The following section is a tribute to some of the Arab world’s most influential personalities. Thinkers, politicians, writers, singers, actors, filmmakers, businessmen, theologians, poets, artists – all have in some way, positively or not, influenced Arab culture and society. Although far from a complete list, the following profiles will attempt to reveal a sampling of some of the people and personalities who have been the driving forces, directly or indirectly, behind some of the events, movements, revolutions and ideas that have come to shape and mold the contemporary Arab identity.
whose works have been published in 20 different languages. He won many awards for his works and also founded the top literary magazine of the Arab world of its time – al-Karmel. The subjects of his over 30 volumes of poetry and eight books of prose were, for the most part, all metaphors for his beloved Palestine. The central theme of his work was always of watan or homeland, and he joined the resistance through his work. In fact, Darwish followed the resistance, pen in hand, wherever it lived – Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, Paris, Amman, Ramallah and Haifa. Poets, singers and novelists debated and responded to him in their works, beginning chapters with his verses and using his lyrics in their songs. Although Palestine’s national poet died in August, he lives in the consciousness of the nation and people he loved so dearly and in the words he wrote so painstakingly. How difficult it is to be Palestinian... How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times?
(March 13, 1941 – August 9, 2008)
Darwish was a Palestinian poet, author and nationalist...
(December 11, 1911 – August 30, 2006)
The Literate Mahfouz was born to a lower middle class family and raised with a strict Islamic upbringing. Upon receiving a degree in philosophy from Cairo University, Mahfouz took on several posts at both the Ministry of Religion and Ministry of Culture; and also began writing and publishing short stories in local magazines and newspapers. He was an outspoken socialist and never shied away from criticizing Arab politics and traditional social norms. His book “Children of the Alley,” in which he depicted God and His prophets as local Egyptians, was banned in Egypt and considered blasphemous. His writings eventually led to a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. Mahfouz developed new writing techniques in Arabic literature and a fresh form of language in which clichés are popularly discarded. In 1994, on his way to a local coffee shop, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by an extremist. He nonetheless survived the attack and lived to the age of 95.
No blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims as much as the call for murdering a writer.
(January 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931)
Gibran was a Lebanese-American artist, poet, writer, philosopher and theologian; and the third-bestselling poet in history after Shakespeare and Laozi. Born in Bsharri, Lebanon, part of Greater Syria at the time, Gibran lived a difficult life. After growing up in poverty with no formal schooling, He eventually moved to the United States where he slowly lost all members of his immediate family to various illnesses, except for his sister who raised him. He is responsible for some of the greatest pieces of literature such as “The Prophet” and “Sand and Foam,” and is considered an Arab national treasure. His writings cover subjects closest to him – Christianity, spiritualism and love – and have been distributed, praised and demanded all around the world. His book, “The Prophet,” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1923.
Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that he other half may reach you.
(May 4, 1904 – 1975)
The Diva of Arabic Song Um Kulthum, the Star of the East, was born in a village in El Senbellawei, Egypt to a peasant family. Her dad, an imam who sang religious songs at weddings and religious festivals, discovered her talent while helping his son practice for a performance. Amazed at her singing ability, he disguised her as a boy so that she could perform with them. She was later discovered at age 16 and was invited to Cairo where she moved with her family. During her illustrious singing career, Um Kulthum avoided the bohemian lifestyle of artists and intelligentsia of the time. She also managed to keep her private life concealed from the public until she passed away, generating much curiosity among her fans. The best composers and poets of the time clamored to write and compose for her. In 1952, she welcomed the July Revolution, and many believe that she helped boost Nasser’s popularity in the Middle East.
(November 1, 1935 – September 25, 2003)
Said was a Palestinian American literary theorist, writer, political activist, music critic and outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights. He was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is a pioneer in the field of postcolonial theory. Said is best known internationally for his immensely influential book, “Orientalism,” in which he identifies an assortment of false assumptions underpinning Western attitude towards the East. Never far from his heart, or his pen, was the ongoing plight of his fellow Palestinians and their fight for self-determination. Said was one of the first to support a two-state solution and was a member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) from 1977 until he quit in 1991 in protest over the Oslo Accords. In 2002, Said along with others, established the Palestinian National Initiative, or Al-Mubadara, to create a democratic, reformist alternative in Palestinian politics. Said died in 2003 in New York City after a decade-long battle with leukemia, he was 67.
Above all we must be aware that Palestine is one of the great moral causes of our time.Ů
(June 23, 1879 - December 12,1947)
Shaarawi was a woman ahead of her time. A leading feminist pioneer and Egyptian nationalist, