Lebanese singer Majida El Roumi is a true icon in all her creativity and humanity. She has returned to her homeland the glory, love, and faith that she has earned during her extraordinary 45-year career
On September 1, 1920, General Henri Gouraud declared the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon from inside La Résidence des Pins, leaving the home of the French ambassador to Lebanon engraved in the minds of Lebanese people. It is forever linked to the country’s independence. Today, 100 years later, this important palace has lost nothing of its grandeur, particularly when soprano Majida El Roumi crosses its arches and corridors, dressed in a gown by couturier Georges Hobeika. This, for many, is a historical moment, as El Roumi is posing for her first magazine cover ever, in a career that spans 45 years. As she drapes a Lebanese flag over her shoulders, in preparation for Vogue Arabia’s cover shot, the team struggles to hold back their tears. With grace, El Roumi steps forward to represent her beloved country, at a time when the Lebanese need her motherly support more than ever.
He who called her Majida (“glorified” in Arabic) had great foresight. Throughout her majestic career, she has glorified Lebanon, the Arabic song, and women. A multitalented artist, her work inspires love and the unity of her people. She has used her voice to call for peace, singing operatic arias since her youth, delighting hearts, ears, and eyes altogether. El Roumi sings to Lebanon with the words of poet Said Akl, while portraying women through the eyes of poet Nizar Qabbani. Beyond her melodies, she defends freedom, rights, and vulnerable people, and calls for building countries with space for creativity, to help civilizations emanate hope. It is no wonder that she was named a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN in 2001.
Yet El Roumi has never been one to court media attention. “I haven’t posed for any magazine cover in more than 45 years. It didn’t affect me,” she states. “An artist’s prestige lies in making their fans long to see them perform. Recurrent appearances don’t serve the artist, but rather make their presence mundane, in a way that will not impact people.” She believes that the power of the artist is vast. “The role is more important than that of a politician,” she considers. “Artists should call for unity, independence, and freedom for their countrymen. This is their true duty.”
The soprano has often translated the suffering of the “martyr Lebanese people” – as she refers to her compatriots – into song. She lived their dream of a real nation, singing “Am Bahlamak Ya Hilm Ya Lobnan” (“I Dream of You, Lebanon’s Dream,” 1975). She encouraged the Lebanese people when their suffering swelled with her song “Oum Thada” (“Get Up and Challenge,” 1994). When Beirut was bleeding, she relieved its hardships with “Beirut Set El Donya” (“Beirut is the Mistress of the World,” 2000). For El Roumi, the song is the result of circumstance. The words will remain immortal in the hearts of people if they translate the reality. She recalls how the lyrics of “Beirut Set El Donya” made Gamal Salama weep as he composed it, in a swift 30 minutes. Similarly, Ihsan Al-Munzer cried while composing “Kalimat” (Words, 1991). “Words are the secrets of great songs,” she smiles.
Known for her elegant presence on and off stage, for El Roumi, ostentatious fashion takes a backseat. “I don’t like to be linked with material things. A brand name bag won’t make a person good,” she says. Her beauty ideal – the late Egyptian actor Faten Hamama – is grounded in the reality of time. “She was beautiful even when she got old and wrinkles developed across her face,” she smiles. “I wish to grow old with as beautiful a face as Faten Hamama.”
Whether or not she is dressed in couture, the soprano shines when singing for her public. El Roumi loves the stage and has performed at prominent music festivals, including, Cedars international festival, Beiteddine festival, the international festival of Carthage, Mawazine, and at the Cairo Opera House. “I used to play with my friend in the neighborhood, making necklaces of yellow Marguerite flowers. Suddenly, I was singing in front of people. I was not prepared for this glory,” she recalls.
