A look back at the women who impacted Arab pop culture

The legacy, following and influence of the greatest Arab female singers of all time continue to this day. (Al Arabiya)

Al Arabiya News is marking International Women’s Day, and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, with a special series profiling leading women around the world. Here, we take a look back at the women who proved to be key influencers in the Arab region.

The legacy, following and influence of the greatest Arab female singers of all time continue to this day.

“The songs of those giant Arab voices entwined with the people who grew up listening to them,” Egyptian arts critic Tarek el-Shinnawy told Al Arabiya News.

The impact left by these singers set the gold standard for pop music in the Middle East. Here are five of the Arab world’s legendary voices.

Umm Kalthoum

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Shounaz

Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum, whose career spanned almost 50 years, is dubbed “the Arab diva of the 20th century,” the “lady of Arab singing” and “the star of the East.”

With some 300 songs under her belt - varying in length from 45 to 90 minutes - Umm Kalthoum’s songs articulated the plight of Arab peoples. “She represented an important period in the Arab world’s pop culture,” Shinnawy said.

Born in 1910 to an imam at a village mosque, Umm Kalthoum shared a cultural background with the majority of Egyptians. She died in 1975, but her songs are played to this day.

Leila Mourad

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Shounaz

Throughout a singing and acting career spanning the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, Leila Mourad featured in 27 black-and-white classics of Egyptian cinema.

Known as the “lady of Egyptian cinema,” she also left behind 1,200 songs, mostly performed during her films. “She didn’t hold live concerts as she was known to be too shy,” Shinnawy said.

Born in Cairo and of Jewish descent, Mourad’s career took an unpleasant turn with the creation of Israel in 1948, amid rumors of her alleged connection to Zionism.

She reportedly converted to Islam when she married Egyptian actor Anwar Wagdy. She died in 1995 aged 77.

Sabah

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Shounaz

Singer and actress Sabah, whose real name was Jeanette Gergis al-Feghali, was born to a Christian family in the Lebanese village of Bdedoun. Her career began in Egypt in the 1950s, when she starred in several movies.

Sabah (“morning” in Arabic), was also known as “shahroura” (“singing bird”). Her career included more than 3,000 songs and over 90 films. She died in 2014 of an unspecified illness.

Fairuz

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Lebanese singer Fairuz sang for a unified Lebanon, and was the voice of hope, love and homeland for many across the Arab world.
She was discovered during a school choir recital in 1946 by Lebanese musician Mohammed Flayfel.

Fairuz’s songs were written and composed by The Rahbani Brothers, a duo made up of her husband Assi and his brother Mansour.
Shinnawy said Fairuz “left a significant impact. She came along with the Rahbani brothers, singing uncommon tunes and melodies at the time.”

Being a Syriac Orthodox Christian influenced her singing style, Shinnawy added. “Her songs were a mix of church hymns with contemporary songs.” At 74, Fairuz remains a living part of Lebanon’s culture.

Warda al-Jazairia

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warda

Born in 1940 to an Algerian father and Lebanese mother, Warda al-Jazairia (“Warda the Algerian”) was compared to her predecessors Umm Kalthoum and Fairuz.

Her cinematic and singing career spanned 40 years. Her beginnings were in France, when she sang with other Arab children on local radio.

She returned to Algeria in 1962 after the country gained independence, and later moved to Cairo, where she had at least five lead roles in Egyptian films.

Warda had nearly 300 songs to her name. Her biggest hit was “Batwenes beek” in the late 1970s. She died in 2012 in Cairo, aged 72. 

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