My father is up the tree.–This is not a saying or aphorism or somethings like that. It is the name of an old Egyptian film from 1969. The actor of the film, Abdul Halim Hafez, is still very famous in the Arab world. He is a beloved icon of Arab art, an artist who died years too soon, and who is still famous to this day. During his artistic career, Abdel Halim recorded 230 different songs, both romantic and national, and participated in sixteen films. In 1969, when he acted in this film, he did not know that it would be the last.
Abdul Halim was both a famous Arab singer and an Arab actor from the 1950s to the 1970s. Today he may not be well-known outside the Arab world; he was a simple person with great dreams. He reached his highest point of fame between 1951 and 1977. He suffered a lot in his life, starting with the loss of his parents. First, his mother died a few days after his birth; then he lost his father in the same year.1 He was raised in his uncle’s house. And as he grew up, he often played the games other children of his village played, particularly one played in a canal. It was here that he contracted the disease schistosomiasis, which is caused by parasitic worms.
The disease led to many health complications throughout his life, particularly cirrhosis of the liver and bleeding of the stomach, which further led to severe internal bleeding. There was no cure for this disease at the time. Abdul Halim simply lived his life, between his singing and acting career and many hospital beds.2
It was challenging for Abdul Halim to make it big in the world of Arabic music, among musical giants like Umm Kulthumm, Abdul Wahab, and others. In the early days of his career, Abdul Halim was rejected because of his new style of singing. He innovated with a faster tempo than was typical. But with braver and more romantic tunes, he gained accolades and enormous success. For Egyptians, and especially for those of a certain age, his songs and films epitomized Egypt’s cultural renaissance in the 1950s and 1960s. Abdul Halim’s work has clearly contributed to the development of Arab cinema, and presented it in a way that is very different from the traditional forms of earlier Egyptian films. His films were a prelude to the modern era and different from what was provided by the Egyptian cinema up to and including the sixties. People didn’t appreciate the freshness of his style right away, but after a period of time, it was embraced by everyone.
In 1969, Abdul Halim was asked to play the lead role in the film My Father Is Up the Tree. Although his health condition was worsening, he accepted the role. The film was one of the most important cinematic works of the era. He took the role partly because he wanted to change some of the concepts of the old generation, and give to a new generation a sense of freedom. The film deals with the concerns and issues that emphasize the then-current generational conflicts between traditional parents and their more modern children. It was quite controversial for its time.3
But every successful work has its difficulties. The film’s difficulties started with the writer, who was asked to change some of the events of the story, which he initially refused to do. But then the issue was settled, and filming on the film began. My Father is up the Tree was filmed on the shores of Alexandria, in Egypt. It was a summer film, and the director wanted to shoot one of the scenes with Abdul Halim wearing a swimming suit, which was a big challenge for the director and the photographer. They had to find the appropriate angles to hide the traces of 61 surgical operations that were covering Abdul Halim’s sick body.4 This was one of the most difficult films made by Abdul Halim, because of his deteriorating health. He suffered a great deal of pain and fatigue, but he insisted on finishing the film, believing that it would be a great success.
The story of the film revolves around a group of university friends who spend their summer holiday in Alexandria (a coastal city in Egypt) where Abdul Halim is one of these friends. He would be there, accompanied by his girlfriend. They would have some problems, which would make him betray her with a dancer in a bar, which would lead to even more problems. It included both happy and sad moments, and it was colored with some great songs as well, five of which he sang. And those songs are still sung by lovers old and young to the present day, because of how beautifully romantic they are.5
In this film, Abdul Halim wanted to express the confusion between the world of the young and the old world. It depicts him not knowing for himself the right path between commitments and vice. The goal of the film was to define the features of the new national dream after the breakdown of dreams following the 1967 war. Abdul Halim wanted to show the abundance of the new generation’s desire to be free from the constraints and customs of the old generation.
The film was an immediate success. It became one of the first films in the sixties to be shown for 58 consecutive weeks in Egyptian cinemas, and it was ranked in the list of the top 100 films in the memory of Egyptian cinema, according to the critics’ poll.6
In 1977, Abdul Halim Hafiz left Egypt to start an external treatment for his health condition. He traveled to England just to check for reassurance about the progression of his disease, and unfortunately, the disease was worsening. Abdul Halim had contracted jaundice, and his doctors were forced to give him cortisone in large quantities to eliminate it. But the cortisone affected his liver, requiring even more treatment. Lying in London’s King’s College Hospital in a bad psychological state, his condition worsened. After a few days of suffering and illness, the bleeding that marked the beginning of the end took place.
On the evening of March 30, Abdul Halim Hafiz’s voice went silent forever.7 The disease ended his life. He wrote in his memoirs: “Life is wonderful despite its pain.” In London’s hospital, they declared that the main reason for his death was contaminated blood, which was transmitted to him with viral hepatitis C, which could not be treated with individuals with liver fibrosis and his disease of schistosomiasis, which he had suffered from since childhood.8 Radio London cut its programs to broadcast the news. The Cairo Radio news and newspapers issued the next day on their front pages the painful news of his death, with pictures of his life and words of lament. His funeral took place with an overwhelmingly large audience. At his funeral, according to estimates, were two and a half million. It was one of the biggest funerals in Egyptian history and in the Middle East, after the funerals of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and singer Umm Kulthum.9
People are not always the same as they present themselves. Abdul Halim’s life is an example of that.
Despite all the songs of love that he sang, and despite his fame as a singer for lovers, he had no luck in love, and did not find the love that he always dreamed of. One senses this in his songs. He lived and died alone. His life was full of suffering and grief.
The most beautiful words were said about Abdul Halim upon his death:
“Abdul Halim is characterized by honesty and performance and devotion to art. He gathered the people from different classes. He sacrificed his health to delight his art lovers in the world of art.”
“The battle between Abdel Halim and the disease ended the sweet voice, and the strong voice was silenced.”
“The sound of a warm, strong dreamer from a sophisticated melody, the songs of Abdel Halim Miftah open the hearts of the masses.”
“I loved his humanity more than I loved his art.”
“We lost an artist that was loved by millions; we lost a rare artist.”
“He worked as team spirit. He chose the right path for his art. His intelligence enabled him to own the people’s hearts.”
“He was a renewed singer, comparing his work with Frank Sinatra, Demis Roussos, and Elvis Presley.”
“We did not lose a patient but lost a dear personal friend,” one of his doctors said. “He is the bravest man I’ve ever known. His voice will encourage me a lot to continue.”10
Abdul Halim was gone, but his memory remained in the hearts of millions.