The Time of Her Life
By Amy Mowafi
After 30 incredible years in the industry, and following a three year hiatus, Samira Saeed is set to release her 33rd album; fittingly entitled Ayam Hayati. On the cusp of 50, Samira is looking and feeling better than ever. Managing Editor Amy Mowafi sat down at home with the superstar to discover what it takes to become an icon…
It’s early on a Friday morning, on the outskirts of Cairo, where desert and concrete still compete for dominance. All is still. The thousand and one minarets of the city, all competing for the call to prayer, linger in the distance. We’re just off that stretch of dusty road where sand-covered lone billboards compete for promises of a better life in beautiful compounds that are yet to be built. And in a bright-pink-washed villa, surrounded by a picturesque garden, where the sounds of chirping birds compete with the gentle hum of a lawn-mower, sits Samira Saeed; a woman who no longer needs to compete. For anything.
She is an archetype. The Arab music industry is hers to look down upon from the vantage of point of 30 years of experience. She’s been there, done that and got the praise and the accolades to prove it. The 2003 World Music Award, gold and glittering, stands on a rich mahogany mantle in her cool and contemporary polished-wood and marble living room. The other 39 high profile awards, including the BBC award for the Best Artist in the Middle East, are nowhere to be seen. Saeed is not a woman of flashy sensibilities. Her fresh youthful face is scrubbed clean; her newly shortened honeyed hair is naturally tousled. Dressed in beige linen pyjama pants and a baby-blue T-shirt, her polish-free fingers are wrapped around a deep-red ceramic coffee mug. She flings open the French windows to let in some fresh air and then gets cosy on her creamy couch. She speaks in hushed tones and smiles demurely. It’s all a far and surprising cry from the big-haired big-voiced woman from the music videos; from the glittering glam diva on billboards across the region; from the vivacious model in these photographs. “In ‘real-life’ I’ve never been one of these women who piles on the makeup and jewellery,” she says. “I’m a jeans and t-shirt girl. I’m all about simplicity. Of course when I go to an event, I’ll put on a big dress, but when I get home I’ll look in the mirror and barely recognise myself. I’m like ‘who is that’? And of course when I was younger I made some bad fashion choices, but who doesn’t? In the past there have been occasions when I’ve tried to be something I’m not, but you eventually settle into your own skin. What you see now, that’s the real me.”
She is so much smaller than she looks on screen, and looks so much younger than her years…and legacy….would suggest. On the cusp of 50, she’s like a Madonna or a Cher for the Arab world (two names that repeatedly crop up in our conversation); always changing and evolving and always present. And just like her international cohorts, the passing of time has done nothing to diminish her energy, vitality, passion, ambition, or looks. “It’s the work that keeps me young,” she says. “Every time I release a new album, it really is like giving birth. It’s such a rush. I’m still as excited as I was when I launched my first album. Success makes you happy, which makes you look beautiful.”
She exudes the quiet confidence of a woman who long ago proved her point; one who has earned the right to play the game according to her own rules; who has played out all the possible scenarios, and won’t take second best for an answer. A woman who therefore will not be ruffled by all the rumours surrounding the launch of her long-waited 33rd album (yes 33rd), fittingly entitled Ayam Hayaty (The Days of My Life). Over three years in the making, the tabloids have had a field day with her alleged arguments with producers, directors and song writers. Some even claimed she had ear-marked all of the best-penned songs that were coming out of the region’s writing talents, while she took her time deciding which would make the final cut. “I had a lot of personal problems during that time. My mum was very sick, and I kept flying back to Morocco to be with her,” she says without the slightest hint of exasperation. “Other than that, it really was just one of those things. Sometimes these productions run smoothly, sometimes there are complications. That’s just life. I was unhappy with the first draft of the album. It needed a lot of tweaking. I had to keep going back into the studio to get it sounding exactly how I wanted. It just didn’t go as smoothly as I hoped. I wasn’t happy with the first video I shot, I wasn’t happy with a lot of the tracks, and I wanted to get it right.”
