Legendary Arab divas of film and music immortalised in Paris

Immersive exhibition pays tribute to female icons of the Middle East

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An interactive exhibition paying tribute to Arab divas of film and music from the 1920s to the 1970s will open in Paris next month.

The exhibition features icons such as Leila Mourad, Warda Al Jazairia and Asmahan, as well as many other famous Arab female performers from Cairo, Beirut, the Maghreb and even France.

Held at the Arab World Institute in Paris, the immersive exhibition will allow visitors to walk through reconstructed sets furnished with personal items, costumes and jewellery belonging to legendary voices and faces of Arab entertainment history.

Beginning in Cairo during the 1920s, the exhibition journeys through the Egyptian capital’s time as the intellectual centre of the Arab world.

In this time period, the Egyptian feminist movement allowed women to be pioneers in the film and music industry, and their inroads paved the way for the formidable singers, actresses and producers who gained much acclaim in the decades that followed.

With some revelatory insights into the sometimes turbulent lives of these women, the exhibition highlights the significance of these timeless icons’ fame and success amid the social and political developments of the period.

Across the generations, the singers became the incarnations of Arab identity and contributed to the emergence of pan-Arabism in the 1960s and 1970s.

After the social and geopolitical changes of the 1970s began to reframe the entertainment industry in the Middle East, the power of the ‘diva’ began to gradually fade, but the fascination with the period and its aura never has.

Leila Mourad – considered one of the most notable singers in modern Egyptian history – appeared in more than 20 movies and performed hundreds of songs before deciding to retire at the peak of her career in 1955 at the age of 37.

Warda Al Jazairia, the “Algerian Rose” who was more commonly known by her first name, was an Algerian-Lebanese singer who began her singing career in Paris before moving to Egypt, where she worked with some of the country’s greatest composers of the time, building a large fan base across the region.

A studio portrait of Warda Al Jazairia in Algiers, circa 1970. Cherif Ben Youcef/Collection Reyad Kesri
A studio portrait of Warda Al Jazairia in Algiers, circa 1970. Cherif Ben Youcef/Collection Reyad Kesri

Better known by her stage name Asmahan, Amal Al Atrash became a star after her debut at the Cairo Opera House as a teenager. She went on to perform the compositions of some of the great musicians of the era. Hers was considered one of the few voices able to rival that of the illustrious Umm Kulthum.

The exhibition is scheduled to run from March 3 to July 25.