(Re)collecting Egyptian Folk Songs

This essay by Nicholas Mangialardi appeared in the Winter 2021 FOLK-themed special issue, edited by Ali Al-Jamri, which you can find via GumRoad, Amazon, Ukiyoto, Khan Aljanub, and elsewhere.

By Nicholas Mangialardi

In 1958, the Egyptian folk-song collector Bahiga Sidqi Rashid published a small anthology entitled Aghanin misriyya sha‘abiyya (Egyptian Folk Songs). It contained lyrics and melodies to 56 songs and was the first in a series of books she would publish over the next two decades to “preserve for my dear country” a “great and eternal heritage that is surely on its way to being lost.” 

I came across a copy of Aghanin several years ago and, flipping through its pages, was intrigued by song titles such as “Lentil Soup” and “Why Do You Beat Me?” There was also “O Ali the Oil Seller,” whose simple, repetitive lyrics—O Ali the oil seller / I do love you—compelled me to look for a recording of this song, inspired by a romance with an oil seller. 

My internet search turned up two old recordings of the tune, one by Munira al-Mahdiyya and another by Asiya Nada, both popular Egyptian divas of the early twentieth century. Both sang the refrain found in Rashid’s Aghanin collection, but their renditions also had several additional verses that detailed how Ali the oil seller began groping different parts of the narrator’s body: He put his hand on my chest, oh my! / He put his hand on my humps, oh my! / He put his hand on my belly, oh my! / O Ali the oil seller / I do love you. 

What had become of these suggestive song lyrics in Rashid’s book? The answer was provided by Rashid herself in a small footnote at the bottom of the page: “I have in my possession other texts than the above mentioned . . . They are variants of the texts given above and cannot be included here because of canotations [sic].” These verses, it seems, were simply left out. While they are audibly present in the song’s recorded history, they do not make it into the Egyptian heritage preserved on the printed page. 

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Title page of Aghanin misriy
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Bahiga Sidqi Rashid

This selective safeguarding of folk music was part of a larger process of negotiating Egypt’s turath, or heritage, during the mid-twentieth century. It extended to other realms as well, from dance and cooking to art and architecture. With music in particular, the folkloric became a well from which different cultural actors drew. In the 1950s and 60s, two broad groups were often at odds: on the one hand, a cultural elite comprised of music scholars, teachers, and administrators concerned with “preserving” a national heritage; on the other, popular singers like Abdel Halim Hafiz, Shadia, and Moharam Fouad took old folk songs and reworked them to make catchy radio hits (sullying the heritage, in the eyes of the first group).

While not a scholar or educator, Rashid inclined to the preservationists. She documented songs by transcribing their lyrics and notating their melodies, many for the first time. These short pieces reflected a range of social, political, and technological changes happening in Egypt during the previous century. The lyrics to “The Electric Tram,” for example, describe Cairo’s first electric streetcar that began operating in 1896. Another tune, “O Bahiyya,” is sung from the perspective of Egyptian peasants drafted to serve in WWI and recounts the harsh conditions they endured.

Rashid’s books contain information both about folk culture and about Egypt’s past more generally. But paying attention to what these books leave out also helps us see some of the ways modern Egypt reimagined the “folk” during a particular period in its history. 

Many today may not know of Rashid. Yet she was an important node in a network of Egyptian philanthropists, effendi white-collar workers, and music enthusiasts. Born Fatima Bahiga Mahmud Sidqi on December 23, 1900, she was the daughter of Mahmud Sidqi Basha, Minister of Public Works under King Fu’ad I in the mid-1920s. She was of Turkish descent on her mother’s side and hailed from a family that, by her account, was highly educated and supportive of her musical interests from an early age. She graduated from the American College for Girls in Cairo in 1919, then went on to study piano, violin, and Western music theory at the private Tiegerman Institute. In addition to Arabic, she was also fluent in English and French. 

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Mahmud Sidqi

From the 1930s, Rashid was an active member of the Egyptian Feminist Union and later served as the group’s president. In the early 1940s, she helped start the Egyptian Society of Music Amateurs with her husband Hasan Rashid, an agricultural engineer and composer. ESMA focused mainly on translating Western operas into Arabic and writing new Egyptian compositions in the European classical style. Among the group’s other members were prominent music reformists such as Abu Bakr Khayrat and Mahmud al-Hifni, who aimed to “elevate” local music, which they framed as low and backwards, to an “international” level.

Rashid’s views on Egyptian music mirrored those of other ESMA members. In the Arabic preface to Aghanin, she describes the value of folk songs, writing: “People of civilized nations have taken care to collect and preserve them by various means, and folk songs in all civilized countries remain a source of inspiration for composers.” In this vein, she explained that a central goal of her books was to give “the youth of tomorrow” a “source of inspiration for their symphonic compositions.” Folk music, then, was valuable for its use as raw material in the creation of new orchestral works. 

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Publications by Bahiga Sidqi Rashid. From left to right: Aghanin wa-al‘ab sha‘biyya misriyya (Traditional Play-Songs, Games, and Rhymes of Egypt, 1967), Thamanun ughniyya sha‘biyya min wadi al-nil (80 Folk Songs From the Valley of the Nile, 1971), Ghannu ya atfal (Sing, Children, 1972). 

The publication of Aghanin coincided with efforts by Egypt’s cultural elite to demarcate a national turath. The push to locate an enduring heritage of indigenous music emerged in the wake of the 1952 Revolution as the country sought to redefine its modern identity. This process entailed setting new boundaries to separate an “authentic” Egyptian culture from any inauthentic European or Turkish elements. Music reformists saw folk songs as a potent source of national spirit and held that such songs, when presented in the “international”—or rather, Western classical—form, would produce a “developed” music. The folk core would serve as its anchor to Egyptianness.

