Learn About this Iconic Song and the Singer Who Bridged the Gap Between Middle Eastern & North African Cultures
What belly dancer doesn't love Esmaouni?
If you've never heard this song before, today you are in for a treat! And if you are already familiar with it, you are in for a full-on feast, as we're about to take a deep dive into the background, translation and meaning of this beautiful, timeless classic.
So keep on reading, and next time you dance to Esmaouni, notice how it takes on a whole new level depth and meaning for you!
Esmaouni (اسمعوني, alternatively spelled Ismaouni, Esma3ouni, or Isma3ouni) is a classic Arabic song that was released in 1974. It was famously sung by one of the biggest stars of Egyptian music, Warda Al-Jazairia, written by lyricist Sayed Morsi and composed by Warda's husband and popular composer Baligh Hamdi. Its title means "Listen to Me."
The Warda 1974 original was over 20 minutes long, and today there are countless shorter, modern renditions of it by other famous Arab singers and musicians, both with and without vocals.
The Rose of Algeria
Although Warda (1939? - 2012) is now known as an icon of Egyptian music, she was actually not Egyptian at all.
Throughout her life she lived in many countries: France, Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt--where she married Baligh Hamdi and built her ultimate stardom. In Egypt, Warda performed with some of the most famous Arab musicians of her time, eventually becoming one herself, and she even acted in several movies.
Having been born in France to Lebanese and Algerian parents, Warda did not speak in the Egyptian dialect for much of her younger life, nor was she able to write in Arabic. It was thanks to her demanding mentor--the prominent Egyptian singer/composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab--that Warda learned to sing with an Egyptian accent and write in Arabic script!
Warda's singing "plays on a specific emotional range successfully combining strength and frailty: on the one side will-power, self-assertion, even challenge; on the other side sweetness and a tenderness implying some kind of vulnerability," as beautifully stated by Daniel Caux, a lecturer of Arabic music at the University of Vincennes. This is why so many are infatuated by her music.
She also bridged the linguistic and musical gaps between various Arab countries, making her a truly pan-Arabic icon of her time, which she remains to this date. She sang patriotic Algerian songs during the time of Algeria's fight for independence, she sang songs honoring Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine, and could even sing folk songs from the Arab Gulf.
Nicknamed The Rose of Algeria, Warda was and still is admired and beloved all over the Arab world, where her voice brings joy to people every day through her classic, timeless songs.
Listen to Esmaouni
Now are you ready to listen to Warda singing the original 20-minute rendition of Esmaouni ? Here it is...
"Listen to Me" - The Meaning
When Warda sings Esmaouni, she is telling a story of heartbreak and failed love. You can hear in her voice the pain of having been rendered invisible and insignificant to someone with whom she had once shared a passionate, intimate past.
It was a love that had once felt so deep and real. They had meant the world to each other. But now it is as if he "never knew" her, "never met" her, "never saw" her, "never dealt" with her before.
Repeatedly pleading "listen to me..." the singer is demanding (to her friends? her community?) to be heard. As she tells her side of the story, she is remembering it again herself; feeling again the emotions she had felt during their romance. The passion, the love, the intimacy... and then the anger and the pain from being rejected in such a dramatic, final and public way.
Well, at least that's my interpretation of it! You can judge it for yourself, by listening to the translation below.
So now you get a treat for making it to the end of this post. Watch this video to get an almost word-for-word translation of Esmaouni from Arabic to English.
The version used here is a more modern rendition of Esmaouni, by the amazing Egyptian singer Safaa Farid.
This video includes the original words in Arabic script, for those of you who can read Arabic--as well as the transliteration into our alphabet, for those who can't--this way we can all sing along!
As you're listening to this version, keep in mind that Arabic songs are usually sung using male pronouns, even if the person being sung about is female. This will be the case with this version.
Also keep in mind that certain words being used in the lyrics should not be interpreted literally, but instead as euphemisms for feelings or actions that are passionate or intimate. Arabic is a very expressive language with many layers of meaning that are dependent on context.
Video by SharqiDance
Translation by Ahmed Elswify, International Lighthouse Arabic Academy
Music by Safaa Farid. If you love this song, you can listen to the full version here.
Was This Post Helpful?
