Me, Baghdad’s Sixties and Najat Al Saghira

A. Taha

London, United Kingdom

Last update: 24 October 2016

I was born in Baghdad . I grew up in the city and graduated from its university. In Sixties Baghdad music formed a background to most of our leisure activities. We listened to many Arabic singers. But to me and many of my contemporaries one singer stood out amongst all the others. Najat_Al_Saghira.

1962-may-najat-al-saghira

Najat Al Saghira on the cover of “Radio and TV” magazine (issue: 02 May 1962)

Our country was politically unstable. As young men our families encouraged us to remain apart from the political activities. We studied hard. However, it was not easy to remain detached from the news we heard and saw routinely on Radio and TV. Throughout my teens and my early twenties, my memories of my friends and family are suffused through the performances of Najat. I remember the sights and sounds of Baghdad when hearing her voice. I can chart the Sixties milestones in my life through her songs.

Photo Date is Unknown: Najat Al Saghira on stage

1980s: Najat Al Saghira on stage

In those heady days my friends and I could not have envisaged the tragic upheavals that would befall Iraq and also Egypt? I hope this page provides a relieving break from the regular depressing news of the current chaos in the Middle East.

Najat’s stage performances are at the core of her legacy. When I think of my life in 1960s Baghdad Najat’s songs with their haunting music are inseparable. The Arabic meaning of the word Najat is Rescue or Savior; handy name to day-dream and escape with from the reality of daily life in Iraq;

1958

1958-december

1958 Najat Al Saghira

I was still a school boy; just moving from Elementary school to Intermediate school. Najat’s film “Stranger” was released, but I did not see it and I did not know who she was. Instead, my favourite films are Tarzan, Lassie the female collie dog and Fury the brave stallion or comedy films of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), Ismael Yassin (1912-1972) and Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).

My parents moved from my grandfather’s big house in Central Baghdad to our own home some 20 miles away. We were in suburbia; there was only one Summer Cinema as the Cinema had no roof. Being a small neighbourhood with an even smaller number of cinema goers the films were changed once or even twice a week. We saw virtually every film. It was the prime source of entertainment. The alternative for school boys and teenagers at the time was football games on dusty grounds or black-and-white TV. There was only one TV channel and it was government controlled. Sometimes the TV was unwatchable if there was a lengthy News session or an interview with a long-winded politician!

This year 1958 had two big events. A positive one: Union between Egypt and Syria UAR (United Arab Republic) began. And a troublesome one: Iraqi military “Free Officers” wiped-out the entire Iraqi Royal Family including the young king Faisal II (1935-1958).

Iraq’s King Faisal II (1935-1958)

Iraq’s King Faisal II
(1935-1958)

On 14 July, the 23 year old King, Crown Prince Abdullah and two or three Princesses were executed in the gardens of the Royal Palace. The military rebels named General Abdul Karim Qasim (1914-1963) as Iraq’s new ruler. The Kingdom of Iraq became the Republic of Iraq.

1959

1959-march-najat-al-saghira

1959 Najat Al Saghira

There was a plot to assassinate General Qasim but it failed, he was injured. One of the plotters, Saddam Hussain (1937-2006) although also injured managed to flee to Syria and from there to Egypt. In view of those events and the lack of political freedoms our elders in and around my extended family were keen to keep their youngsters away from trouble. We were always encouraged to keep away from politics and focus on school, sports and recreation.

Meantime, Najat’s short-duration songs on the Radio started to draw the attention of some and a little of mine!

1960

1960-march-najat-al-saghira

1960 Najat Al Saghira

We moved to a house not far from the Summer Cinema. During the hot weather, we slept on the flat roof as there was no air-conditioning. We could clearly hear the Cinema loud speakers playing Najat’s short-duration songs before the start or after the finish of the film as well as during the film interval. When a new film came in and we went to the Cinema we could put our requests to the neighborly Cinema operator to play the songs we liked. It was a close peaceful dreamy community and I was one of the dreamy teenagers who started to enjoy the music and songs.

Photo Date is unknown: Nizar Qabbani

Photo Date is unknown: Nizar Qabbani

Najat kick-started the sixties decade with her first “long-duration” song “Does he think I am a toy in his two hands?” which was written by Nizar Qabbani with music by Abdul Wahab. This song is a 20-minute Studio recording. There is an interesting photo of a letter circulating in media outlets, addressed to Najat, hand-written by Nizar when he was in China on a diplomatic mission. He was pressing her to release the song. It was his first with her and an immediate huge success.

A historic event occurred downtown: In September 1960 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was formed in Baghdad. The five “Founding Members” were Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela. Later they were joined by another nine countries. In this year, Najat and her first husband, the father of her only child were divorced.

1961

1961-october-najat-al-saghira

1961 Najat Al Saghira

 Najat sang a patriotic song in praise of President Gamal Abdul Nasser called “Son of our cousins Gamal”. She sang it in Aswan near the construction site of the High Dam. This song was written by Ahmad Shafeeq Kamal with music by Abdul Wahab.

