Just last weekend, I randomly met an Algerian, roughly my parents’ age, in Washington DC’s DuPont Circle. We talked about the recent elections in Algeria and France, about colonialism and its vestiges, and about Warda Al-Jazairia, the most internationally acclaimed Algerian singer.
Even at 72, she was as present in my mind and my iPod as she was many years ago.
“Grace never ages,” my new Algerian friend said, explaining that he had seen her at one of her later concerts, “Warda is our George Clooney. The older she gets, the more beautiful she becomes.”
Today [May 17, 2012], Warda is dead. I listened to her love ballad Batwannis Beek on the subway ride to work this morning. In the afternoon, I found out on Twitter that she had died of cardiac arrest at her home in Cairo.
On the subway ride home, I listened to Ya Khabar — a 43 minute epic opus that rivals Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum’s Alf Lila W’Lila. There were so many emotions, switches in rhythm, ups and downs – a kind of mourning process.
Writing that last line just now, I realize it is grammatically correct to use the present tense to refer to works of art. In that respect, something of Warda lives on, if only grammatically.
Warda’s music has been the soundtrack to so much of my life. When I was a young boy, sitting on the couch next to my grandmother and her laundry, she would sing along with Warda:
Batwannis Bee-eek, Winta M3ayaaaa (I rejoice in your presence)
Batwannis Beek w’Balai f’Orbak douniaya (I find my world when you are near)
Warda’s voice was a solid lump of honeyed nougat, strong and sweet enough to be a voice for Arabs – strong enough to have left her first husband to pursue a singing career that rivaled Egypt’s greatest artists.
When I was homesick during my days studying abroad and then later reporting in China, I listened to Warda, and I was magically transported home – back to Los Angeles, where I grew up, and even farther back to the North African ghettos in France, where some of my family still lived – and finally back to North Africa. Warda represents a kind of return, even now that she’s dead.
Only more recently, when I started writing about Arab identity and the potential for Arabs to unite for economic progress and respect from the international community, did I reflect on Warda’s importance to the ongoing decolonial and dignity projects in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Warda was born in France to a Lebanese mother and Algerian father. When Algeria’s foundling FLN started the fight to liberate the homeland from French colonial oppression, Warda was a pre-teen, singing anti-colonial songs for a movement that desperately needed a Joan Baez, that needed anthems to raise people above insurmountable injustice and bloodshed.
In the aftermath of France’s crushing exit from a century of exploitation, Warda represented North Africa in a pan-Arabist song that inspired my article, The Coming Arab Identity Crisis, an exploration of the potential for regionalism, as well as ideological and economic cooperation in the post-revolutionary MENA region. In the song Watani Al Akbar (“My Grand Nation”), composed by Egyptian legend Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Warda sings,
My country, and the revolution against colonialism
If we all seek to sacrifice ourselves for you
Colonialism will come to an end
Not in Algeria or Oman…
The revolution will finish tyranny
Only triumph for the Arab people
My beloved nation.
When I learned that Warda had died today I was deeply saddened for the loss not only of a familiar voice and bygone era of classier, more innovative Arab cinematic and musical industry, but also of a strong voice against the institutional subjugation of North Africans by France and various European political parties, an institutional subjugation that continues to exist in so many other forms today. I was saddened by the loss of a voice that sang for Arab unity, albeit problematic at the time — a voice with the weight to drag a region out of a hundred years of degradation.
A friend and colleague said that our only consolation are the songs that remain. I thought I would take this opportunity not only to explain how I rejoiced in Warda’s presence, how I found my world in her voice, but also to encourage you listen to and reconsider Watani Al Akbar once more.
*Massound Hayoun is a staff writer at Muftah.