Far from Iraq and under a vanilla Spanish sky, the caesar of Arabic song, Kadim Al Sahir, greets us warmly at his home. The Arab singer is naturally generous, welcoming, and affable; qualities that any romantic singer must behold – after all, only a generous man can offer the world such beautiful music. “I was raised in an environment that instilled many good values, such as shyness, self- esteem, and respect for others,” confides Al Sahir in reference to the coyness that characterizes his love for classical Arabic songs. “I hate the shyness that we inherited because it deprived us of many of our rights, but at the same time, it taught us respect.”
Al Sahir’s rise was not as wondrous as his voice, however. He experienced hard times, which affected his life and personality, and it reflected in his art.
The singer’s youth was not easy and he went through many difficulties while growing up in poverty, as one of 10 siblings. His extensive talk of the time he spent in the military is evidence of the important impact it had on his career. “During my military service, I met many great artists, musicians, and Iraqi professors of theater, painting, and folk arts,” he recalls. For the next stage of his life, he enrolled at the Baghdad Institute of Music. “It was a wonderful time of my life because it refined my talent academically. I am proud to have met professor Salwa Shamilian, who was a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad while I was a student at the Teachers Institute. I used to sing in her band. She taught us how to breathe properly and sing opera.” Yet what he gained during this time did not protect him from failure or from releasing works that he was ultimately unsatisfied with.
The 63-year-old also remembers the challenges of living in war-torn Iraq, which forced him to move abroad in 1990. “These circumstances have destroyed Iraqi artists. No Iraqi artist could go out. They were not allowed on TV channels, except on Jordanian ones. We have suffered a blockade that affects all Iraqi people,” he says. “The political circumstances were very harmful, but I am always determined to move forward, and I believe that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” His resilience is further showcased with a tattoo on his chest that recounts the 42 days of bombing during which he composed the poem “Madrasat Al Hob” (The School of Love), while trying to protect the melody from being lost.
Al Sahir struggled, studied, worked hard, and refined his talent until he imposed himself on the art scene in such a fashion that no Arab artist could compete with him. The caesar admits to achieving his success thanks to Allah first, who gave him this special talent. He is also thankful for the professors who believed in him, and everyone who taught him the Arabic language until he was able to taste and understand its deep meanings. And, of course, his family. “My mother’s favor is great,” he underlines. “She was my first supporter. She used to prevent my brothers from changing the TV channel so that I could listen to songs and music.”
Al Sahir’s musical success paved the way for him to become the most famous singer in the Arab world. To date, he has sold more than 100 million albums and written more than 40 hit songs, including “Ana Wa Layla” (Me and Layla), “Salamtak Men Al Ah” (Get Well Soon) and “La Titnahad” (Don’t Sigh). “To reach this stage, I relied on a strong foundation. Throughout all these years, I never stopped looking for new ideas and never gave up the oud. I always compose and await the appropriate time to release works. I composed the poem ‘Zidini Eshqan’ (Give Me More Love) when I was 16, but I did not sing it until I was 36. In all my work I seek to please the audience by presenting fine music that remains engraved in their memories.” His quest for perfection is real, particularly evidenced by his most ambitious musical project, Gilgamesh, which he has been working on for many years and which has not yet been released. He is waiting for a production that will present it best, while also being set to release new music for an Iraq charity soon. “I’m a writer, a composer, and a singer. This combination helped me greatly, and made it easy for me to choose according to the ideas I wanted to introduce,” he comments.
An interview with Al Sahir would be incomplete without mentioning the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. “The year I met him, 1992, was a landmark, because we released our hit ‘Inni Khyartoki Fakhtari’ (Make Your Own Choice). After that song, there was a constant stream of great works. He was so special to me; I still have the letters he sent me,” Al Sahir shares Qabbani – who was known as the “woman’s poet” and “poet of love” didn’t turn the caesar into a singer solely for women. “I introduce my works to all people, not for women in particular. Women are such powerful and honorable agents in our Arab societies; they play an indispensable role in leading the homeland, against which we did an injustice by electing unwise, unsophisticated persons on a sectarian basis leading to an extreme level of backwardness,” says the star.
Although Al Sahir currently lives far from Iraq, the country lives deep in his heart and is clearly represented in his manners, Middle Eastern soul, and in the customs and traditions he has never abandoned. He sang for Iraq in “Qollohom Ya Sindbad” (Tell Them, Sindbad) and “Baghdad La Tata’allami” (Baghdad, Feel No Pain). “I carried Iraq with me to the most remote corners of the world through my voice, drawing the best picture of it so people can understand that Iraq doesn’t deserve war,” he shares. His voice resonated, and Iraq has received considerable aid through his efforts. He also never forgets his home and the gatherings he had with his family in their small house. He considers his past, though difficult, as wonderful, and it is still alive in his mind. Away from his art, Al Sahir combines the Middle Eastern man, the father, the sportsman, and the patriot in one person. “I’m romantic in art and character. I’m incredibly in love with romance,” he says. “I’m vulnerable to love, I moved in search of love. We men chase after our beloved ones, we go where they go, then we bring our children to this territory, considering it ours,” he says. “I like to appear as a strong man, especially in the eyes of my two sons. This is because I love them. This love that Allah grants parents is a great blessing. Otherwise, no one would say children are our most precious treasure.”
What does he envision as his legacy? “After 40 years of hard work, during which I toured the globe to share my artistic message with all people, I have a single wish: I hope that the music I made will be included in a musical library.” His other dream is to one day live on a private farm in a beautiful village. He is keen to be strong both morally and physically, eating healthy food, exercising four times a week, and enjoying a simple and sophisticated style with no flamboyance. With a journey full of music, romance, and dreams behind him and still a fulfilling future ahead of him, Al Sahir humbly comments, “All my life achievements were just music.”
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Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia.
Style: Abraham Gutiérrez
Grooming: Natalia Belda with Armani Beauty and Dyson Hair
Photography Assistant: Carlos Alberto
Production: Laura Prior