Magic of the Night

Depiction of Queen Scheherazade telling her st...

Scheherazade Recounting Her Tales to King Shahryar

As a young child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I remember the night conjuring up images of ghosts and goblins, and the bogey man under the bunk bed I shared with my sister.  The night was a time of eerie silences, punctuated by strange creaks, and a fuzzy, dreamy awareness.  For many in the U.S. and west, the night transforms from “creepy” to a time of romance and general revelry as we reach our mid- to late teenage years.  As the adult and “middle age” years emerge, the night becomes more of a time of rest, TV watching, the occasional evening out, and earlier bedtimes.

In the Arab region, nighttime is when the world comes alive, regardless of one’s age.  Old and young alike can be seen on any given night of the week, typically in family settings, at festive get-togethers normally revolving around massive amounts of food and conversation, and lasting well into the nocturnal hours.  The more significant and traditional events, like weddings and engagements, only occur after dark, with all family members joining in the rituals and celebrations.  On many a night in the Arab world children snuggle in their mother’s laps or dart around the family courtyard under moonlit skies as extended family members, including aunts, uncles, and cousins gather around a buffet-style table to graze and recount the day’s events or protracted stories of years gone by.  On weekends, families and friends often convene in the desert, or alongside the sea, from dusk to dawn in massive burlap tents with one long flap open to the nighttime air and bursts of stars.  Some enjoy playing cards sitting cross-legged on intricately designed red carpets spread out along the tent floor, while others might tend to a bonfire where lamb roasts or smoke sheesha near the sea’s edge.  [In the Arab Gulf, tents are often partitioned into a family section where both sexes mingle, and a separate section exclusively for females and another for males.]

I have pondered, and spoken with Arab friends and my husband, Bishara, a native of Lebanon, about what makes the night so noteworthy and meaningful in the Arabian Peninsula.  The consensus seems to center around the routine of generations of Arab Gulf desert dwellers, or Bedouins, who found it necessary to do their core activities, such as cooking, grooming, or travelling in the evening or early morning hours, because it was simply too hot to attend to these matters during the day.  So, it seems, a way of life was established, the remnants of which carry on today with most people in the region living in urban centers, but continuing to reserve the nighttime for important rituals and traditions, celebratory occasions, and special gatherings of family and friends.  Certain Gulf establishments and retail shops allow for a several hour afternoon respite before resuming work in the late afternoon/evening, and those in government jobs usually work only until early to mid-afternoon; thereby reinforcing the possibilities for nighttime activities and events in the Gulf area.

My husband, who spent his formative years in Jordan, related that when he was young most nights his family either had friends or neighbors over for dinner, or they went to another family’s home for dinner.  Bishara said he had wonderful memories of feeling safe and secure in bed late at night listening to his parents and their friends conversing and engaging in general fellowship.  These sorts of experiences and sentiments seem to be commonplace for many others in the larger region.

Not only is the night a singularly auspicious time in the 24 hour cycle of the Arab world, but it is regularly referred to in song, poetry, and assorted stories.  Nighttime has been immortalized in the revered folk tales, “One Thousand and One Nights,” originating in the Arab region and Persia, which include stories told by Scheherazade to King Shahryar for 1,001 nights in a bold attempt to save her life.  Umm Khultum’s song, One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Leila wa Leila) (1969) utilizes the celebrated title to focus on a passionate love theme.

Selected Verses from Umm Khultum’s One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Leila wa Leila)

Two pages from the Galland manuscript, the old...

Oldest Text of One Thousand and One Nights

[from: http://www.shira.net/music/lyrics/alf-leyla-wa-leyla.htm]

“The night and its sky, its stars, its moon, moon and keeping awake all night

You and me my sweetheart, my life.

All of us together are the same in love.”

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“My sweetheart let us live in the eyes of the night, let us live in

the eyes of the night.

And will tell the sunlight come on over, come on

over after one year, not before.”

“In a night of love as sweet as one thousand and

one nights, one thousand and one nights, . . . “

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“The night after it was loneliness, loneliness, you

filled it up with security. And the life that was

desert, desert, it became a garden.”

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Other songs by Umm Khultum, an Egyptian songstress and arguably the most famous Arab singer of all time, that have “night” in the title include:

Night Has Arrived (Aqbal al-layl) (1969)

This is My Night (Hathehe Laylati) (1968)

A Night of Love (Leilet Hobb) (1973)

You That Keeps Me Awake At Night (Ya Msaharny) (1972)

. . . And this list is limited to those specific Umm Khultum’s songs with “night” in the title.  There are many more that refer to “the night” in the verses.

Fayrouz, a legendary Lebanese singer, and a favorite of my husband’s family, sings Al Layl wal Qandil, (The Night and the Lantern), Jisr el Amar, (Bridge of the Moon), and Sakan al Lail (The Night Became Calm).