Fair enough. But three years in music-industry terms is a virtual lifetime. In a world where pop stars are piled high and sold cheap, audiences become fickle and forgetful. Was she ever worried that she’d fade from memory? Of course not. “I understand that a lot of my fans were upset, but when you’ve been in the industry as long as I have, there’s a history that you can’t just wipe away in three years. Look, when I was younger I was always in a rush, always running around, wanting to do things as quickly as possible. Now I like to take my time, to enjoy the process, to do things perfectly.” The result speaks for itself. The stunning and devastatingly moving album features 14 soaring songs, all written by poets, including the likes of Ayman Bahgat Qamar, Nader Abdullah and Tamer Hussein.
She might have slowed down, but she looks upon the current crop of overnight sexy singing starlets with a motherly sort of knowing and pride. “I think they’re really lucky. It was so much harder for us. We had to really struggle just to get noticed. The structure of media today means that overnight they’re exposed to the whole world. Of course, I’m only talking about the real talents, the ones that can really sing. And if they stand out, if they’re also here in another 30 years time, then how can we begrudge them the fantastic opportunities they’re given? If they stick it out, I’ll be so proud of them.”
Of course, Samira Saeed is mother to her own 13 year old boy, Shady. And yet she seems oblivious to the rigours of juggling motherhood and a career. “I guess I was just really lucky with Shady,” she says. “He was never ever a difficult or dependent child. I never felt that guilt, of ‘oh he needs me and I’m not there’ because he was always just so happy and self-sufficient,” she says, visibly beaming with pride. And he’s always been so proud of me. In fact now that he’s a bit older, he uses my fame to increase his popularity with the girls at school!”
With the World Music Awards she sashayed on the margins of international success, but never felt the need to really put herself in the hands of the Western media machine. “It’s just so hard to cross-over,” she says. “I would have had to have started from scratch, and it would have taken another lifetime. Even then nothing is guaranteed. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made.” The only thing she envies her international cohorts are the sort-of mammoth concerts that become legends unto themselves. “You know, where you have tens of thousands of people in a big stadium. Like Madonna or Michael Jackson concerts. I’ve always dreamed of doing that, but in the Middle East we just don’t have the capabilities, the infrastructure and above of all the money to pull it off. Or anything close! But that’s still the dream!”
She’s come a long way since her days in her hometown of Rabat, a fuzzy-haired kid impressing TV-talent show judges with her stunning ability to negotiate the epic old Arabic songs. The small girl with the big, big voice. It’s a long time since Egyptian legend Abdel Halim Hafez took the teenage talent under his by-then fragile-wings, and insisted she move to Cairo; the music capital of the Middle East. She’s expertly manoeuvred her way through sounds as diverse as Tarab, Rai, Jazz and pure bubble-gum pop. She’s sung for the pope, in the Eurovision song contest and for the Prince of Monaco. She’s been credited with dragging Arab music into the pop-driven commercially-fuelled 21st century and been criticised for the very same thing. “I’ve just always tried to be different,” she says. “I’ve wanted to surprise, entertain, push boundaries and keep them wanting more.”
The causes she’s supported – including Aids awareness -have been as controversial as her musical-directions. When she pulled a Princess Diana and agreed to an HIV test – on camera – she did more in that singular moment for the cause than many have achieved in a lifetime. “I know the authorities would have us believe that we don’t have a problem with HIV in the Middle East,” she says. “I know they want us to think that no one has sex outside of marriage, but the fact is, whatever your beliefs, it happens. And if it’s happening we have to make sure people are educated and protected.”
She’s suffered scandals and suffered fools – and she’s lived to tell the tale. She’s clawed her way up to the very top of the business, the very hard way. And she’s still here, still singing, and still right at the top of the game. She’s older and wiser, bigger, better and more beautiful than ever. And she’s having the time of her life.