The Woman Behind the Songs
By Priscilla Adum
Table of Contents
Author's Note: Thank you kindly to KF for the patient help locating and translating the old news reports, articles and documents that I used to research this article.
The True Story
We all know the old traditional Egyptian song "Ya Baheya" (or "Ya Bahiya", or "Ya Bahaia") as well as the newer song "Oyoun Baheya". As a matter of fact, there are several different versions of Baheya songs as well as films, theater plays and radio dramas that have this name. But who was Baheya? And why are there so many references to her?
The story of Baheya and her lover Yassin is in some ways an Egyptian version of Romeo and Juliet. It's a legend that has become part of Egyptian folklore, but it's actually based on a true event that happened in the south of Egypt in the area of Aswan and Qena in the early 1900's.
During the first few years of the 20th century, there was a notorious criminal who lived in the area. He was a killer, thief and a highwayman who was armed and dangerous. His name was Yassin, from the El 3ababda tribe. He terrorized the inhabitants of the towns and villages of the region. His modus operandi was to commit a robbery or a murder, then take off for the hills and hide in the caves that were abundant in that area, which made it nearly impossible to catch him.
People became afraid to go out alone or to travel far even in groups. Town officials complained constantly to the police, demanding that they do something. The police in turn would send posses made up of both policemen and army soldiers to try apprehending Yassin, but they always failed. Yassin killed several police officers.
Then one day a young soldier named Mohamed Saleh Harb, a member of the Khafer el Sawahel or Haggana corps (soldiers on camel-back) was returning to Egypt from Sudan with a cargo of 75 camels that he had just purchased there for the Egyptian army. Along with three other soldiers and a guide, he was traveling to Marsa Matrouh to deliver the camels.
During their journey, one of the soldiers spotted a man sleeping up in the hills with a rifle in his hands. The soldier immediately alerted Mohamed Saleh Harb, who immediately suspected that it might be Yassin, so he decided to investigate. They approached the sleeping man cautiously. However, the man woke up and began shooting at them, then ran towards the caves to hide. This convinced them that they were dealing with the outlaw Yassin. The soldiers followed him into a cave and killed him there. After examining the body more carefully, they found that it was indeed Yassin, as he carried an identification plaque with his name on it. (It was customary to carry a name marker in those days, particularly among people who were illiterate.)
Inside the cave where Yassin had fled to, the men heard a woman screaming and a child crying. They lit a match so they could see inside the dark cave, and found a woman hiding there with her small son. This was Baheya, Yassin's wife.
When Baheya realized that Yassin had been killed, she did not grieve. Instead, she broke out in multiple zaghareet of joy. Baheya told them that Yassin had kept her prisoner in the cave against her will, and she blessed her good fortune at having been rescued. However, many believe that she said this because if her family suspected that she had lived there willingly with Yassin, they would have killed her.
ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows the man who killed Yassin, Mohamed Saleh Harb. He was later promoted to General and then became Minister of the Army.
The Songs That Followed
Above is the true story of Baheya and Yassin, and this is where fact starts to become entwined with fiction.
Shortly after this incident, a new song about Baheya and Yassin arose from the area of the Said. The identity of its writer has been forever lost in the mists of time. It quickly gained popularity and spread like wildfire from Upper Egypt to the Delta. The words of the song begin with:
"Ya Bahaia wi khaberini 3ali guatal Yassin?" "Guataloh el soud 3ayoune ya buya min foug dahr el hageen."
("Ya Bahaia, tell me who killed Yassin?" "My black eyes killed him from atop the back of a camel.")
The song soon became known as "Ya Bahaia".
There is an interesting anecdote regarding this song. The original lyrics of the second sentence written by the anonymous village songster were:
"Guataloh EL SUDANEEN ya buya min foug dahr el hageen."
"The Sudanese killed him from atop the back of a camel."
This was in reference to the members of the Haggana who killed Yassin. The Haggana were typically from Sudan, as the Sudanese excelled in camel riding.
However, it was deemed politically incorrect at the time to use these lyrics in a film so as not to cause any sort of animosity towards the Sudanese. Consequently, the lyrics were modified slightly for the 1953 film Sayedat El Qetar (Lady on the Train) and Layla Mourad sang, "My black eyes killed him from atop the back of a camel." According to the film's credits, the lyrics for Layla Mourad's version were written by Beram El Tounsi and the melody was composed by Hasin Ginad. Many times lyrics and tunes were simply modified a bit and then credited to the modifiers.
ABOUT THE PHOTO: Photo of legendary singer, Layla Mourad.
Over the years the name Baheya came to symbolize love, romance, beauty, and in some cases even Egypt itself in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people. In 1960 the singer Shadia sang yet another version of Baheya in the film Law3et El Hob. Shadia's version used parts of the same tune and some of the same lyrics as Layla Mourad's version; however, they were modified by lyricist Fathi Oura and composer Mounir Mourad (Layla Mourad's brother) to fit in with the subject of the film. In that film these two were credited as the lyricist and composer of the song.
In the 1960's while Abdel Halim Hafez, Baligh Hamdi and Wadih el Safi were in Morocco attending the anniversary celebration of King Hassan II of Morocco, they were taken by surprise when the King demanded to know why the great singer Mohamed El Ezabi had never sung a song composed by Baligh Hamdi. The trio promised the King that they would see to it that he did. And so, when they returned to Cairo, Baligh Hamdi asked the poet Mohamed Hamza to write the lyrics of a song that he would compose the music to. Thus "Oyoun Baheya" ("Baheya's Eyes") was written. Mohamed El Ezabi was the first to sing it, and it soon became the most well known song with the name of Baheya.
In 1973, a young singer named Walid Toufic entered a televised Lebanese talent show named Studio El Fan. For his piece, he sang Baligh Hamdi's song "Oyoun Baheya". His performance was a spectacular success, propelling him onto the path to stardom. Ever since, his name has also been closely linked to this song.
Footnote About Mohamed Saleh Harb
As an interesting end note, Mohamed Saleh Harb, the young Egyptian soldier who killed Yassin, was later promoted by the army to the rank of General. In 1940 he became Minister of the Army. His memoirs were published in the Egyptian magazine called Muslim Youth. He wrote a very detailed firsthand account of the killing of Yassin which appeared in the April 1957 edition.
Diab, Mahmoud. Abtal el Kefah el Islami el Mou3asr (The Struggles of Contemporary Islamic Heroes).
"Goodbye Mohammed Hamza". Al Ahram, Published on web June, 2010 at http://www.elhawy.com/vb/topic/113392-%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%8B-%D9%85%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%AF-%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%B2%D8%A9-%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%B9-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%81%D9%8A/, accessed July 6, 2013.
"Death of a Criminal," Al Ahram, December 9, 1905. Translation on web at shira.net/culture/death-of-a-criminal.htm
- Death of a Criminal. Translation of a 1905 article from Al Ahram newspaper about the death of Yassin.
About the Author
Priscilla is a dancer of Lebanese heritage who enjoys researching the Golden Era of Egyptian dance. She owns a collection of more than one hundred classic black and white Egyptian films which is continually expanding.
Priscilla has also gathered a large library of dance related articles and clippings from Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, many of which she has translated from the original Arabic to both English and Spanish.
Priscilla currently resides in Central America where she is a dance instructor.
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