El Roumi was born in Kfarchima in 1956; she still lives there today. Her father, Halim El Roumi, was a musician hailing from Tyre and credited with discovering Fairuz, while her mother put all her efforts into raising four children. The house was often alive with artists and El Roumi began vocal lessons as a young girl. She appeared on Télé Liban’s Studio el Fan talent show when she was 16, performing for Egyptian singer and actor Leila Murad and winning the gold medal for best female singer. Her first solo album, “Wada3,” came out in 1977 and, soon afterward, she started touring the Arab world. The star has since released 14 albums, garnering multiple awards and leaving her mark on both classical and patriotic compositions. Patriotic songs encourage people and serve revolutions while supporting her artistic and humanitarian message. “I dream of a day when the Lebanese people unite. When the gaps between them disappear so that we may all come together for Lebanon, not for sectarianism,” she states. This has led her to begin work on a new song, “Saut Al Haq” (The Voice of the Truth). “I want to greet people who have lived closer to knives than roses. I admire them. I bow to their suffering and appreciate their ability to resist all adversity to live and secure their lives no matter how dreadful their hardships are. These people deserve all the medals of freedom. We have to instill positive thoughts and not surrender,” El Roumi says. “Dignity after sadness is strength.” As for the classical song, of which she is the undisputed queen, the vocalist says, “My secret is to be satisfied with little. I give priority to my humanitarian message. What I care about is to stand by my human brothers, live their pain, and wipe their tears. This is my true joy.”
Accolades don’t serve to fulfill her. With a calm voice, she muses, “I am close to Sufism and the truth. I do not waste my time with work or people who do not fill me with inner peace. This is what is important to me. I also love to live close to our Mother Earth. I become very weak standing before the olive tree and grape arbor that hangs in our village, or the lemon tree, which tells many stories. I glorify God and reach the skies when I am in the embrace of the Motherland. I contemplate the simplest things. This is a language in itself that is difficult for everyone to understand.”
At home, the soprano leads a normal life. She goes to church and spends time with her family, particularly her two daughters, Hala and Nour. She reads Arabic literature and studies music. She is also a prolific composer, and in light of the pandemic, during which El Roumi considers it her duty to help the Lebanese people, she has written a song that inspires hope for all – “away from the empty streets and suspended life,” she comments. In the soon-to-be-released song called “Ghannou bikol el Loghat,” she sings, “Even if I told you I miss you, don’t dare to come. This life that wasted its papers still has so many years to come. I promise to keep you quarantined in my heart when we meet.” El Roumi chose burgeoning composer Michel Fadel to work on the new track – she regularly encourages young talents, including pianist Marc Abou Naoum and composer Charbel Rouhana. She believes youth harbors a special energy and that young people seek joy, hope, and excitement.
For all the new generation’s vim and vigor, El Roumi recognizes that Lebanese are still fighting to thrive. Not shy to share her political views, she states, “I wish I had evidence against every corrupt politician who brought Lebanon to where we are today. I think the salvation of Lebanon lies in imposing a secular system that sets limits to the power of different communities.” She advocates for the country to exercise sovereignty, dignity, and prestige. “I call for confederation,” she states. “Why shouldn’t there be a United States of Lebanon?”
El Roumi is in the process of writing a four-volume book on the country, its peaceful coexistence before sectarianism, singing during times of war, her personal life, and her courageous continuity in her artistic field. Today, the soprano calls for a return to the pillars of human nature. She encourages her countrymen to hold firm to family as a means of human salvation – instead of technology, which she feels forebodes a new era of destruction and economic collapse. She considers that it has deprived us of the highest qualities embodied in human-to-human communication. “I miss those good old days when human communication was of high value. Modern technology has destroyed communities. I find it difficult to understand why one would become attached to electronic devices, preferring them over reading a book, listening to an elegant piece of music, or enjoying a great artwork. As for myself, I prefer to go deep into my father’s world, whose voice is my first school, and Chopin’s world too.” She cites Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues, Cesária Évora, the late singer Zikra, Laila Mourad, and Kadim Al-Sahir as some of her favorites. “I find pleasure in genuineness and reading that restores my soul. I also connect with the earth – if it is lost, I will be lost, too.”
Majida El Roumi resigns herself to the will of God, saying, “Every stage taught me to understand life’s laws. Life is two days, one is for you and the other is against you. I don’t plan to change a single thing because I believe in the saying, ‘Destiny has its own plans.’”
Originally published in the June 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography: Sandra Chidiac
Style: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Joe Raad
Makeup: Bassam Fattouh
Photography Assistants: Joe Ghanem, Rachel Karam
Production: Laura Prior
Local Production: Mariana Wehbe Public Relations
Local Production Assistant: Marwa Darazi at Mariana Wehbe Public Relations
Shot on location at La Résidence des Pins, Beirut