For thirty years, Muhammad Abdel Wahab dominated Arabic song. Then suddenly a sickly young man called Abdel Halim Hafez appeared, and earned for himself the name al-Andalib al-Asmar, The Dark Nightingale.
The upstart’s sudden rise to fame took the Singer of Kings and Princes by surprise. In an attempt to smother him, he signed him up with his own production company, Sawt al-Fann (The Voice of Art) and paid him a pittance. But there was no stopping the new arrival, and before long he was every girl’s dream and the role model for young men. He had replaced Abdel Wahab in their hearts.
His success was even enough to irritate Umm Kulthum. “Boy, you’re a crooner, not a real singer,” she told him one day, in front of the press.
In his short life, Abdel Halim made more films than Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum put together, acting and singing with almost every female star of the 1950s and 1960s. He shared his first film, Lahn al-Wafa’ (The Song of Fidelity, 1955) with Fatin Hamama and singer Shadia. In Banat al-Yawm (Today’s Girls, 1957), he costarred with actress Magda, and in al-Wasada al-Khaliya (The Empty Pillow) with Lubna Abdel Aziz. Mariam Fakhr al-Din played alongside him in Hikayat Hubb (Tale of Love, 1959), followed by Suad Husni in al-Banat wal-Sayf (The Girls and Summer, 1960), and Zubayda Tharwat in Yawm min `Umri (A Day in My Life, 1961). In al-Khataya (The Sins, 1962) he was joined by Nadia Lutfi, who appeared with him once again in 1969 in Abi Fawqa al-Shagara (My Father is up the Tree).
Henry Barakat, who directed him in Ayyam wa-Layali (Days and Nights, 1955), Maw’id Gharam (A Romantic Date, 1956) and Today’s Girls (1957), described Abdel Halim as “sensitive, as much an actor as he was a singer.” Other directors who helped his ascent to stardom were Muhammad Karim in Dalila (1956), the first Egyptian film in cinemascope; Salah Abu Sayf in The Empty Pillow (1957); Hilmi Rafla in Fata Ahlami (Man of My Dreams, 1958) and Ma’budat al-Jamahir (Public Idol, 1967); Fatin Abdel Wahab in The Girls and Summer, Hasan al-Imam in The Sins and Husayn Kamal in My Father is up the Tree.
My Father is up the Tree, Abdel Halim’s last film, was an unprecedented success in Egyptian cinema, running for thirty-six weeks. Abdel Halim played the lover of a prostitute (Nadia Lutfi) in a tavern on the Alexandria harbor. His rival is his father, played by Emad Hamdi. Young men would return to the theater several times in an effort to count the kisses. The film has never been shown on Egyptian television, for censorship reasons.