Selected Verse from The Night Became Calm (from Khalil Jibran poem)

“The night became calm
And in the cloak of calmness was hidden the dreams
The full moon widened
And in the moon watched over the days”

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Asmahan (Amal al-Atrash), the sister of Farid al-Atrash (another popular Arab singer), who lived most of her life in Egypt (but who was originally from Syria), sang of “the night,” as well.  Some of her famous tunes were:

Al-Layl  (The Night)

Ana Bent al-Layl  (I’m the Daughter of The Night)

Ayna al-Layala  (Where Are the Nights?)

Majnoon Layla  (Crazy About Layla) – [Layla is name of a woman, and also means “night.”]

Layaly al-Ons fi Vienna  (Merry Nights in Vienna)

Ya Layali al-Bishr  (Nights of Joy)

Even current Arab pop singers, like Nancy Ajram, (Lebanese), sing of the night.  Her tune, Alf Laila O Laila (1001 Nights), again uses the theme popularized in the ancient tales of Scheherazade. . . . Sherine, a young pop singer from Egypt, sings Ah Ya Leil (Oh, night!), and Mohammad Abdu, a prominent Saudi singer, croons the Khaleeji song, Laila, Laila (A Night, A Night!)

The Arab fascination with the night extends to name choices, as well, with Laila (translates to “a night”) being one of the most popular Arab female names.  The name Laila appears prominently in the poetic play, Majnoon Laila, (The Madman of Laila) written by Ahmed Shawqi.  Shawqi, an Egyptian poet, uses the famous Arab legend relating the tragic love story of Layla and Qays.  According to the tale, Layla and Majnoon, which dates back to the 7th century, Layla and Qays’ burgeoning love is quashed as Qays goes mad (“majnoon”) when Layla’s father prohibits her from marrying Qays.  “Majnoon” (“crazy” or “madman”) is commonly used in the Arab region to address a person madly in love.  Some believe that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is modeled after Layla and Majnoon.

Eric Clapton, singer and guitarist from England, heard about the tale of Layla and Majnoon years ago from a friend, and it became the inspiration for his own song, Layla (originally released in December 1970)Clapton’s Layla was a love song written for Pattie Boyd, an English model, who at the time was married to Clapton’s friend George Harrison (of Beatle’s fame).  Pattie Boyd and Harrison ultimately divorced,  and Eric Clapton and Pattie did marry, but it did not turn out so well.

As evidenced in many Arab songs, not only are the night hours significant in the Arab Gulf, but the physical properties of nighttime, the moon and the stars, also play a role in Arab culture and traditions.  The moon cycles provide the basis for the Islamic lunar calendar. . . . And the Lebanese, or at least my Lebanese husband, Bishara, regularly told me that my eyes were like the stars and my face like the moon when we were first courting.  Leave it to the Lebanese!

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Inte Omri (You Are My Life) by Umm Khultum

A photo for Umm Kulthum singing on a stage.

Umm Khultum

Umm Khultum, an Egyptian native who lived from the turn of the last century until 1975, and who was considered by many in Egypt, and the Middle East, in general, to be the greatest singer of all time, sang the song, “Inte Omri” (You Are My Life), for the first time in 1964.  In her prime, Umm Khultum, (which means ‘mother of Khultum’), would sing two or three songs on stage, with certain lines repeated over and over again, that could last up to four hours depending on her creative mood and the reaction of the audience.

In 1944 Umm Khultum was decorated with the most prestigious level of orders (nishan el kamal) by King Farouk I, a privilege normally bestowed on royalty and politicians.  It is said that Umm Khultum could sing as low as the second octave and as high as the seventh octave, and that her vocal chords produced around 14,000 vibrations per second.  Reportedly, the power of her voice rendered commercial microphones (for singing) ineffective at close range, requiring Umm Khultum to stand one to three meters away.  Umm Khultum’s orchestra was composed of musicians who played the oud, (pear-shaped Arab guitar), violins, a zither-like instrument (qanun), and small tambourines (riqqs).

The love and admiration for Umm Khultum, “Star of the East,” grew through her first Thursday live radio events in Cairo that began in the 1930’s and ran through 1973 during which time much of the Arab world would be glued to their radios, and was evident at her “sold out” concerts throughout the years.  Even the Egyptian royal family attended her public concerts, and arranged for private events.  Thirty-six years after her death, Umm Khultum’s record sales still continue at around one million copies per year.

