OBITUARY : Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad

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The Independent Online
Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad was one of a number of Egyptian poets who started their career as colloquial poets and song writers on the heels of Salah Jaheen's lyrical revolution of the 1960s, which brought colloquial Egyptian poetry forcefully to the attention of literary circles.

Muhammad's output exceeded 1,000 songs at the time of his death. They can be seen as an extensive record of the transformation of the Arab psyche and sentiments of the last four decades. The songs were marked by their conversational nature and dramatic structure and covered the whole range of song-writing from the patriotic to the situational. In addition, he wrote the lyrics for a number of successful musicals and television soaps including Sayyidati al-Jamilah ("My Fair Lady"), Rayyah wa-Sukaynah ("Rayya and Sukayna") and Awraq al-Ward ("Rose Petals").

The wide interest in the work of Muhammad and other lyrical poets of the Egyptian vernacular reflects a marked change in Arab culture, in which the Koran dictates the literary and aesthetic scale of values, and which is strongly oriented towards formal language and its literary products. It gives little attention to oral, folk and unorthodox forms of creativity. As a result some of the most important Arab poets, such as Bayram al-Tunis and Kamil al-Khulai, went unnoticed in literary circles because their work was written in one of the several dialects or vernaculars of the Arab world or was part of the various oral performances, although they often attained a much larger audience than their literary-language counterparts.

After centuries of overlooking and marginalising oral literature and colloquial modes of expression the literary scene started to grant them prominence and respectability from the 1960s onwards. This was partly due to a recognition of the importance of cultural studies which put many creative forms, such as songs, television soaps and films, on a par with respectable literary genres. In the field of colloquial poetry and song- writing, the change was also due to the seminal work of the late Salah Jaheen. When Jaheen's poetry was sung by the most prominent contemporary Egyptian singers (such as the great Umm Kalthoom, the Edith Piaf of the Orient, and Abd al-Halim Hafiz), it took the audience by storm and gained for song-writing the talent of a group of young poets who radically changed the nature of the Arab song.

Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad was born in 1930 in the popular quarter of Jammaliyya in old Cairo. His father was a teacher in the Azhar, the main religious educational institution in Egypt. Muhammad started his education in a traditional manner by learning the Koran and then went to primary and secondary schools. He did not complete his education and instead went on to work as a clerk in Misr Oil Company in Cairo. While working there, he started to write colloquial poems and offered some of them to the eminent singer Fayza Ahmad, who gave the first performance of one of Muhammad's songs in 1953. With the help of Jaheen, Muhammad moved to work for the influential weekly paper Rus Al-Yusouf and furthered his contacts with lyrical poets and song-writers.

The great break in his career came when Umm Kalthoom, at the peak of her career as the most influential singer in the Arab world sang Muhammad's song "Hubb Ayh?" ("What Kind of Love?") in 1960. The song was set to music by the talented young musician Baleegh Hamdy and attained instant acclaim throughout the Arab world. It heralded a new sensibility and a different type of love song, in which soggy despondent sentimentality was replaced by a pensive desire to explore the meaning of love, question its hackneyed cliches, and propose a new type of love based on reciprocal understanding, gender equality and rational commitment. The prevalence of the interrogative mode of expression throughout the song reflects a tendency to question received wisdom and challenge established norms, which was part of the new ethos of the 1960s. Umm Kalthoom went on to sing eight more of Muhammad's songs, including her very last song, "Hakam alayna al-Hawa" ("The Dictates of Love").

Muhammad's songs were sung by such prominent Arab singers as A. Hafix, Shadiyah, A. Radi and M. Fuad, in Egypt, and the Syrian F. Ahmad, the Algerian Wardah, the Tunisian Latifah and the Moroccan Samira Said. He collaborated with M. Abd al-Wahhab, R. Sunbati, S. Makkawi, B. Ham-dy, K. al-Taweel, M. al-Muji and A. Shiraii. Because song is a constant dialogue between words and music, Muhammad's sensitive words influenced the compositional skills of these often very different musicians and contributed to the development of their music. His success did not entice him to confine his work to successful musicians or popular singers, and he continued to work with the new singers and musicians of the 1980s and 1990s.

Sabry Hafez

Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad, poet and song-writer: born Jammaliyya, Cairo 1930; married (one son, one daughter); died Muhandiseen, Cairo 15 January 1996.