Black and Comely Daughter of Arabia: “Itab The Shulammite” – Gamal Nkrumah

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Black, but comely

Gamal Nkrumah – laments the passing of one of Arabia’s most powerful voices, evocative of the ancient traditions of her wandering people …the Black Arabian singer Itab:

Tarfa Abdel-Kheir Adam, or Itab, her stage name, moved gracefully with the music across the stage, a movement evocative of her native Arabia. She sang in the old singing styles of her nomadic people. She is dead, but the heart still beats to the sounds of the sands, of the elements. She chose to live in Egypt, but she hardly ever sang in Egyptian dialect, maybe a song or two. She believed that Egyptians, and other Arabs, wanted to hear her sing in her native tongue. This was the secret of her magic: she sang in her Arabian vernacular.

Ironically, the most popular of her Egyptian songs was a traditional Iraqi folk song – Gani Al-Asmar, The Dark One Approached Me. It was an instant hit.

Indeed, Gani Al-Asmar was selling like hot cakes by the late 1980s. I, however, first heard Itab in the early 1990s, and by then she was the foremost black singer in the Arab world, but she was not Sudanese – she was Saudi. Not only was she black, but she was beautiful and had a distinct dress sense. On stage she did not don the Islamic hijab: bareheaded she danced, her sleeveless dresses in striking colours matching her majestic persona.

It was socially unacceptable for Itab to flaunt her stuff in Saudi Arabia. Her conservative family, backed by tradition and the religious mores of the country, were against her choice of career as entertainer. Female performers were barely tolerated in the kingdom. Indeed, it was out of the question as far as her family and the religious authorities were concerned. However, she refused to comply.

Stubbornness became her. Daring and perseverence took her to the top of her league. Her extemporising melodies attracted a huge following. In Egypt, she quite literally let her hair down. She was not a “whore”, she just wanted to do what her people had done for millennia, albeit in the form of verse. Traditional Saudi societal attitudes frowned on music ostensibly because of a hadith (saying) of the Prophet Mohamed. Music, according to the kingdom’s highest religious authorities, propped up promiscuity and licentiousness. This was especially the case when the entertainer was female.

Itab’s artistic expression offended the ethical and religious codes of her country. Family honour, embedded in female chastity, is at the heart of Arabian culture: Itab could easily have been subjected to a merciless honour killing for her intransigence. At the tender age of 13 she knew that she could not be confined to enchanting a few family members at social gatherings. She understood the tradition of her people – the call of the desert can be spiritual, but its sandstorms, occasional outbursts of hail and thunder bespoke untamed passions. The wild herbs of the wilderness held many secrets, like the hearts of its restless inhabitants, the romantic wanderers. The rainless skies and arid wastelands were likened to unrequited love.

Her people are the staunch champions of monotheism, but Itab understood all too well that they also have a weakness for the temptations of alluring lyrics with a far less ethereal ring than that of the Quran. The folk songs of the Arabian deserts are virtually a genre of erotica, and Itab deployed the power of her voice to the glory of the irreligious heritage of her people – erotic seduction through poetry and song.

She was once quoted as saying that the bahha, huskiness, in her voice is the distinctive characteristic that made her stand out. Her husky voice was not merely the secret of her success but also her trademark.

There was a primeval element to her voice, it was reminiscent of the tones of a time in the distant past when the celebration of lusts and carnal affections counted for more than the fear of God. She would never have admitted it in public, but many suspect that that was precisely why she left her country, and following in the Biblical tradition of pastoral people fleeing the bleakness of their barren homelands, sought sanctuary in fecund and plenteous Egypt.

She crossed the Red Sea, but did not leave the Arabian Peninsula for good – her performances in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Arab states drew in large crowds. With frequent regularity, she enthralled audiences in the Gulf. But her decision to move to Egypt raised eyebrows at home.

The question, then, is: why did Itab’s artistry resonate with a wide and varied segment of Arab audiences? She tried hard to preserve the traditional Bedouin song which has its origins in Jahili, or pre-Islamic poetry. Remnants of a free-living pre-Islamic age lodged like shrapnel in the collective memory of Arabians – and perhaps in no other arena than in the artistic production of female performers and entertainers. There was always the enchantress, extolled in classical Arabian verse as the swarthy beauty.