Umm Khultum sang countless songs of love and loss but this particular song, Inte Omri, is one of her best known and most romantic.  Like many other Arabs, my husband, Bishara, a native of Lebanon, loves Umm Khultum, and holds special memories of listening to this remarkable singer through the years, first as a young child in Jordan and Lebanon, and later as an adult after he emigrated to the U.S.  I recently sat down with Bishara to listen to the song and to talk with him about what it meant to him as an Arab man.  The English translation of the song is below.

Inte Omri (You Are My Life) – Sung by Umm Khultum  

(from: http://www.shira.net/music/lyrics/inte-omri.htm, Translation by Hani Guirguis, Provided by Yasmina Ramzy)  

Your eyes took me back to my days that are gone.  They taught me to regret the past and its wounds.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?

With your light, the dawn of my life started.  How much of my life before you was lost?  It is a wasted past, my love.

My heart never saw happiness before you.  My heart never saw anything in life other than the taste of pain and suffering.

I started only now to love my life.  And started to worry that my life would run away from me.

Every happiness I was longing for before you.  My dreams they found it in the light of your eyes.

Oh my heart’s life… You are more precious than my life.  Why I didn’t meet your love a long time ago?

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?

You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.  The beautiful nights and the yearning and the great love from a long time ago the heart is holding for you.

Taste the love with me bit from bit from the kindness of my heart that is longing for the kindness of your heart.

Bring your eyes close so that my eyes can get lost in the life of your eyes.  Bring your hands so that my hands will rest in the touch of your hands.

My love, come, and enough.  What we missed is not little, oh love of my soul.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?  You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.

You are more precious than my days.  You are more beautiful than my dreams,

Take me to your sweetness — Take me away from the universe.  Far away, far away.  I and you far away, far away. Alone.

With love, our days will awaken.  We spend the nights longing for each other.

I reconciled with days because of you.  I forgave the time because of you.

With you I forgot the pains.  And I forgot with you my misery.

Your eyes took me back to my days that are gone.  They taught me to regret the past and its wounds.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?  You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.

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Interviewing Bishara # 1

Interviewing Bishara # 2

Me:  What are your overall impressions or feelings about this song, Bishara?

Bishara (Answer):  I first heard Inte Omri when I was a little boy in Mafraq, Jordan, back in 1964, and did not know what it meant.  At the time, I only liked and appreciated the sound of the music, not the words.  I especially liked it, because my mother liked it.  The first thing that amused and interested me about this song, was watching my Mom in deep thought, her eyes staring far, far away.  But I still did not understand what was so special about this song.  For me, when I was a young person, the meaning of the song was simply wrapped around my deep thoughts about my Mom and where her thoughts travelled when she heard this song.  My Mom would typically listen to Umm Khultum at around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon when she was finished with her housework.  As I became older, and met you, (Michele), I would play the song for you (you were my girlfriend at the time), and you stared at me, as I spaced out like my mother used to do when I was young.  That was the time I figured out that Umm Khultum was not only a legend and the “star of the Middle East,” as many Arabs called her, but that the writers of her songs were simply geniuses.

Me:  Yes, I remember those times and how enthralled you were with the music.  I knew it had to be special, but at the time, the music sounded rather discordant and melancholy, and although I wanted to, it was difficult for me to develop an appreciation for it.  It wasn’t until we were in the Arabian Peninsula years later when I would observe Arab friends listening, discussing, and dancing to the music that I began to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Inte Omri and other Umm Khultum songs. 

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Me: Can you tell me in more detail what you think this song means for you and other Arab people

Bishara (Answer):  It’s very romantic, from the title itself, “You Are My Life,” not “My Love,” not “My Friend,” not my “Partner,” but “You are My Life.”

Me: You know, I also think that this sort of song that Umm Khultum was so good at, was, and is, popular, due, at least in part, to the restrictions on mixing between the sexes in the Arab world.  I think maybe this song represents an idealized image of love for those, especially younger people, who were not allowed to socialize or mix with the opposite sex.  And for more mature women it might represent a long lost love, or the feelings of love when they were younger.

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Me:  Please tell me more about how your own personal experiences relating to this song, and to your own feelings of love as a younger person.

Bishara (Answer):  First of all, I really liked Umm Khultum’s accompanying orchestra music when I was young, because my sisters would belly dance to this music when it played on the radio.  Another reason I suggested we write about this song is because it brings back special memories to me as I became a teenager when I began listening to Inte Omri over and over again, and started to understand the meaning of romance from the words of this song.  I remember at age 15, I wrote some lines of this song on a small piece of paper, wadded it up, and threw it towards a female student who I had a crush on as we were both headed to our separate schools.  Schools at the time were segregated by gender.  Actually, it was a rather common occurrence when I was younger for both boys and girls to write words from Umm Khultum songs on a piece of paper, ball up the piece of paper, and throw it at the object of their desire.

