Modern Arab pop has always been fond of big emotions. Whether it’s a first love or the loss of someone near and dear, you can guarantee each of the major acts have a song for the occasion.
While such pandering to the heart resulted in artists cultivating a dedicated fan base, it has unfortunately left the regional music scene somewhat predictable.
This is why the new single by Lebanese singer and sometimes actress, Carole Samaha, needs to be applauded. Not only does it give the tired industry a shot in the arm, but its subject matter has been a matter of debate in Arabic social media since its recent release.
The reason for the hubbub? Well, Samaha's new song focuses on an aspect of relationships rarely spoken about in the modern Arabic pop song.
Al Moutallaka (The Divorced) looks at life after the honeymoon period and what is left when the emotions have faded.
Terse and definitely not commercial, the track is essentially a spoken word poem that eventually gives away to a rousing chorus.
Supporting the song's arty ambitions is an intimate black and white video, which has Samaha staring at the ocean from her abandoned home. Despite its attempt to provide a warts-and-all portrayal of Samaha (she still looks fabulous) it is the lyrics, written by Lebanese poet and author Ali Mawla, that hit hard.
“I have been sentenced to loneliness and my crime is that I am divorced,” Samaha begins in a tired tone, before going on to describe the whispers of family as a ‘tightening noose’ and that society regards divorcees "as used women.”
Due to its subject matter, and the fact that its sounds markedly different from Samaha's elegant balladry, it was understandable that she performed it for the first time on June 21 as part of the Mawazine Festival in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.
Why divorce is a conversation starter
Speaking to the press hours before her concert, Samaha – who is married and a mother of one – expressed her satisfaction at the song’s the reaction.
More than the charts, she wanted Al Moutallaka to begin a conversation.
“And that’s because it is something that we rarely talk about,” she says. “The divorced woman is expected to almost disappear from the scene and that is extremely unfair.”
Intriguingly, Samaha, 46, states that she wouldn’t have sung that song if she, herself, had a broken union.
“First of all, may God forbid that from happening, but if I was divorced I wouldn’t put myself in that position,” she says.
“And that is because I don’t want to release a song that makes people feel sorry for me. And also, I am not of the view that an artist should always sing about the things that are happening in their lives. By me singing about things that don’t relate directly to me at present, but which affects many people that we know, is really about me showing empathy for others.”
It is for this reason that Samaha doesn't view Al Moutallaka as a song, but as a "shout" for understanding.
“During my life I have met so many great women that have gone through divorces and they have told me about the way society views them,” she says.
“There is a definitely a sense that these things are wearing them down. So I am trying to do my bit in supporting them.”
And Samaha is getting help from some unlikely sources. The song's appeal caught the ear of Armenian DJ Kevork Msade, who lives in Germany and recently released a thumping house remix of Al Moutallaka. Msade has been dropping the track as part of his residencies in clubs across the southwestern German city of Manheim.
"That to me is a big shock and that remix now is also playing in clubs in Beirut. I still find that a bit strange to be honest, because that was the last thing on my mind," Samaha says.
"But if I really think about it, what I can I say is that it shows the power of songs. Al Moutallaka is deeply personal and I think any song that has honest emotions can crossover to all kinds of people."
How to balance making art, and the commercial market
While the song continues to shake up the Arab pop music industry, those following Samaha’s career will know she has perhaps always exhibited a more ambitious streak than her colleagues when it comes to her work.
Born in Beirut, she cut her teeth as an actress and classical Arabic singer with the revered composers Mansour and Marwan Rahbani. She starred in many of their projects, including the landmark 2007 production Zenobia, in which Samaha played a third century queen from the Palmyrene Empire, in what is modern-day Syria.
She then went on find her own projects and starred in the 2008 Lebanese drama Bahr al Noum, and the 2011 Ramadan drama Al Shahroura alongside veteran Lebanese actress Sabah. This was done concurrently with her more successful music career, which boasts six albums and hits such as Khallik Behalak and Roul Fell.
If you asked Samaha to choose between the concert stage and the theatre, she says her choice would be clear.
“The theatre, particular musical theatre, is in my blood. That’s where I started and where I have some of my best memories,” she says.
“I would love to do more of that. But to be honest with you the opportunities to do that are becoming increasingly rare, and that is because there is not a lot of investment in Lebanon when it comes to theatre. Investors and sponsors are still scared about doing that as they feel that it is a financial risk.”
Until that changes, Samaha says she intends to continue her own artistic path. While proud of Al Moutallaka's relative success, she admits that it is difficult for Arab singers to forge a sustainable career without keeping their eye on what the fans want. This means a constant balance between artistic ambition and commercial demands.
“It is tough to be in control of your own vision while at the same-time trying to follow what is happening in the market,” she says.
“What I do is that I try as much as I can to stay true to myself. An artist has to be stubborn and keep going, and as long as people are responding to what you do then you are on the right path.”