Date of Photos in Unknown: Najat Al Saghira

Date of Photos in Unknown: Najat Al Saghira

The Soviet Union provided funding; technicians and heavy machinery towards the Dams construction and some 25,000 Egyptian engineers and workers were mobilized for it. Optimism was in the air! Then, the political union between Egypt and Syria UAR (United Arab Republic) broke. President Nasser refused to abandon the UAR name and Egypt continued to be known officially as the “United Arab Republic” until his death (later, President Sadat changed the country’s name back to Egypt in 1971). At the same time, Kuwait became officially independent with the end of the British protectorate but our Iraqi ruler took offence claiming Kuwait to be part of the mother land Iraq and mobilized his military to Basra with the intention to invade Kuwait. Somehow common sense prevailed and war did not break out. The presence of the British military-might across the border may have been a deterrent.

1962

1962-najat

1962 Najat Al Saghira (screen-shot from “Black Candles” film)

I returned from suburbia to live back again in Central Baghdad in order to study in a school called Central High School (Central Secondary).

Baghdad Cental Secondary School

Baghdad’s Central High School (Al-Idadiya Al-Markaziya) – Founded 1918

I was seated beside a window overlooking Al-Mahdawi Court building. This court’s official title was “People’s Court”. The judge was an army officer named “Al Mahdawi”. This court was established in the aftermath of yet another plot by some of the Free Officers against General Qasim. It was foiled. The Free Officers were friends, but when they moved into power they quickly split into two rival groups. Qasim’s group tried the other group in this court and passed death sentences on their friends. They were shot.

In this year, Najat’s film “Black Candles” is released and in it she sang “Do not lie”. I did not see the film at the time, but heard the song. It was, and still is one of her best songs and one of her career milestones.

1963

1963-may

1963 Najat Al Saghira

Najat sang on stage in Kuwait “Do not lie” with her new song “He lives opposite my home”. These two songs were aired on Radio and on national black-and-white TV when I was still in second year at Baghdad’s Central Secondary School. It’s hard to say which one of these two songs would be the most popular.

It was not long before friends of the executed Free Officers initiated another coup and this time General Qasim and most of the government were killed. Another military man, who was a close friend of Qasim, Abdul Salam Arif (1921-1966) was freed from jail and named President.

1958 (*) Abdul Karim Qasim (Right) with his friend Abdul Salam Arif

1958 (*)
Abdul Karim Qasim (Right) with his friend Abdul Salam Arif

My second academic year of education  proceeded. Najat’s new 30 minutes song “Your love is something else!” helped to take my mind off these bloody events. It was written by Hussain Syed with music by Abdul Wahab.

1964

1964-april-najat-al-saghira-at-home-standing-on-the-balcany-overlooking-the-nile-river

1964 Najat Al Saghira

I left high school and enrolled in Baghdad University. This is the year Iraq won the Arab Football Cup for the first time!

Baghdad University Logo

Baghdad University Logo

Whereas before I crossed the river Tigris walking to school over King Faisal II Bridge (re-named Martyrs Bridge) the journey to the university was now a little further which meant I had to use public transport. This came in the shape of a London red double-decker bus.

1960s: Baghdad Red Buses and Martyrs Bridge

1960s: Baghdad Red Buses and Martyrs Bridge

Najat released a 10-minutes song “Yes, I get Jealous” It was written by Maamoun Shennawi with music by Baligh Hamdi.

1965

1965-april

1965 Najat Al Saghira

The 4th Pan Arab Games were held in Cairo; some 1500 athletes from 14 Arab countries participated. Egypt won the highest number of medals followed by Iraq.

The other highlight of the year was Najat’s release of a 40-minutes song “What am I going to tell him if he asks me?” It was written by Nizar Qabbani with music by Abdul Wahab. The latter referred to this song as the “sister” of the 1960 “Does he think I am a toy in his two hands?” also by Nizar Qabbani.

1966

1966-najat-al-saghira

1966 Najat Al Saghira

Iraq’s President Abdul Salam Arif died in a helicopter crash. The military passed-on the Presidency quietly to his brother Abdul Rahman Arif (1916-2007).

1966: Abdul Rahman Arif

1966: Abdul Rahman Arif

In this year, Najat released her song “I am waiting for you”. It was written by Morsi Jameel Aziz with music by Baligh Hamdi. It was followed by her film “Beach of Fun”. This film has some frivolous acts by others; but she is beautiful in it.

Najat in beach of fun 1966

Najat Al Saghira in her 1966 film “Beach of Fun”

In this film she sang 3 memorable songs; each about 10-minutes long and all of which were written by Hussain El Syed with music compositions by Abdul Wahab.

1967

1967-april

1967 Najat Al Saghira

Najat’s song “Your love is my life” was released. It was written by Maamoun Shennawi and music by Baligh Hamdi. This release came at a time of great sadness in the Arab world. The Six Day war was a disaster. The perceived bias of the western world in favour of the Israelis added salt to the wounds. The Arab states formulated the “Three No’s” policy, barring peace, recognition or negotiations with Israel.