I hope this post has been insightful for you, and that it helps you better understand this song so that you can interpret it in an informed and meaningful way. It's hard to truly do justice to classic Arabic music without understanding the words and the stories or meaning behind them!
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And if there is a song you love and would like to understand better, or if you want to learn Arabic, you can reach out to International Lighthouse Arabic Academy for translations or online classes (and get 10% off with discount code "sharqidance").
Happy learning, and happy dancing!
Background & Breakdown of One of the Most Famous Belly Dance Songs of All Time
Even if you haven't been belly dancing very long, you might have already come across Leylet Hob before. And if you've been doing this for a while, you've definitely danced to it countless times by now!
But how much do you really know about this timeless classic and belly dance favorite? If your answer is "actually, not much" you've got to keep reading this post because it's packed with information about this absolutely must-know composition.
About Leylet Hob
Leylet Hob (ليلة حب, alternatively spelled Laylet Hob, Laylet Hobb, Lailet Hob, Laylet Houb, Lelat Hob, or Leilet Hob) is a classic Arabic song that was composed in the 1960's by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, written in 1973 by Ahmed Shafiq Kamel and subsequently sung by Om Kalthoum. Its title means "Night of Love."
The original song, like many of the Arabic orchestral classics, was an entire concert on its own, at over 50 minutes in length. Today there are countless modern renditions of it by Arab and non-Arab musicians alike, usually around 5 to 15 minutes long, with or without vocals.
Singer, Lyricist & Composer
Om Kalthoum (1904? - 1975) was a legendary Egyptian singer who was--and is to this date--renowned across the Arab world. Her face, name and voice are recognized and loved throughout the region, where she is likely the most famous singer of all time. Such a revered figured she was, her funeral was one of the largest gatherings in the world, attended by around 4 million people. Many of the most famous Arabic songs (and most popular belly dance songs) were originally sung by her.
Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1902? - 1991) was one of the most prominent composers and singers in Egyptian history. He was responsible for composing many of the classic masterpieces that us belly dancers perform to on a regular basis. He introduced Western instruments such as the guitar, bass, accordion, organ and synthesizer to some of his compositions, innovating upon existing traditions and influencing all Arabic music thereafter.
Ahmed Shafiq Kamel was an Egyptian poet who became known as the "Poet of the Two Pyramids" for unifying the two great talents--Om Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab-- in his work on Leylet Hob, which became the first of many collaborations between the two.
The Full Rendition
You can listen to the full, 59-minute rendition of Leylet Hob sung by Om Kalthoum here:
Can you spot the guitar, accordion, and synthesizer in this composition?
Leylet Hob is a song of love and longing. You can hear in Om Kalthoum's voice the longing that is felt for an absent lover. It speaks of yearning for that lover's return, where the singer imagines their night together while describing their love in the deep, poetic terms the Arabic language is so well-suited to relate. You can read a full, line-by-line translation of Laylet Hob by clicking here.
One of the most famous interpretations of Leylet Hob is this one by Soheir Zaki, one of the most famous belly dancers of the 1960's-80's:
Soheir Zaki is a classic, timeless dancer. You can read more about her in our Timeline of Egypt's Biggest Stars post.
Laylet Hob is played in the Maqam Nahawand, a type of melody that is perfectly suited to evoke the feelings of love and passionate yearning that this song speaks about.
Some of the rhythms encountered are malfuf, maqsum, baladi (masmoudi saghir), masmoudi kebir, and 6/8. Let's break down* each rhythm by section, using the shorter 8-minute version of Leylet Hob in the Soheir Zaki video above as our reference:
Baladi/masmoudi saghir (0:11-1:09, 1:27-1:52, 6:37-6:57, 7:19-7:40)
|DD| T|D |T |
Malfuf (1:10-1:20, 6:57-7:19, 7:40-8:34)
|D T| T |
|D | | |T | | |
|DT| T|D |T |
Masmoudi (4:02-4:15, 5:51-6:01?)
|D|D| | |D| | | |
|DT| T|D |T |
Guitar solo - no rhythm
Is Leylet Hob one of your favorite classics and go-to songs, like it is mine? If so, I hope this post has been helpful to you.
I encourage you to listen to the hour-long version for study and for enjoyment, and that you hear as many versions of this beautiful composition as you can get your hands on.
