By Chitra Kalyani
What was Om Kolthoum like when she was young? If Nai Barghouti has already evoked a comparison with the Egyptian legend, one wonders where the 14-year-old will be in a few years time.
The shy smile with which Barghouti receives audience applause is a surprising contradiction to the voice of a young woman who has earned it. She is this year’s penultimate act at the Mawred Al-Thaqafy’s annual Hayy Program which features female indie talents from the world over in the month of Ramadan.
Three songs into the night at the packed Geneina theater on Thursday, Barghouti is already a crowd-pleaser. An appreciative chorus of ‘Allah!’ rises from the listeners at Barghouti’s invocation of the “layali,” the repeated call of “Ya ayn, ya lail.” It is in this repeated call of “O my eye! O night!” an evening of songs may be extended by countless minutes, and in which Barghouti finds her greatest likeness with the legendary Egyptian singer.
In the depth of her tone, and in the quaver she introduces into her lyrics as well, Barghouti resembles Om Kolthoum, who was fondly called “the star of the East.”
Barghouti began singing around the age of five with her mother, and has since trained with renowned Palestinian composer Khaled Joubran.
The Barghouti household has housed many talents, such as writer Mourid Barghouti and poet Tamim Barghouti among others. Nai’s father, Omar Barghouti, is a noted political scientist and writer.
“My father always insists on details,” the artist says to the audience at the event, “but that is why I’m here.”
The teen has many accolades to her name having already won the Marcel Khalife competition several times. She has also participated in a UNESCO ceremony in 2008 and the Parisian Jazz Festival in 2010 as part of the Maqamat Al Qods (The Jerusalem Maqam group).
Also an accomplished flute-player, Nai, whose name is synonymous with the Oriental flute, has six original compositions to her name.
It is undeniable that being Palestinian has accorded her with an untimely maturity. Daily News Egypt asks Barghouti about her experience of being woken up by soldiers and detained at gunpoint at her aunt’s house.
You congratulate yourself for having ‘researched’ the artist well, having found a blog where she documents the experience.
“It was very humiliating,” Barghouti answers with sincerity and a depth of experience that make one’s questions seem inane and paltry in comparison. “It hurt us all.”
“It makes me sing differently,” says Barghouti. “When I sing a song, I remember what happened, then I use that experience.”
She is referring to the Palestinian song “Yoma Mwel Al-Hawa” (Where Will the Wind Take Me?) whose lyrics declare “I’d rather die with honor than live under oppression.”
“Ya Reit” is another song that speaks of a shared Palestinian desire, “O how I wish to return,” as did Barghouti’s rendition of Fariouz’s “Shawarai Quds Al-Atiqa” (The Streets of Old Jerusalem).
Barghouti’s repertoire included also Arabic classics such as Sayed Darwish’s “Monyaty AzzaI Stibari.”
“Inn Kont Assameh” (If I Forgive) is a song dedicated to Om Kolthoum. “She is the one whose songs entertain me the most,” Barghouti says.
Her final homage, however, is to the host country, “to the youth of Egypt,” she said, “and to our revolution.” Her finale, which she subtly introduces as Sayed Darwish song, is in fact the national anthem “Belady belady.”
Audiences standing to honor the anthem give Barghouti a well-deserved ovation. What marks her deeply is her Palestinian identity, yet it is marked with a sentiment of nostalgia and love that is indubitably shared by the Arab world.