Umm Khultum was really remarkable, because her words could express what you wanted to say but couldn’t find your own words to express.  You felt like Umm Khultum’s songs were written about, and for, you, and her words had a way of hitting you in your deepest core.  A Jordanian friend told me one time that listening to Umm Khultum was like falling in love for the first time.

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Me:  What about the details of the individual lines of the song?

Bishara (Answer):  Well, in the first four lines itself, the words are very strong.  Umm Khultum is saying “How can you count my life before I met you?”  She is saying before I met you my life was a complete waste.  She continues with saying that ever since you came to my life, I started to enjoy my life, and started to understand the taste of happiness.

Me:  But even with this joy, she is indicating that she is afraid that her happy life will leave her.  It seems that somehow she knows these feelings of love may not last. 

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Me:  Also, she mentions her lover’s eyes several times.  I know that in the Arab world eyes are important.  I remember when you, yourself, used to tell me I had beautiful eyes, like a gypsy’s.

Bishara (Answer):  Maybe it’s because in some parts of Arab societies women can only show their eyes.

Me:  Yes, and for special occasions like women-only events, like weddings, especially, they really show off their eyes with beautiful and heavy makeup. 

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Bishara (Answer):  I always enjoy listening to this song, however, there is something more special about it when I hear it in the evening.  I think because I am fully relaxed and feel most at home, and can absorb the words and their meaning.  I actually feel intoxicated by both her voice and words at these times.

Me:  Yes, I notice that you especially enjoy listening to Umm Khultum’s music at full volume while smoking sheesha. . . . You always tell me you’re reminiscing about Jordan and Lebanon.

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Me:  At one point in the song, Inte Omri, Umm Khultum is saying that she was in love with her lover long before she met him.  Are all of Umm Khultum’s songs romantic like this one?  If not, what are the subjects of some of her other songs?

Bishara (Answer):  When she was a young girl most of her songs were about religion/Islam, but as she became more popular she became the romantic singer for the Eastern world.  During this time she became as well known in non-Arab countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Turkey, as she was in the Arab world and her home country of Egypt.   

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Me:  How do Umm Khultum’s songs compare to the popular Arab songs of today? 

Bishara (Answer):  You just feel as though Umm Khultum’s songs are more genuine; simple but with depth and meaning.  Also, what makes Umm Khultum more special is she was for a period of time, one of the few female singers in the Arab world.  These days, many of the female Arab singers have the same sound and similar lyrics about flirting and falling in love; but you can tell there’s not really a lot of depth like Umm Khultum.  Unlike many of the current popular Arab singers, Umm Khultum’s voice and music is so unique you always know it’s her singing.  Also, while there is great importance placed on the attractiveness and sexiness of Arab female singers nowadays, Umm Khultum was not attractive but her voice, the words of her songs, and her charisma outshone her physical appearance.  I’ve always thought that Umm Khultum was the woman who made three out of four Arab women drop a tear, and perhaps one out of four Arab men, as well.  Another thing about her style of singing is that she never, ever, sang a song without a scarf in her hands, which she pulled on so hard that many times the scarf would be torn to pieces while she was singing.

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Me:  Umm Khultum is saying that now when she looks at her lover’s eyes she remembers the past and all its wounds.  You know, Bishara, when I first met you I remember you saying my eyes were like the stars and my face like the moon.  At the time, I thought it sounded sweet, but wasn’t really sure why you were comparing my face to the heavens.  When you began explaining the words to Umm Khultum, though, it became clearer that Arab people are very romantic and use a lot of symbolism when they speak of love.  And it became even more clear when we moved to Saudi Arabia, and later Qatar, and I started to hear (and absorb) Arab music from more of a cultural perspective, which added another layer of understanding.

Bishara (Answer):  Remember I would even call you tueberny (bury me), ounie (my eyes), hayatee (my life), albee (my heart), ghalieh (my expensive one), and, of course omri (my life).  As you know, the Lebanese are known to be some of the most romantic people in the Arab world!

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Me: Why do Arab people use these sorts of expressions to convey their love?  And is it only from man to woman, or could it also be from woman/man to child, or woman to woman, or man to man?

Bishara (Answer):   Because we are very emotional people, like the Italians.  These words of endearment can be to and from anybody, not only man to woman, but a woman to a man, a woman or man to a child, or woman to woman, or man to man (as in the case of habeebi or habeeptie).

Me:  Oh, yes, like when men call each other habeebie (“sweetheart” to male), and women call each other habeeptie (“sweetheart” to female).  I remember how strange I thought it was when I first heard you call other men, relatives and friends alike, “habeebie,” or “my sweetheart.”  . . . Now it seems like second nature!

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View videos of Umm Khultum’s Inte Omri at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjfH8a8wDOU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4OYXOv8U8c&feature=share

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