What's your favorite version of this song? Which dancer have you seen do the best interpretation of it? Let me know in the comments below... And if you've found this post informative, don't forget to spread the knowledge by sharing it with your belly dance students, teachers, and peers.
Happy learning, and happy dancing!
Leylet Hob/Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Om Kalthoum's Funeral
Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Ahmed Shafiq Kamel
Leylet Hob Translation
Leylet Hob Rhythms
*Note regarding the rhythm breakdown: I am not musically trained, so I am breaking down this song by rhythm to the best of my knowledge and untrained ability. If you are a musician and have any corrections to make to this breakdown or anything to add, please contact me via email.
While belly dance in its most basic forms may have existed for centuries, or possibly millennia, it was only over the last 100 years or so that it really began to take the shape we have come to recognize and refer to as "raqs sharqi"--or belly dance--today, thanks in large part to these incredible women who made history as belly dance stars in Egypt.
In this timeline of famous Egyptian belly dancers, you will learn a little bit about each woman and their influence on the dance as well as see them in action, thereby getting a glimpse into how this dance has changed and evolved over the years. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!
Badia Masabni (1892 - 1974) - The Godmother of Belly Dance
Badia Masabni was a Syrian/Lebanese actress and dancer who moved to Egypt and opened the first music hall in Cairo in the 1920's which featured singing, dancing, and other entertainment acts.
She is credited with adapting belly dance from its social and folkloric roots into a dance that is done on the stage to entertain a large audience. The usage of ballet-inspired arms and lines, greater use of space and traveling steps, and the incorporation of the veil as a prop can all be traced back to this woman, who is understandably referred to as "The Godmother of Belly Dance."
She is also credited with being a mentor to two major belly dance figures, Samia Gamal and Tahiya Carioca.
Tahiya Carioca (1915 - 1999) - The Marilyn Monroe of the Arab World
Eventually dubbed the "Marilyn Monroe of the Arab World," Tahiya Carioca began her belly dance career at Badia Masabni's Casino Opera where she rose to become one of its biggest stars.
She was given the surname "Carioca" due to her fascination with Brazilian rhythms and dance, which she incorporated into her performances.
She began appearing in films in 1935, going on to become an important part of Egyptian movie history. The height of her fame occurred during the "Golden Age" of Egyptian cinema in the 1940's and 50's, and she continued to dance until 1963.
Samia Gamal (1924 - 1994) - The National Dancer of Egypt
Another Badia Masabni protegé and Golden Age star, Samia Gamal would eventually be proclaimed by Egypt's King Farouk as the "The National Dancer of Egypt."
Samia was not only one of the most famous belly dancers of her time, but was also a very successful actress, having appeared in over 50 movies throughout her career. She also performed in international films and clubs, helping bring worldwide attention and recognition to this dance.
As a dancer, she was known for her beautiful arm movements and enchanting smile.
Naima Akef (1929 - 1966) - Bellydancing Acrobat
Naima Akef began her performing career as a child at her family's circus, where she performed as an acrobat.
After the circus disbanded, she eventually found work as a singer and belly dancer in Cairo's famous nightclubs, and in the 1940's she began singing, dancing and acting in movies as well.
She was lost to cancer at the young age of 37, but not before having become a Golden Age star in her own right, forever making her mark in this dance form with her fast and energetic spins, dramatic arm and leg movements, and impressive displays of acrobatics.
Nagwa Fouad (1936 - present) - Queen of Raqs Sharqi
By the 1970's, Nagwa had become one of the most important belly dancers in Egypt, but her reputation reached far beyond Egypt as she performed all over the globe throughout her career. Every famous personality who came to visit Egypt would come to see Nagwa perform, including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Jimmy Carter.
By the time she retired, Nagwa Fouad had had a very impressive and versatile 45-year career in dance and film, having appeared as a dancer in over two hundred and fifty films and acted in more than one hundred!
Soheir Zaki (1944 - present) - The Om Kalthoum of Dance
Fifi Abdo (1953 - present) - Queen of Baladi
As a child, Fifi Abdo would watch the films of the likes of Tahiya Carioca, Naima Akef, etc, and copy their moves. She started performing belly dance at age 13 and thanks to her hard work, talent, and toughness, she rose to become a top belly dancer and actress in Egypt in the 1980's and 90's, and today she is one of the wealthiest women in the country!
