Armed with an arsenal of fatwas [religious edicts], a number of Saudi sheikhs gathered forces to launch a campaign aiming to revile singing, and by extension singers. What ensued was a witch hunt, founded on the practice of takfir, (i.e. the practice of declaring someone a "non-believer" or infidel). Many talented Saudi artists bore the brunt of this witch hunt.
Religious Persecution and Restriction
Saudi art critic Essam Zakaria notes that, over the past years, a number of talented singers have emerged in Saudi Arabia, succeeding in affirming their place against a long-standing cultural tradition that views music as sinful. However, Zakaria tells Raseef22, there are may other talents that withdrew from the limelight, out of fear of religious persecution, particularly in light of the assortment of fatwas that were capable of snuffing out any artistic ambition, as well as the rigid rules imposed on music.
This bred a kind of dualism in society, whereby fatwas were issued forbidding singing, while Saudi and Gulf singers were simultaneously escaping to Egypt, Lebanon, and other foreign countries to enjoy music.
Zakaria notes that the Saudi government had to respond to the severity of the fatwas, allowing for a degree of artistic freedom amid rising calls for the dismantling of the isolationism surrounding the arts and artists. This led to a partial improvement in music and cinema over the past few years.
Saudi Singers Escape
Another art critic, Rami Al-Akkad, tells Raseef22 that the restrictions imposed on artists has led many Saudi singers to escape abroad to record their songs in other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon, or in European countries such as the UK. Many of them have recorded great success in their own right, most prominently Saudi sensation Mohamed Abdu.
Yet, back in the kingdom, some Saudis have taken to establishing production companies, while others have launched television stations, to profit from the growing trend in the arts. According to Al-Akkad, this is another manifestation of the dualism produced by the hard-line fatwas.
The past few years have witnessed a rebellion among Saudi youth against the ideological heritage that has obstructed the emergence of artistic talent. This was especially apparent through the participation of many young Saudi singers in competitions such as The Voice and Star Academy.
In his book, entitled The Forbidden in the Gulf: The Silence Surrounding Singing and its Conditions, Ahmed al-Wasel reviews the different stages in the history of singing in Saudi Arabia, in view of the severe fatwas. He recalls that entire songs were removed from cassette-tapes, while others had lyrics excised from them. In some cases, singers were banned from Saudi Arabia entirely because of their songs.
The singers who fell victim to the fatwas of Saudi sheikhs, and the contradictions of Saudi society.
Saudi Arabia, where writing a song can land you in prison, or worse.
Singers Who Were Imprisoned for Their Songs
Record sales and songs recordings were no simple matter in the 1950s and ‘60s in Saudi Arabia. Al-Wasel notes that certain songs were banned from Saudi broadcasting services (established in 1949), while producers were obliged to mark these records with the phrase: This record is banned from the radio. Some artists were sentenced to prison because of a song.
Al-Wasel tells Raseef22 that the banning of songs was counterproductive, as it led to the spread of pornographic songs in private parties and gatherings.
However, beginning with the ‘70s onward, many of these banned songs made their way onto bootlegged cassette-tapes, sold out of the sight of censors amid a high demand, Al-Wasel says.
Talal Maddah - Hubbak Sabani
In 1960, singer Talal Maddah was imprisoned for his song Hubbak Sabani (Your Love Has Enslaved Me), written by the Emir Musa’ed bin Abdul Aziz. Saudis heard the song for the first time on the Palestinian radio.
The song was recorded in Beirut, and talks about a lover’s desire for his woman, and his wish to touch her clothes, drink her coffee, as he pays tribute to the bed that once drew them together.
He was arrested upon returning to Saudi Arabia, prompting singer and composer Tareq Abdel Hakim to lobby in his favor for a pardon from the Emir Abdullah Al-Faisal, according to Al-Wasel.
Taher Al-Ahsa’i and Abdullah Al-Janoubi - Habb Al-Hawaa
Taher Al-Ahsa’i and Abdulah Al-Janoubi were arrested for the song, Habb Al-Hawaa (Desire Took Flight). The song was not recorded until 1967, by Eid Bou Seif.
In an interview with Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh, Taher Al-Ahsa’i attributed his imprisonment to a mix-up on the Saudi authorities’ part between him and Eissa Al-Ahsa’i, who sang the song then fled to Kuwait.
However, Abdullah Al-Janoubi commented on Taher’s theory in the same newspaper, saying that Eissa did not sing the song, but that it was sung by another artist. However, he affirmed that the authorities arrested them on the suspicion that they had sung and recorded the song, as the government did not have the technology to distinguish the voices at the time. Nonetheless, they were later exonerated and released.
