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Dalida, daughter of Egypt

10 August 2021
Par Cecilia

The exhibition "The Divas of the Arab World, from Oum Kalthoum to Dalida" at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, made us want to revisit the portraits of these powerful and timeless women who have marked the post-war Arab societies. Today, we look at one of the most famous and popular singers in France: Dalida, who has crossed the times and fashions in song until becoming an idol and a transgenerational icon.

It is often said that Dalida is "the France of the late 70's", but we must keep in mind that she was born in Egypt and comes from an Italian family: she was nicknamed "The Italian of the Nile". The reminder of Dalida's Egyptian birth does not escape the biographical notes nor the documentaries about her but her relationship to Egypt is explored only by the initiated! So would Dalida be the most Mediterranean of French singers?

Dalida, "The Italian of the Nile"

Iolanda Gigliotti, known as Dalida, was born in Cairo in 1933. She came from an Italian family and was educated by Italian nuns.

The presence of his family of Italian origin in Egypt is part of a larger migratory context: the economic crisis of the reunification and then of the Risorgimento led many Italians to exile. Egypt gave them a standard of living that they could not have hoped for elsewhere. Among these emigrants were Dalida's grandparents. They settled in the district of Choubra, "cosmopolitan, a small Alexandria, where many foreigners, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Levantines, from the middle classes who lived harmoniously with Egyptians without religious discrimination"

 The future diva Dalida obtained a secretarial diploma but was attracted by the world of show business: she chose to try her hand at modeling and won the title of Miss Egypt in 1954, a real victory over her strabismus which complicated her. She also frequented the world of cinema and rubbed shoulders with Omar Sharif and Youssef Chahine. It was in Egypt that she began her acting career: she appeared in 1955 in a first film, Samson and Delilah by Cecil B. DeMille. Then she decided to abandon her Egyptian career to go to Paris.

 An international career that reflects her cosmopolitan identity

Thus, on Christmas Eve 1954, Dalida arrived alone in Paris where she hoped to make a career. She met her first success in France in 1956 with "Bambino". Then the successful titles followed: Gigi l'Amoroso, Paroles... Paroles..., Salma Ya Salama or Je suis malade became all classics. The Mediterranean timbre of her voice seduces the French and Dalida sings alongside Aznavour or Gilbert Bécaud.

 Her success will become international from 1960 and the 70s saw the development of television programs devoted to variety. The Egyptian diva benefited greatly from this as she was often invited to perform in France as well as abroad. In the Arab countries, Dalida is strongly iconic. She is known to be from Cairo in Egypt. This strengthens the links that the public can maintain with her. Her return in the 70s in Egypt and her trips to Lebanon gave her the idea to sing in Arabic. She will perform in many countries in French, Italian and Arabic.

 Thus, from her native Egypt, Dalida conquered an international place in the musical variety. From 1954 until her death, the Arab diva returned regularly to Cairo. It is in this cosmopolitan Cairo that different languages formed her ear: Italian at home and at school, Egyptian Arabic in the streets and shops, the English of the still very present Mandatory power, the French of the intellectual and bourgeois elite, and so many others, such as Greek or Armenian.

Dalida: inspiring and committed

During her career, the Egyptian diva was committed to several causes. In particular, she militated against homophobia, a fight that we find in her song Pour ne pas vivre seul in 1972. In his song, Dalida sang the fact that "not to live alone, girls love girls and we see boys marry other boys. A text that was immediately adopted by the gay community, which she also fascinated by her disappointments in love.

Despite all the tragedies that marked her life, we will keep the positive and sparkling image of an Egyptian woman who came to France to fulfill her dreams. More than 30 years after her death, the Italian of the Nile continues to inspire us and make us dance! Thus, we conclude this portrait with the words of Colette Fellous about Dalida: "We imitate her when we are 8, 13 or 18 years old, when we are a man, when we are a woman, when we are gay, when we are transvestite, or when we don't really want to choose who we are (...) We imitate her because she continued to do as if she knew how to do, but no, she didn't know, no one ever does."

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