent, combined with such a life, has qualified me for the equivalent of a PhD in music. I never studied music, except through feeling, listening and a tough life. Many musicians have reached top academic degrees in music, but they do not have saltana; they turn to someone like me and seek my experience in saltana. The mawwal is my game. Adawiya does it right. I sing all maqamat in the mawwal. This is history. I am a whole history.”

He sounds awfully conceited, yet his spontaneous simplicity and innate charm somehow manage to tone down his self-referential praise. He looks you in the eye (how many people can still do that?), denies statements he made earlier if they sound too pompous and, with the same sincerity, repeats the exact same words after uttering the absolving formula: “God spare me the evils of vanity.” Adawiya once claimed he was Sadat’s favourite singer. “Anis Mansour loves me,” he retorts. “I never saw a man love another like Abdel-Halim loved me.” The mention of Abdel-Halim sets him off singing Hafez’s favourite Adawiya song:

If they blame me, I am not to blame;
You blame me, I am not to blame:
Your amber cheeks,
Your bronzed brow,
Your sweet spirit,
I’ll grill shrimps for you.
Yalla, yalla al-salama,
O night, you pasha, o night,
Quench the thirsty, o night,
yalla, la, li, la, la, la, la, la,
yalala, la, la, la, lla,
You’re full of pain, o night,
You come and you go, o night,
ya leil ya basha ya leil

But mentioning Abdel-Halim also meant Adawiya was ready to talk about the start of a brilliant career. He was discovered by no less than Maamoun El-Shennawi, the great poet and lyricist who wrote for Abdel-Halim, Umm Kulthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. “He heard me at a private birthday party held by Sherifa Fadel, also attended by most of the giants of the time (Abdel-Halim Hafez, Farid El-Atrash, Abdel-Wahab, Umm Kulthoum, Fayza Ahmed, Warda). I reared my head among giants. If I didn’t have genuine talent, I would never have stood a chance. Not only that, but these people loved me. Abdel-Halim was so infatuated by Adawiya that some people at the time went as far as to say that he was, God forbid, jealous of him. On the contrary, he encouraged me, and gave me advice. The same with Baligh Hamdi. Maamoun discovered me. He said ‘Ahmed, your voice is full of suffering, it is the voice of an orphan. When you sing the mawwal, I feel so blue as to be on the verge of tears. I like your voice’.” The next thing Adawiya knew, he was in El-Shennawi’s office at Sawt Al-Hobb, of which he was artistic manager. “I didn’t believe him. I was scared. But I also realised that this man must believe in me.” El-Shennawi then presented Adawiya, and his song Al-Sahh Al-Dahh Enbou, to Atef Montasser; the man reacted with contempt only “to be scolded by Shennawi who accused him of having no taste.”

El-Shennawi wrote the lyrics of Sib Wana A-Sib (I’ll Let Go If You Do), composed by Sayed Mekkawi. The couple then proceeding to write Salam Merabba’ (Salute).

‘Amm ya Saheb Al-Gamal (You’re Endowed with Beauty), Salametha Umm Hassan (Get Well Soon, Umm Hassan), Habba Fawq (Up a Bit), Kulluh Ala Kulluh (Topsy Turvy), Ya Bint Al-Sultan (The Sultan’s Daughter), Ya Bint Al-Amir (The Emir’s Daughter), Ya Leil Ya Basha (O Night, You Pasha), Habibi Ya Assal (Honey, My Beloved), as well as some beautiful mawawil launched Adawiya into immediate popularity.

What ensued was a permanent niche among the brightest stars, 200 songs, hundreds of mawawil, concerts and private parties in London, Paris, America, Canada and Australia, millions of pounds, his own production company, Adawiyat, and 18 films (“I was a fruit for directors and producers thanks to my success at the box office,” he boasts), among which two personal favourites are Khada’atni Emra’a (Betrayed by a Woman) and Hassan Beih Al-Ghalban (Poor Hassan Bey). Yet all is not roses in a life of wealth and fame: endless rumours plagued him. A particularly sensitive one captivated the public’s interest for a length of time; it was what he refers to as “the accident.” Rumours spread that a man from an influential Arab family had physically deprived him of his manhood as punishment for having had an affair with a princess of the household. The true story never surfaced. Many anticipated his first concert, ignorantly expecting the pitch of his voice to put an end to speculations. But it took Adawiya five long years and LE4 million worth of medical treatment to make a comeback. And his voice was the same. True, his gait was suspiciously altered, but the story was never confirmed. Adawiya finds the whole issue rather distasteful, pausing every few words to throw a “eib” (shame) on those who spoke so nastily, assuring that he is “a full man”; and off he goes again:

Tell me where to go, beautiful
It is crowded and the night is falling
And the one I love, the one I love
Lives in an alley on the inside of the inside
What caused me real pain
And turned my bones into sawdust
Is but parting with the beloved
Just as I walk in through the door

Of course, the real hit was the Hani Shenouda-composed Zahma (Traffic), and with good reason. It spoke of an overcrowded world, a world that had become a mulid with no master. Adawiya had anticipated the population burst, the consumerist craze that was to drive this overpopulated city to self-destruction: Zahma ya dunia zahma, zahma w’tahoo al-habayib, zahma wala ‘adsh rahma, mulid we sahbuh ghayib.

There were many profound and meaningful interpretations of his songs, some by those who unconsciously had to justify their admiration of this simple sha’bi singer, and others because the lyrics readily lent themselves to such a practice. The man himself, however, never meant to attribute political connotations to his songs: “I am far from politics. I commend peace, of course, and am only happy to see others attribute such meanings to my lyrics, but as for intention, it was never there.” Among those “others” are Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz who, when asked by Mufid Fawzi during an interview who his favourite singer was, simply answered “Ahmed Adawiya”. Fawzi was astounded. “What is so wrong with Adawiya?” retorted Mahfouz. “A genuine son of the people, a true offspring of the Egyptian hara,” adding that when Adawiya sang Sib Wana A-Sib (I’ll Let Go If You Do) he was talking of Palestine to the Israelis: you let go of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and I’ll let go of the stones. Or so the story goes.

Adawiya does admit, however, that Salametha Umm Hassan referred to Egypt after the 1967 defeat. He wished her a speedy recovery and hoped the evil eye that had struck Hassan, the Egyptian soldier, would let him be. Adawiya is well aware of the fact that claiming his lyrics are political would win him the approval of thousands who treat his songs with the condescension they see fit for the ramblings of a base plumber. But does he really care for their approval?

While his own influences were Mohamed Abdel-Muttilib, Shafiq Galal, Mohamed El-Ezabi and Mohamed Rushdi, Adawiya is the sole true influence on the entire new generation of sha’bi singers. Most call him ustazi (my teacher) or ‘ammi (my uncle), as they rush to kiss his hand; some emulate him, some ridicule him, some refer to him on every album, some name their sons, or even themselves, after him for quick profit. He knows every single detail of the sha’bi world; if one of the boys trespasses Adawiya can hurl insults or can dismiss him with an avuncular tug on the ear. But who would dare? Besides, they all love him and he loves them back: “Hassan El-Asmar, Hakim, Magdi El-Sherbini, Tareq El-Sheikh, Magdi Talaat. I love them all. They’re all good kids. I also like Shaaban Abdel-Rehim’s style, although it is slightly different. This one has his own character [pronounced karaktarak].” They’re all good, everyone’s good — although he has a few opinions he’d rather not share, and his personal favourite remains Mohamed Mohie, but still, for Adawiya everyone’s habibi. Of the same generation as Hani Shaker, Ali El-Haggar, Mohamed Fouad, Iman El-Bahr Darwish and Mohamed Tharwat at Sawt Al-Hobb, none of these socially accepted singers has achieved the fame that Adawiya has. “I am the king of saltana.”

“My nerves can’t take this anymore: you’re here and I’ve been looking all around for you,” says an intruder who burst in to greet Adawiya. “I just had to follow the light and found my way here. I couldn’t believe Adawiya was in the house and not give my love and respect.” This scenario was repeated several times during the course of the interview, ending with a big crowd that refused to leave until he left with them to spend together what was left of the night (it was already 4am).

“People gave me the recognition I deserve. My popularity is unrivalled. I became an icon, and I am very satisfied. Even those who pretentiously claim that they are too superior to listen to my songs, still do, either in secret or they unconsciously memorise my tunes, unaware of what they are. They think they are too chic; I am the king of chic,” he says as he lights another Cartier cigarette, showing off his diamond-studded watch. But as to who will be the new icon of sha’bi, it is a mystery. One thing is sure: Egypt only gave us one Adawiya.

Photo from Funkypharaoh website

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