In one of her sleepless-night-ponderings, Egyptian-American writer Mona Shadia considers how the queen of Oriental music shaped a crippled vision of love.
I had been contemplating the Enta Omry (you’re my life, in Arabic) song by legendary Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum for a few hours when I was struck by an epiphany.
I wasn't even listening to the song, it just crossed my mind, as random shenanigans often do, leaving me sleepless to wonder and lament.
There is a line in particular that, when translated into English, reads: "before my eyes saw you, my life didn’t count; how can [people] count it as part of my life?" It sounds much more sophisticated and heartbreakingly romantic in Arabic. I can’t possibly explain in words the feelings that come when one listens to the music and lyrics of storied Egyptian songs. And it doesn’t matter if you speak Arabic or not, listening to it is worth every 57-plus minute. Yes, back then we didn’t mess around with our songs, we went on and on…and on and on about love, how heartbroken we were before we found it, and what if feels to finally have it in our lives.
But back to that line: Before I laid eyes on you, my life didn’t count.
Om… Are you serious!? You mean to tell me that your life didn't matter before you met the fool? You never took yourself on an enchanting vacation or two? Never bought yourself a beautiful luxurious handbag or a few? Never sat alone in silence and felt a sense of contentment with your life and the way you contribute to society?!
She goes on: And only now I started loving my life, and worry that time and life will pass by too fast.
I keep thinking this is at the heart of what's wrong with our society and relationships: we are led to believe through songs, poetry, traditions, movies and stories that we are less valuable single than with someone. This doesn’t only apply to women but to men, too. The pressure is much higher on women, however.
One would wonder what a 32-year-old-broad-living-in-sunny-Southern-California-for-the-last-nearly-18-years is doing listening to the old songs of a woman who died long before I was born. It’s because this shit is real good. It runs in my veins like blood, awakens my battered soul - and tugs at my broken heart like a hammer pounding my head.
Yes, yes it does.
You can’t expect me to be the old, weird soul that I am and get inspired by the songs of someone like Amr Diab (barf). And it’s not like most of the new stuff, English or Arabic, is better either. Not only are the new songs damaging to the minds and self-esteems of young women, they don’t even make sense. I try to make sense of it all. I analyse it but I get confused and getting me confused is never a good idea.
I am thinking, why couldn’t the song say ‘my life rocked before you’? Why can't it say ‘I was a serious badass having the time of my life and now I'll be an ever bigger badass rocking my life with you’!? Or without you?! (Insert smirk emoji face here). Om Kalthoum would have made that sound sensational.
One should probably not think too much about this stuff, but young girls should be taught to value who they are, single or with someone. We should teach girls to find happiness from within, and to want and to long for deep and fulfilling love, too, but the kind that doesn’t cripple us into thinking we’re not valuable without it, or that we’re not enough. I think the same goes for men. You don’t want me to begin analyzing some of Abdel Halim’s songs, do you? I really love him, much more than Om Kalthoum, so I’d rather not go there publicly.
By the way, this isn’t a declaration of opposition to any of these songs. I will never stop listening, or singing along passionately, to the real queen or any from her generation. Their artistry is unlike any other, and invoke passion, national, cultural and regional pride that cannot be replicated.
And not all of the songs are this sappy; I understand that love can make us do and say crazy things. Once, I was in love and I couldn’t sleep for an entire month. I was so upset. I need my sleep, you know? So I could wake up and be a functioning professional.
I am obviously trapped, and I like it. It’s just that we should be smarter than letting lyrics, traditions or stories - cultural, religious or societal - seep into our minds and create norms that cripple us.
Listen, I - clearly - got more to say about all of this, but I gotta go to sleep now. It's past my bedtime and I need my beauty sleep so that when I meet that fool, my entire life will not have counted before him but I’ll at least look young and radiant. You got that?