For Rashid and other preservationists, folk music stood for the timeless and pure. As she notes in the English preface to Aghanin, its “sweet simplicity reflects the soul of a peace-loving and friendly people.” Her English preface to the third edition of Aghanin (1985) elaborated that “folk songs indeed spring from the innermost recesses of human nature” and are “basic to our culture and have made us what we are.” Similarly, the Arabic preface to the third edition affirms that “these songs express to the greatest extent the feelings and sentiments of an authentic people whose roots stretch back thousands of years.” She describes folk songs as simple, genuine, and charming, the treasures of “far off little towns and oasis [sic], and Bedouins in their desert homes.” Perhaps this helps us understand “O Ali the Oil Seller” and the exclusion of its more vulgar verses, which would detract from its innocent charm and also hint that these were not the treasures of rural residents alone. 

Indeed, in the first half of the twentieth century, patrons of Cairo’s urban nightclubs would have heard live performances of many of the songs archived in Aghanin. Female entertainers of the day such as Bahiyya al-Mahalawiyya, Nazira al-Faransawiyya, and Na‘ima al-Masriyya recorded these tunes for numerous commercial vinyl records. Folk songs also appeared in the printed collections of popular song lyrics like Taqatiq al-sitt Tawhida (The Taqatiq of Lady Tawhida), a 1924 catalog of tunes performed at the Alf Layla wa-Layla nightclub in Cairo. These audio and print materials remind us that, wherever a folk song may have originated, it often traversed geographic boundaries and genres.

Bahiga Rashid indicates in her books and interviews that she gathered folk songs from the peasants who lived and worked on her family’s country estates in the Delta. Her footnotes, however, show that she also drew from Taqatiq al-sitt Tawhida and other older collections of song lyrics, such as Ibrahim Rahba’s Nuzhat al-talab (1893) and Edward William Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836). Comparing earlier songbooks with Aghanin, it seems Rashid opted to use versions of songs with fewer unsavory lyrics, or perhaps edited some of the texts. For example, her transcription and my translation of the verses for “Little Moon Little Moon” read: 

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This same song, as recorded by the famous singer ‘Abd al-Hayy Hilmi, appears in Habib Zaydan’s 1934 book Majmu‘at al-aghani al-sharqiyya (Anthology of Oriental Songs) but with different, more suggestive lyrics: 

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The lyrics describe a married woman trying to convince her new lover that their affair will not be spoiled by her family. In ‘Abd al-Hayy’s rendition, the woman says her father will be none the wiser since he has “gone off to Mansura.” Her husband will not know or care because “he’s getting stoned” (literally eating tatura, the hallucinogenic jimson weed). Her sister will not mind either, because she’s a famous “brothel madam.” Rashid’s version of the lyrics does not refer to the sister’s brothel work but simply says that she has numerous “lovers.” Also absent from Rashid’s lyrics is the verse about the husband, which would make explicit the adultery that is less discernible in her version. The two are clearly the same song, but they differ in degree of insinuation. 

Songs like “Little Moon Little Moon” could have developed into multiple versions over time, each with different lyrics sung in different settings. Bahiga Rashid was no doubt aware of some of these alternate renditions. And while they do not appear in her books, they too constitute part of Egypt’s musical past. These songs are prominent in earlier anthologies dedicated to the music that was not yet “heritage” but simply popular. What was “folk” or “authentically Egyptian” was a concern that emerged later, at a time when national identity was being reasserted.

Rashid considered Aghanin a work in the service of her “dear country” and its heritage, which she described as threatened by “modern means of communication, film production, record and cassette recordings, radio and TV.” There was, then, a broader cause. But there was also a personal one—as she notes, the songs in her books were connected to warm memories of her childhood, time spent with family enjoying holidays at their country estates. These idyllic retreats, however, would not be the same after the 1950s and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s new land-reform laws, which restricted the amount of property that Rashid’s families owned to 100 acres. “We always used to go to the countryside, my husband and I,” Rashid reminisced during one radio interview. “But after the Revolution, our circumstances and everything else changed.” 

It was not only the places that had changed but the “folk” themselves, as Rashid remembered them. She recalled her distress upon seeing residents of rural areas walking around with transistor radios: 

“Where are their songs now, their beautiful songs? This is our treasure that’s disappearing.” It was this sense of looming loss that prompted Rashid to start gathering Egypt’s folk songs for posterity and publication. In her books, she portrays a folk that she remembers as simple, charming, pure. Songbooks, much like memories, offer partial snapshots of the past. And while a book like Aghanin lets us listen to the melodies of an earlier time, we also hear in it the story of an author who was at once collecting a heritage and recollecting her past, as she wanted to remember it. 

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Bahiga Sidqi Rashid at the family farm. 

I am grateful to Hassan Rasheed for sharing documents and photographs from his family archive. 

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Nicholas Mangialardi is a scholar of Arabic literature and music whose research focuses on modern Egypt. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies at Williams College. His articles have appeared in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, UCLA’s Bring the Noise: Popular Music Studies, and Smithsonian Folklife magazine.

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3 thoughts on “(Re)collecting Egyptian Folk Songs

  1. This was so interesting. A lot of critical historical writing often strikes me as judgmental and I appreciated the compassionate and empathic tone of this essay.

  2. Are any of her books available for purchase anywhere? I did some internet searching but nothing came up.

  3. This essay is very informative!! Thank you so much for sharing, it took me to the past in an exciting short journey. 🤩

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