Bewitching voice, black beauty, Itab was nevertheless a curious mix to an Arab audience. Ironically, she can only be fully understood and appreciated in the context of the Biblical Song of Solomon: Itab was like the Biblical “Shulammite”, or the Salma of Arabian folk songs. “I am black, but comely, o ye daughters of Jerusalem (can easily be paraphrased ‘daughters of Arabia’, as the tents of Kedar Look not upon me, because I am black and the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me…”

Itab personified a long tradition of Arabian female minstrels. Her voice has a quality all its own. Then there is the tarab and the maqamat that she excelled at. Itab, too, was pure of heart and purpose.

Ya Leil wala gani el-noum ya leil – O night, o sleepless night, was one of the few songs she sang in Egyptian dialect, the lyrics were written by the poet Bekhit Bayoumi and the music was composed by Mokhtar El-Sayed.

Her artistic beginnings were in Kuwait, that is where she first became an Arab pop star. Her success in Kuwait City was a far cry from her roots in the Arabian wastelands. Itab was raised as a Bedouin, and was infused with the traditional lore of the nomads.

Both the lyrics and the melodies are traditional Arabian folksongs. As a woman she could not chart a career as a minstrel in her country where music was frowned on by the deeply conservative Wahabi religious authorities. And her angst was sometimes reflected in song.

Madhlouma ya nass, I am persecuted o ye people, attained instant success. She sang from the heart: she sang from bittersweet experience. She began her career in entertainment in 1966 when the Saudi celebrity Talal Maddah discovered her talents. She acknowledged the support and influence of the male pop stars of her homeland. She worked closely with the Bahraini poet Ali Al-Sharqawi. She freely proclaimed her indebtedness to Abdel-Rabb Idriss and was closely associated with the music of Badr Bourselli and Youssef Nasser.

Itab was determined to personify the corpus of sensual Arabian poetry and dance to the rhythms of her people – those who roamed the desert. That was strictly forbidden in her native land on the grounds that it affronted Islamic sensibilities. She was not the first Saudi female singer – before her were Karama, Touha and Gawhariya. But these confined their artistic outpourings to restricted social gatherings.

Itab knew that the popularity of her doleful eyes, soulful tunes and pulsating shimmies attested to the vigour of a venerable tradition that Wahhabism could not smother or expunge. Every public performance of hers was an act of defiance. In the end, however, she succumbed to the prevailing traditions of her people. She settled down in Egypt, married and devoted her life to raising her children. She did try her hand at running a nightclub in Sharia Al-Haram, in the vicinity of the Pyramids. She did occasionally perform to a select audience – but as she matured, she was content with her part as a home-maker.

Itab is survived by her two daughters and a son from her Egyptian husband – Ibtisam, Dareen and Ahmed. In the end, and after a life of struggle against suffocating conservatism, the traditions of her people triumphed in her own personal realm.

Itab was often reproved because she tried to change traditional Arabian music too much. Ironically, she was sometimes criticised because she wanted to change too little. The truth is somewhere in between. She did try to preserve the essence of Arabian melodies and styles – she often sang the traditional jalsa. Indeed, she excelled at it.

Be that as it may, she also sometimes tried to fuse traditional and contemporary melodies, usually with great success. She tried out different styles of Arabian singing – both traditional and contemporary. The effusion of the two styles with strong Indian and African elements gives present-day Arabian Gulf music a special vibrancy.

Itab epitomised it.

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See also Dana Marniche: The Africa-Arabian Origins of the Israelites and the Ishmaelites PT1 and PT2 @:

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One thought on “Black and Comely Daughter of Arabia: “Itab The Shulammite” – Gamal Nkrumah”

  1. I am most grateful for your publication of my artiecle on Itab at the second anniversary of her death. I miss her music and stage presence. And, may this article help non-Arabs understand better the multifaceted character of Arab culture. Much Obliged.
    Gamal Nkrumah.

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