Fawzy Mahsoun - Qif Bel Tawaf
The song Qif Bel Tawaf (Stand in the Circumambulation) by Saudi singer Fawzy Mahsoun was banned from the radio in the kingdom. The lyrics were written by Saudi poet Amro Bin Rubai’a, and evoke the atmosphere of the Hajj during the Qurayshi era. In one scene, a young man falls in love with a woman during the circuit around the Ka’aba.
The Permanent Ban Against Ajras Band
The Bahraini Ajras (Bells) band was formed by siblings Suleiman, Khalifa, and Mariam Zeeman, along with Huda Abdel Kareem, in 1982.
The band was known for politicized songs, released in various albums. The ban against producing their music in Saudi Arabia did not prevent the smuggling of their album entitled Nar Al-Nashama, as well as Suleiman Zeeman’s solo album Ya Abou Al-Fa’ayel and Huda Abdullah’s Ghanawy Al-Shouq (Songs of Passion), both released in 1990.
Aref Al-Zayani and the Siege of Beirut
In 1985, the song Beirut, written by Bahraini poet Selim Abdul Raouf and composed and sung by Aref Al-Zayani, was banned from Saudi Arabia, and removed from his first album. The ban was due to the lyrics about the Siege of Beirut, in which he sings that he “will not die” so long as he is in Beirut.
Khaled Al-Sheikh - Ughniyat Hubb ‘Ala Al-Saleeb
When Bahraini singer Khaled Al-Sheikh came out with his musical rendition of celebrated Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s verses in his album Kamanga (Guitar) in 1986, the song was removed from the tape in the Saudi market.
Qabbani’s lyrics in the banned song read: “What should I give you? Answer me/My worry? My atheism? My sickness?/What should I give you but a destiny/That dances in the hands of Satan/I love you a thousand times .. so keep away/From me .. from my fire and smoke/As I have nothing in the world/Except for your eyes .. and my sorrows.”
In 1987, Al-Sheikh returned with the song Ughniyat Hubb ‘Ala Al-Saleeb (Love Song on the Cross) by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in the alcum Na’am… Na’am (Yes… Yes). The song was once again censored off the album in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Sheikh’s albums were re-released toward the end of the 1990s, with the banned songs included, however, without listing the songs on their covers, according to Al-Wasel.
Thekra - Man Yajra Ygool La
In 1996, Saudi Arabia refused to land planes carrying pilgrims for the Hajj from Libya, due to Muammar Gaddhafi’s refusal to hand over suspects in the Lockerbie incident. In response, Libyan poet Aly Al-Kilany wrote a long poem titled Man Yajra Ygool La (Who Dares Say No), in which he attacked Arab leaders for letting the Libyans down. Tunisian singer Zikra sang a part of the song that was directed at the Saudi king.
Al-Wasel noted that Supreme Court Judge of Saudi Arabia Ibrahim Al-Khudeiri issued a fatwa in 2002, calling for the killing of Zikra. The reasoning was simply that she had previously stated in an interview that there were no opportunities for her in Tunisia or Libya, explaining the migration of Maghreb singers to the east in search of better opportunities. A Saudi journalist misquoted the statement, and claimed that she was attempting to liken herself to the Prophet Muhammmad, to which the judge responded by calling for her death.
The Saudi censorship authority moreover relied on cutting out verses of lyrics from certain songs, according to Al-Wasel.
Meanwhile, Al-Akkas says that cutting out a line or some words from a song is possible using production methods, undertaken by the production company or another party. He explains that this is done either by removing the lyric or line, then suturing the preceding and following parts together, provided that the song still makes sense musically and lyrically.
Al-Wasel describes the process as “capable of destroying the song, no matter how skilfully the excision is performed, as the process can be like tearing a page out of a book or magazine”.
Abdel Halim Hafez - Lasta Qalby
The religious censorship authorities decreed the excision of a verse of the song Lasta Qalby (Not My Heart) by poet Kamal Al-Shinawy, sung by Egyptian virtuoso Abdel Halim Hafez and composed by master composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab. Consequently, the song became popular in Saudi Arabia with one line missing.
Shadia - Khodny Ma’ak
Similarly, in 1968, the song Khodny Ma’ak (Take Me With You) by Shadia, composed by Baleegh Hamdy, was censored, with a line removed from it.
Asala - Ma Abqash Ana
The censors moreover cut out a line of Syrian singer Asala’s 2002 hit Ma Abqash Ana (I Would Not Be Myself), written by Emad Hassan and composed by Mohamed Diaa’.
The Exile of Eissa Al-Ahsa’i
Singer Eissa Al-Ahsa’i was exiled to Kuwait for his song Ana Widdi (I Would Like To), the lyrics of which describe his physical passion for his lover in explicit detail.