One of the greats of Arab music, the Tunisian singer continues to strive to use her craft to give back to the world.
Deemed a giant of the Arabian golden age, Tunisian artist Latifa‘s outstanding talent instantly captured audiences with her seductive voice and performances. Music returned the favor, bestowing her with fame and success. And today, at 61, Latifa shows no signs of slowing. She is preparing for a dramatic movie role, an album with Ziad Rahbani, and a lineup of concerts across the Arab world. All showcased through songs that promptly transport its listeners back, as they imagine the voice of a singer resurrected from the past.
Born Latifa Bint Alaya El Arfaoui, in Manouba, Tunisia, the road to music was paved early for the artist. At four years old, she would choose the lyrics for songs that her sister used to recite, performing them for her family in their backyard garden. Her family’s love for art increased her own passion for singing, and she would also select music from Fayrouz, Umm Kulthum, Asmahan, and other celebrated singers for her Sunday performances. She considers herself lucky to have been born in Tunisia and into a family that respects art and considers music a humanitarian message. “I am from the middle class and an environment that believes that music is creativity and a blessing from Allah. My Tunisian fans supported me and still do,” she says.
A stroke of luck saw her meet the great composer Baligh Hamdi, who advised her to move to Egypt. But Latifa was determined to first complete her education to ensure her family’s support for her singing. She studied hard but the exhaustion took its toll, and her weight plunged to 39kg. Latifa persevered, and began lessons at a music institute in Paris Street, the current headquarters of the Higher Institute of Music of Tunis. A Talent Club program held in 1978 saw her win the award for Best Talent. The Tunisian Ministry of Culture then chose her to represent the country in the third Arab Festival in Iraq, where she sang Tunisian songs. She also performed Umm Kulthum’s Ana Fe Intizarak, leaving the audience stunned by her remarkable voice. Hamdi never forgot Latifa’s talent, and ultimately convinced her to complete her postgraduate studies in music in Egypt. She moved with her mother to Cairo. “I was lucky to be in Egypt, with its people, media, and creators. They helped me to be who I am today. I owe everything to “The Mother of the World,” and whatever I give to this country, I see it as less than it deserves. Egypt taught me, made me famous, and embraced me and my family. Thanks to it, I broke into the world of music.”
Collaborating with the composer Ammar El Sherei, Latifa became the “first female singer to release an album of eight songs,” she says, and while she sang in several languages, Arabic remains her favorite. She went on to collaborate with big names such as Ziad Rahbani, Youssef Chahine, and Omar Khairat, among many others. These great artists all contributed to the singer breaking into the world of music. She broadened her horizons by listening to Édith Piaf, Mireille Mathieu, Joe Dassin, Iranian Googoosh, and Turkish Amal Sayen. Unlike other Arab artists, she chose songs for their bold meanings. This includes Ana Mat Nesish (I’m Unforgettable), Ya Abyad Ya Aswad (White or Black), and Hobak Hadi (Your Love is Quiet). “I was raised in an environment that doesn’t discriminate between men and women,” she says. “The poet Abdel Hamid Muhammad, who wrote the last songs of Umm Kulthum, was astonished at my choice of Hobak Hadi because Abdel Halim Hafez, nicknamed The Dark-Skinned Nightingale, rejected it for its audacity.”
Remarkably, Latifa has never considered singing a profession. She says, perhaps symbolically, that she has never worked for money. If luxury cars used to line up in front of her house in Tunisia in a bid for her to sing at weddings, her mother forbade it. Despite the material profits, she preferred that her daughter continue to grow artistically. From her mother, Latifa not only inherited a respect for art, but also qualities such as diligence “and reliance on Allah and oneself.” Her mother taught her to read and write, although she herself was not proficient in either. The artist discovered this after her father’s death, when her mother had to sign an official document.
Latifa has released more than 30 albums featuring many Arabic dialects. All of them were produced by her own company, Latisol. “I am the only singer in the Arab world who has the copyrights of all her songs,” she reveals. “The artist is a role model and has an important and effective place in society through her contribution to humanitarian, environmental, medical, and educational projects,” she continues. “Artists’ voices are louder than those of politicians as the latter are just transient, while the artist is timeless,” she explains. The musician established the Latifa Foundation in 2005 and contributed to building schools, in keeping with her belief that education is the pillar of society. She also launched the Aqwa Wahda (The Strongest One) initiative in 2020, through which she provided education for 500 widowed women in Egypt along with financing the facilities needed. While she intended to expand this initiative to reach more Arab countries, Covid hampered her efforts. “The pandemic changed a lot in our society, and this affected all aspects of life, including art. The Arabic song has stagnated, and festivals and concerts decreased,” she adds with regret.
Many moments were transformational to Latifa’s career, and she is proud to remember them all. She has shared both bitter and sweet moments with great artists. “I still remember the day I was with Youssef Chahine in the hospital in France. He hugged me, and my shirt was stained with the blood from his nose. He used to call and visit me at my house, where we used to dance tango and sing. Artistically, I remember that Youssef composed for the first time in Skoot hansawwar, in which I co-starred.” She mentions that she regrets having promised him, one month before his death, that she’d appear in more cinematic works to add to her artistic achievements – a promise she did not fulfil.
Love means a great deal to the artist. “Love is life, joy, giving, and sincerity,” she says. “My first experience in marriage did not discourage me from going on an adventure once again. When the right person who embraces my art appears, I will marry him. In our Arab world, it is not easy for a woman to get married and work as an artist at the same time.” She considers the most important achievement in women’s lives to be giving to and bringing up future generations. “When raising children, women raise an entire country,” she stresses. While not a mother herself, to her, the role is the most important in society. However, Arab women need more freedom, she furthers. No one can bring justice to women, the artist asserts, as they must work hard to offer justice to themselves. They must master defending themselves morally and physically, armed with knowledge, culture, sport, and self-confidence in the face of harassment and the absence of having equal rights with men.
As an artist and a human being, Latifa does not make or accept compromises, and has many red lines, including, but not limited to, refusing to let anyone smoke or drink alcohol near her while she is singing, she shares laughing. On the other hand, she cannot resist investing in beautiful clothes. She believes that a woman’s appearance reflects her personality. Among the international brands that Latifa loves to wear, Chanel is at the top of her list, then Dior, Fendi, and Jean Paul Gaultier for the creativity in his designs. “Live in this world as if you are given an eternal life, and work for the life thereafter as if you will die tomorrow,” she exclaims. For Latifa, the recipe for success is simple. “Success needs attention because art is just like a child. If you instill the most important rules, you will inevitably reap their fruit. If artists sacrifice for the sake of their art, are constantly keen to improve their presence, take care of their mental and physical activities, and show respect to their art, art will show them respect in return.”
Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Fashion director: Amine Jreissaty
Hair: Wassim Steve
Makeup: Sam Tsan with Charlotte Tilbury
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Lighting: Kishanth Srikanth
Floral: The Flower Society
Producer: Sam Allison