Najat re-married this year the film director of “Beach of fun”. This was her second marriage.  

1968

1968-january-2

1968 Najat Al Saghira performing her song -In the hour when I see you beside me-

I graduated from the university and joined the workforce. The political life of the country was as turbulent as ever. The Baath Party persuaded a few military officers in key positions to abandon the Arif regime and overthrow the Baghdad government. Once again, another coup, but this time the President was sent into exile alive and the coup was relatively bloodless.

1968: Ahmad Hassan Al Bakr (right) and Saddam Hussain

1968: Ahmad Hassan Al Bakr (right) and Saddam Hussain

General Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr (1914-1982) was named President and a 30-year old lawyer Saddam Hussain was named his deputy!

1969

1969-7-d-in-h

1969 Najat Al Saghira

Iraq filed a complaint to the UN against Israel accusing Israel of an air raid on some of the 10,000 Iraqi soldiers positioned in Jordon. President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) conveyed a message to Nasser pledging to initiate an attempt to reach a Middle East settlement.

Najat Al Saghira in Tunis

Najat Al Saghira on stage in Tunisia  (1969)

Najat’s film “Seven Days in Heaven” was released. A welcome escape from reality!

Najat in 7 days in Heaven 1969

Najat Al Saghira in her 1969 film “Seven days in heaven”

1970

1970-may

1970 Najat Al Saghira

President Gamal Abdul Nasser died and Anwar Al Sadat (1918-1981) succeeded him. Sadat adopted a more westward-looking foreign policy and moved closer to the Shah of Iran.

1970s : President Sadat and Shah of Iran

1970s : President Sadat and Shah of Iran

In this year, Najat released sensational 15-minutes song “In the middle of the road”. It was written by Mohammad Hamza with music by Baligh Hamdi.

1971

1971-my-dear-daughter

1971 Najat Al Saghira

Najat’s second last film “My Dear Daughter” was released at the closure of a turbulent decade. She is now 32 years old; her beauty is at peak!

1971 : Najat AL Saghira

1971 : Najat Al Saghira

During these unsettling and complicated years in Baghdad Najat’s songs on the Radio and her presence on screen formed the backdrop to my youth and I am sure the same was true for many of my contemporaries. On reflection many of the older generation were also smitten both fathers and mothers. I remember her as if it was yesterday. There are those who claim to have seen the same video of the same song 200 times. Others regard Najat as the most beautiful woman in the universe! Many are dazzled and mesmerized by her performance on stage.

1972 : Najat Al Saghira in Dubai (Independence Day)

1972 : Najat Al Saghira in Dubai (Independence Day)

When I read that Abdul Wahab once described Najat as the owner of the “loud silence” I knew exactly what he meant even though I could not explain it. Something in the way she stands on the stage, interprets the song, smiles, projects her voice, and holds her silences, gestures and even talks. All these things combine to make her an unforgettable personality in the Arab world.

Where and how is Najat now (2016)?

I do not know where she is. She is now around 76 years old. In addition to myself I am sure many of her fans would like to hear some good news from her. In spite of her fame and popularity Najat Al Saghira has remained a private person. What information is available is not well documented. To my knowledge no biography or even an informative article known to be authenticated or approved by her exists. I am therefore searching for more quality information on Najat Al Saghira.

2001(*) : Najat Al Saghira on stage

2001 (*) : Najat Al Saghira on stage

In a recent article (dated 2010) a reporter confirmed that she still lives in Cairo but travels to London in summer for medical treatment. Last year (2014), at the age of 74, she made a phone call to an Arabic TV station and spoke to the presenter, Ms Lamees Al Hadeedi, on air. She was talking from Germany where she was receiving medical treatment. This was her only audio chat that I know of since she decided to retire in 2002. In this call, Najat the ever positive and optimistic said “Egypt would be the jewel of the world”. I wonder what she thinks of those of us who feel “Najat herself was the Jewel of Egypt”!

There are thousands who wish her well. If she is abroad and wanted fans to visit many would gladly oblige her. To my knowledge, she has not been seen on screen or in public since 2006! In 2006, some four years after her retirement, she won the prize for “Those Who Gave People Happiness” in Dubai being a Gold Medal and US $100,000.

2006 : Najat at the age of 67 years! (In Dubai to receive her prize, see text)

2006 : Najat at the age of 67 years!
(In Dubai to receive her prize, see text)

Social media chatter during spring 2015 indicated she was receiving physiotherapy and there were some concerns about her health.

It was reported in the media that she went to Makkah and has been in Hijab since her retirement. Islam provides splendid guidelines for mankind on how to conduct their normal daily lives with emphasis on moderation, peace, human dignity and self-respect to oneself and to others. Every human on Plant Earth commit sins inherently. The prime existential issue for each individual is to do good deeds as well as regularly ask God for forgiveness whilst the person is still alive.

In conclusion, I pray to God that He forgive all sins of mine, hers and all of those who believe and trust in God the sole creator of Najat and all beautiful things in His universe.

A Taha,

London, UK June, 2015

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