In her films, she usually portrays empowered female archetypes, and her work is often provocative and controversial for its boldness.
While Fifi is an amazing all-around belly dancer, she is best known for being the embodiment of baladi: the simple, earthy, grounded, country style of dance from which raqs sharqi originated.
Mona Said (1954 - present) - The Bronze of The Nile
Mona Said began her belly dance career at age 13 after being encouraged to become a dancer by a nightclub owner and a big-name singer who had spotted her dancing at a disco.
She left Egypt in 1970 to perform in Lebanon for a few years, fleeing her father who was disapproving of her career choice. In Lebanon she found fame before returning to Cairo in 1975. She then went on to perform between Cairo and London for the next 5 years, and became one of the top belly dancers in Egypt through the 80's and 90's.
Mona was nicknamed "The Princess of Raqs Sharqi" by Tahiya Carioca herself, and "The Bronze of the Nile" by Egypt's media.
Mona is best known for her feeling and emotion when dancing. She does not believe in counting music, but instead in focusing on the feeling and allowing it to take over in the moment.
She is a perfect example of the "less is more" philosophy applied in belly dance, milking every beat and every note in the music, giving it no more and no less than what is called for, building up energy only when the music builds, all while expressing a variety of different emotions and personalities.
Dina (1965 - present) - The Last Egyptian Dancer
Dina began her dancing career in the 1970's training with Mahmoud Reda, co-founder of Reda Troupe, a group of Egyptian folkloric dancers that toured nationally and internationally.
She began her solo career in the 80's, quickly rising to the top of the belly dance scene in Cairo and remaining there up to this date, in a difficult and evolving social and political landscape.
Times have changed in Egypt, and the pendulum has been swinging further and further towards religious conservatism over the past few decades. In a 2008 article, Newsweek called Dina "The Last Egyptian Dancer," in reference to the growing conservatism in the country which is causing fewer and fewer native-born women to become professional dancers. This, coupled with Dina's provocative costumes and movements, have made her into a very controversial figure in her country and abroad.
But whether you love her or hate her, her influence in modern Egyptian style is undeniable. Dina herself is the clear dividing line between the vintage and classic styles that came before her and the modern styles that exist today.
Her Reda-influenced steps marked the beginnings of new trends in belly dance which favor more complex footwork and weight shifts. Her exaggerated and dramatic facial expressions and gestures, sharper hip and pelvic accents and slower and more provocative hip circles have been copied all over Egypt and the world. Her daring bras showcasing ample cleavage became the new normal in belly dance costume design (the "Dina bra"), and her occasional choice of a mini-skirt over traditional full-length skirts created new trends that are still being followed and developed upon all over the world today.
Newsweek may have dubbed Dina "The Last Egyptian Dancer," but she is far from it. We are certainly no longer in the heyday of belly dance in Egypt, but many new dancers have popped up since Dina, and they continue to set their own trends today. They won't be covered in this blog post, but may be covered in future posts so please stay tuned!
I encourage you to keep reading and watching belly dance videos to find out more about this dance, its influential figures, its history around the world, and the myriad of different styles that fall under the belly dance umbrella!
Wikiwand - Badia Masabni
Bellydance Superstars of the Past - Badia Masabni
Gilded Serpent - Badia Masabny Star Maker of Cairo
Wikiwand - Taheyya Kariokka
Belly Dance Museum - Taheya Carioca
New York Times - Tahia Carioca, 79, Dies; A Renowned Belly Dancer
Wikiwand - Samia Gamal
Belly Dance Museum - Samia Gamal
Google Doodle just honored this iconic Egyptian dancer
Wikipedia - Naima Akef
Serpentine - Naima Akef
An Uncommon Woman - Nagwa Fouad, Queen of Oriental Dance
Serpentine - Sohair Zuki
Belly Dance Museum - Soheir Zaki
Wikipedia - Fifi Abdou
Serpentine - Fifi Abdo
Mona el Said
Mona El Said
Gilded Serpent - Mona el Said in Dallas, Part 1
Mona El Said: Moving in Mysterious Ways
Wikipedia - Dina Talaat
DINA at the MENA!
Newsweek - Saudis and the Last Egyptian Belly Dancer
Yamê is a Brazilian-American belly dancer based out of New Jersey, USA.