Thirty-three years since Abdel Halim Hafez’s passing, hundreds of the Egyptian legend’s devoted fans continue to flock to his house every year to commemorate his death on March 30.
Halim’s home is in an old Zamalek building in Cairo. The apartment where he spent the last years of his life, overlooking the Aquarium, is open for Halim’s fans to visit most of year, but permission must be obtained from the Danish Embassy, which now occupies the first floor of the building.
In front of the apartment on Tuesday, tens of fans stood waiting for their turn to enter the late legend’s shrine. Halim’s family has aptly worked to preserve the place over the years, adopting strict house rules for visitors.
Fans, from every walk of life, shared their memories of Halim with one another, waiting as the apartment door opens.
“I started to come here on the anniversary of Halim’s passing 14 years ago,” Sherif, a 22-year-old computer engineer, said while looking through thousands of dedications carved by Halim’s fans on the walls outside the house. “I am a Halim fanatic, I have all his records, pictures and movies, I even designed a website for him,” he added.
“I brought my two-year-old son with me to celebrate this day, as my father used to do with me when I was a kid,” Nasser, 40, said. “The love for Halim is inherited.”
For more than half a century, Halim’s songs have been an integral part of the Egyptian psyche. His musical legacy incorporated every intimate human emotion: love, joy, sorrow and pain. His love songs — “Ahwak” (I Love You), “Gana El-Hawa” (Love Came to Us), and “Na’am Ya Habibi” (Yes My Love) — were the quintessential love serenades for generations. The more sophisticated ballads he presented at a later stage of his career — especially in his remarkable collaborations with Syrian poet Nezar Qabbani in “Qare’at Al-Fengan” (The Fortuneteller) — also proved to be popular with all generations of fans.
Halim carved his name in history with timely and memorable patriotic songs. Coinciding with the revolution and the Gamal Abdel Nasser era, from 1954 to 1967, Halim became the voice of the Egyptian people, accurately capturing their triumphs and their losses. His “Adda El-Nahar” (The Morning Passed) became synonymous with the 1967 defeat.
The singer’s personal life was equally intriguing, abundant with stories of unrequited love and heartbreak. One version of the story, which was also made into a film directed by Sherif Arafa, claims that Halim lost his one true love to death before they managed to get married.
This loss, along with a tough childhood, is thought to be the reason behind the profound melancholy in his voice.
Halim was born to a poor family in 1929, in the village of Halawat, north of Cairo. Halim’s mother died shortly after giving birth to him; his father died five months later leaving Halim, his two brothers and sister orphaned at a young age. Halim was raised by his aunt and uncle in Cairo. At the age of 11, he contracted Bilharzia which kept him bed-ridden throughout his life. During his lifetime, many artists and commentators accused Halim of exploiting his disease to gain sympathy. His death from the same disease put to rest such accusations.
Halim died on March 30, 1977, while undergoing treatment for Bilharzia in King’s College Hospital, London. His funeral, one of the biggest in contemporary Egyptian history, was attended by millions of people, surpassed only by those of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1970) and Om Kolthoum (1975).
His Zamalek apartment speaks of this rich legacy. The first thing you see is the large living room, which was used as a rehearsal venue during his last days. Turning right, the corridor leads to Halim’s bedroom. Inside it, the bed stands witness to his long illness; the singer used to lean his head on the headboard to avoid bleeding as he slept, leaving a dark mark on it that has survived the years.
Halim’s house was kept in its original form according to his will carried out by his sister Alia, who died two years ago. Now responsibility for the place is in the hands of Ms. Zainab El-Shennawy, Alia’s daughter.
Halim’s belongings are in every corner: his lutes, piano, radio, an old television and some of his personal belongings in the bathroom.
“I am so happy and proud to see all this love; it is a gift from God,” Zainab said. “We are here taking care of his belongings better than any museum, and as long as I am alive, I will keep this place open to Abdel Halim’s fans.”
Along with his house, Halim left a legacy of more than 250 songs, 16 movies and one radio show.
On the way out, more fans were still flocking to the apartment, longing to get their hands on anything that would quench their loving hearts in the sanctuary of the Arab world’s ultimate icon of romance.
A portrait of Egyptian singing legend Abdel Halim Hafez hangs on a wall at his home.