Dalida: The International Diva Who Became an Egyptian Icon
By: Norah Soufraji/ Arab America Contributing Writer
An Egyptian Icon
Music is at the very heart and soul of Egyptian national pride. For decades, the likes of Um Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Mohammad Abdel Wahab, transfixed the Arab world with their melodies. Along with these icons of Arab music, we can also find Dalida, the Cairo-born French-Italian diva who gave us some of Egypt’s most beloved songs such as ‘Helwa Ya Baladi’, ‘Salma Ya Salama’, and ‘Aghani, Aghani’. Dalida’s passion for Arab music and culture helped her become one of the most beloved singers in the region. Her Arabic songs have become synonymous with the glamorous Egypt of the recent past. You would be hard pressed to find a retro collection of Egyptian songs which does not include the international star, Dalida.
Dalida’s ‘Helwa Ya Baladi’ translates as ‘My Country is Beautiful‘. It is a love letter to her beloved childhood home, Egypt, which she frequently visited after moving back to Europe. Dalida expresses a heartfelt nostalgia for Egypt with lyrics such as “A beautiful word and many more…My country is beautiful…A beautiful song and many more…My country is beautiful…”. This song became an anthem for the Egyptian and Arab diaspora throughout the world, evoking memories of simpler times and love for one’s homeland.
Childhood & Making a Name in Egypt
Dalida was born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti in Cairo in 1933. Her parents Pietro and Filomena were native Italians from Calabria who moved to Cairo a year before her birth in search of better economic opportunities. At 10 months old she caught an eye infection which resulted in her having to wear eye bandages. She had several eye operations between the ages of three and five. As a child she wore eyeglasses, and was often bullied at school. Dalida recalled her father playing lullabies on the violin in order to soothe her after her operations.
From a young age, Dalida experienced tragedy. In 1940, at the height of WWII, her father Pietro and other Italian men in Egypt were apprehended by Allied Forces and taken to the Fayed prison camp in the desert outside Cairo. He was finally released four years later and was never the same. Years later, Dalida recalled her father beating her, her mother, and brothers after his return from prison. He would soon after die of a brain abscess just one year later in 1945. Many Dalida biographers speculate that the events in her childhood impacted her struggles with relationships and mental health later in life.
Despite her painful early years, Dalida developed a fascination with cinema and acting. In 1951, at the age of 18, she entered and won the Miss Ondine beauty pageant in Cairo and began working as a model for local fashion houses shortly after. In 1954 she was crowned Miss Egypt and was subsequently offered roles in Egyptian films The Mask of Tutankhamun as well as A Glass and a Cigarette. During this time she gained an interest in singing and adopted the stage name Dalila. Regarding her chosen alter ego, she recalled “It was a very frequent name in Egypt and I liked it a lot.” She would later move to France to further pursue her career in the entertainment industry. It was there that her stage name was altered to Dalida.
Dalida’s career took off in France, where she performed in French and her native Italian. She also performed in Arabic, English, Spanish, Greek, German, French, Japanese, Hebrew, and Dutch. Known for her deep voice and glamorous style, she would go on to perform with French icons such as Charles Aznavour and Alain Delon and do many international multi-country tours. Her career spanned decades and she consistently evolved and reinvented herself throughout the years, equally capable of putting out tragic ballots and playful disco hits.
Most of her songs were recorded and released in multiple languages. For example, ‘Salma Ya Salama‘ was originally recorded in Arabic and then later released in French, Italian, and German. Many of Dalida’s international hit songs such as ‘Je Suis Malade‘ and ‘Besame Mucho’ are still covered by famous artists today. Dalida performed in the Arab world many times during her career. In 1975, she met and performed for Lebanese icon Fairouz in Beirut. According to sources the two were extremely excited to meet one another backstage and were great admirers of each other’s work.
Dalida’s close connection with her roots in the Arab world continued throughout her career. During the Lebanese Civil War she even made a visit to the troubled nation and recorded a song in Arabic dedicated to the people of Lebanon. The song was not released until after Dalida’s death.
Dalida’s Tragic Legacy
In 1986, Dalida transformed her career again by returning to film. She had previously performed in supporting roles in her youth and was excited at the opportunity to be given a starring role in Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s Le Sixieme Jour. The film received positive reviews both in Egypt and internationally, making Dalida a fixture of Egyptian cinema.
Despite decades of international professional success, Dalida struggled with depression and personal heartbreak throughout her life. During her lifetime, four people close to the starlet committed suicide, including her then fiancé Luigi Tenco in 1967, her former husband Lucien Morisse in 1970, her close friend Mike Bryant in 1975, and finally her former lover Richard Chanfray in 1981. This incomprehensible amount of personal tragedy and loss took an immense toll on Dalida over the years. In May 1987, Dalida herself committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Among her possessions, a suicide note was found that read “Life is unbearable for me. Forgive me.”
Dalida’s iconic talent and glamorous career continue to be treasured throughout the world but she will always have a special place in the Arab world. In her most iconic Arabic song ‘Helwa Ya Baladi‘ she sang “My hope was always to return to my country and stay with you forever” and in a sense her words came true. Dalida’s spirit and legacy lives in our hearts forever.
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