In the early twentieth century, and particularly after World War I, a new phenomenon took root in Egypt in the form of songs that were explicitly concerned with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Famous artists, singers and composers all took part in this phenomenon.
Employing the form of taqtȕqa (a genre of light Arabic vocal music), songs of a sexual nature were customarily performed between the acts of plays to entertain the audience.
Author Fathy Ghanem spoke of the origins of the phenomenon of sexual songs in his book Art in Our Lives, stating: “A singer in Egypt entertains his audience with softness and tenderness in singing, a form pioneered by Mohamed Othman during the reign of Khedive Ismail, at Ismail’s lavish parties. Singers would spend ten consecutive hours improvising with their vocals while repeating a line or a couplet from a poem. Mounira El Mahdeya indulged her audience with the sexually suggestive hoarseness of her voice.”
As for the origins of the association between this type of songs and plays, Yassmin Farag said, in her book Singing and Politics in Egypt’s History, that the beginning of the twentieth century was an extension of late nineteenth century. At the end of the nineteenth century, there emerged the pioneering work in Arabic theatre by the Salim al-Naqqash troupe, including Sheikh Salama Hijazi, who would sing his poems between the acts.
Farag noted that Sheikh Salama Hijazi deliberately wanted to introduce the public to his new ideas; at the beginning and ending of novel readings, he began singing Khedivate anthems, poems, and conservative monologues encouraging principles and morality.
The songs that Egyptians got down to at the turn of the twentieth century
Sex, drugs, and alcohol: after WW2, Egyptians were partying like it was the end of the world
After World War I, sensual songs blazed a trail to be performed between the acts of plays. Their popularity among the audience caused them to become more widespread. Great composers like Zakariyya Ahmad, Sayed Darwish, Mohamed el-Qasabgi, and Mohammed Abdel Wahab participated in this phenomenon. Sung by some of the most famous singers, such as Umm Kulthum, Mounira El Mahdeya, Naima al Masreya, Badi’a Masabni, and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, the majority of the songs were written by Mohamed Younis al-Qadi.
In addition to the songs of a sexual nature, sahbagiyya songs (songs that focused on alcohol, drugs, and gambling) spread and gained enormous popularity. Usually performed at cafes and local wedding ceremonies, the term sahbagiyya may have derived either from soĥba (company of friends), or from sahba (alcohol). With the appearance of hashish and cocaine in this period, Sayed Darwish ventured to sing about these intoxicants, also composing a song about gambling, which was performed by Abdel Wahab.
Kamel al-Kholaei spoke of this phenomenon in his book Oriental Music, saying: “Sahbagiya groups or hashish cafe-goers would sit in two opposite groups, separated by a table with candles and bottles of cheap alcohol, singing Egyptian and Levantine muwashshahat [an Arabic poetic form]. When one muwashshah would end, a young boy would begin to sing a mawwal [introductory vocal stylings presented before the music begins] rife with debauched themes.”
Songs on debauchery
- “Baad El ‘Esha, Yehla El Hezar We El Farfasha” (After Dark, It is a Good Time for Gaiety)
Performed by Mounira El Mahdeya, composed by Mohamed el-Qasabgi, lyrics by Younis al-Qadi
- “Erkhy El Setara eli f Rehna” (Let the Curtain Loose)
Performed by Mounira El Mahdeya, composed by Zakariyya Ahmad, lyrics by Younis al-Qadi
- “Ala Serir al-Nom Dalaani” (Pamper Me in the Bed)
Performed by Habiba Msika. No one knows exactly who composed or wrote the song, but it was likely composed by Zakariyya Ahmad, lyrics by Younis al-Qadi
- “Champagnia Ya Sultant el-Khamra” (Champagne for the Sultana of Alcohol)
Performed by choir in Fairuz Shah Play, composed by Sayed Darwish, and lyrics by Abdel Halim Dollar el-Masry
Songs about drugs
- “Eshmeana ya Nokh el-Cocaine Kokh” (Why Do You Think Cocaine is Bad, You Wimp?)
Performed by Mounira El Mahdeya, composed by Sayed Darwish, lyrics by Badie' Khairy
- “El-Hashasheen” (Hashish Addicts)
Performed by Mohamed Mohsen, composed by Sayed Darwish, lyrics by Badie' Khairy
- “Feek Ashrt Koutchena” (Let’s Play Cards)
Performed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, composed by Sayed Darwish, lyrics by Younis al-Qadi
Performed by Mounira El Mahdeya, composer and writer unknown