The best Arabic love songs for Valentine’s Day, from Umm Kulthum to Kadim Al Sahir

Stories of romance and heartbreak are some of history's oldest themes, and these 14 regional recordings stand the test of time

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A key motif of popular Arabic music is its dealings with matters of the heart.

From the expansive and majestic compositions of Umm Kulthum to the modern pop sounds of Ahmed Al Saad, regional artists have consistently found fresh ways to talk about love.

Emirati singer Mehad Hamad once described love as “a house enshrined in light”. Egyptian singer Abu compared its effect to the beating of the drum. His compatriot, Abdul Halim Hafez said love can make you forget life itself and, Syrian Asmahan warned how it can bring – and rob life of – joy.

Here are 14 songs, in no particular order, that explore this timeless emotion.

1. Enta Omry by Umm Kulthum (1964)

Translated to “you are my life”, this is one of the Egyptian artist’s greatest love songs.

Originally recorded as a 40-minute composition featuring various movements, Umm Kulthum also created similar shorter versions.

More than the hummable instrumental passages, the heart of the song is the direct lyrics written by Ahmed Kamal, which explore the all-encompassing nature of love.

From the agony of longing to the description of a new romance as “the dawn of my life”, Umm Kulthum summons the heft of those emotions in one of her finest performances.

2. Ahwak by Abdel Halim Hafez (1953)

Recorded early in the career of the revered Egyptian singer, named The Black Nightingale, Ahwak (I Love You) is an ideal showcase of Hafez's sonorous vocals.

The lyrics by Hussein El Sayed, jettisoning the metaphors, aim directly at the heart.

“I love you and I wish that if I ever forget you, I also forget my soul with you,” the song begins. “And if it gets lost, it is acceptable if you have forgotten me.”

3. Ashek El Roh by Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1949)

We have Mohammed Abdel Wahab to thank for pioneering the orchestral sound linked with today's classical plus modern Arabic music.

Translated as “lover of the soul”, Ashek El Roh is defined by its conversational lyrics and rhythmic use of strings and mandolins.

The tension is matched by the subject matter, in which Abdel Wahab beseeches his partner to be emotionally available: “I'm a visitor to her world, like morning and night/And everything has happened while you're forgetting about me and I am next to you.”

4. Eina el-Layali by Asmahan (1932)

In this lovelorn ballad, Syrian singer Asmahan wonders “where did the good nights go?”

Accompanied by oud, she pours her heart out as she details a love that can inflame and heal.

5. Sallimleh Alayh by Fairouz (1999)

One of the Lebanese singer's most sentimental songs.

The song title means “say hi to him”, while the lyrics can be viewed as a tender ode to a seasoned relationship or the sadness stemming from unrequited love.

“Say hi to him,” the song begins. “Say hi to him and tell him it’s from me. Kiss his eyes and tell that I kiss his eyes – you, who understands him.”

6. Ahbini by Kadim Al Sahir (2004)

It's difficult to pick Kadim Al Sahir's best love song.

This is because the Iraqi singer and poet has examined the subject from virtually all angles, encompassing romance and obsession to heartbreak and companionship.

With Ahbini (Love Me), Al Sahir may have come up with his most vulnerable lyrics on the subject as he pleads to his partner to accept him as he is.

“Love me without complexities and lose yourself in the lines of my hand”, he sings in the chorus.

“Love me for a week, for days, for hours / For I am not one who cares about eternity.”

7. Marwan Khoury – Kol El Qassayed (2008)

While Khoury composed some of modern Arabic pop's most romantic tunes for the likes of Elissa and Carole Samaha, the Lebanese artist also kept some of his best material for himself.

In Kol El Qassayed (All the Poems) he details how love inspired him to write these memorable tunes.

“This is a song of a love that last for years / These are tears and my longing for you,” he croons over lilting strings.

“My heart adores you, without love who am I?”

8. El Hob El Kebir by Ragheb Alama (2004)

Known for his romantic balladry, El Hob El Kebir finds Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama recalling “the great love of his life”.

While fashioned as an upbeat pop track, the song's sentiments about a relationship that's strong and enduring have made it a Valentine’s Day and wedding favourite.

9. Shafaqat Bareq Lelah by Mehad Hamad (2018)

Loosely translated as “blistering lightning”, this track is a bewitching blend of traditional Emirati folk and blues.

Mehad Hamad's grizzled tones speak of being struck by Cupid's arrow and how love “is the medicine for the wounded” and “it is a house enshrined in light”.

10. 3 Daqat by Abu ft. Yousra (2017)

Not every romantic song needs to be a slow ballad, as this sprightly summer hit demonstrates.

A collaboration between Abu and fellow Egyptian actress Yousra, the smart lyrics compare love at first sight to the increasing rhythms of a song: “When I saw her, my heart beat three times/ The drum entered in my head playing with the things inside/ When the riq [a hand percussion instrument] entered in my heart, I fell in love What could I do? I began to sing.”

The song was an instant hit, receiving more than 125 million views on YouTube in the first three months of its release.

11. Tamally Maak by Amr Diab (2000)

The title means “always with you” and it's one of Egyptian pop artist's most affecting works.

Melding Mediterranean guitars with yearning strings, nostalgia pervades Tamally Maak as Diab remembers an unforgettable relationship.

“I am with you even if you are far away from me,” he says. “In my heart is your love.”

12. El Bint El Awiye by Wael Kfoury (2021)

This is one of Kfoury's biggest hits, as he skirts the lines between love, heartbreak and sarcasm.

Flashes of flamenco guitar abound as Kfoury jettisons his trademark yearning vocals for a more playful staccato delivery.

“If you ever leave me and stop loving me, I swear I will make my eyes go blind,” he sings.

“If you ever go away, my life will get ruined. What would I do to myself? I don’t know.”

Is this a dramatic declaration of love or tongue-in-cheek? Who cares when it all sounds so fun and breezy.

13. Aleky Eyoun by Ahmed Saad (2022)

Great Arabic love songs are not entirely confined to the past, as this beautiful number by Ahmed Saad proves.

An immediate hit upon release, the production is modern with gentle syncopated drums and smooth synths.

Translating to You Have Eyes, the song has Saad reflecting on love's ability to heal.

“You have a talk that removes all my sadness and makes me feel good,” he says.

“It reassures my heart and makes me in harmony.”

14. Hadal Ahbek by Issam Alnajjar (2021)

Released on YouTube, the song became a viral sensation and topped Spotify's Global Viral 50 – a chart measuring how songs are shared on the platform, as well as on blogs and social media.

Built on breezy folk arrangements similar to those by singers Ed Sheeran and Jason Mraz, the song exudes a gentle melancholy as it details a rocky relationship.

With a mixture of candour and conviction, Alnajjar's lyrics directly address his partner, as he promises he will remain by her side. “I will always be with you,” he sings. “Even if everyone is against you I'll keep loving you.”

The best part of all is the ingeniously simple chorus “Ra-pa-pa-pa-ra-pa-ra-pa”, which makes it hummable from Amman to Amsterdam.

Updated: February 14, 2024, 9:59 AM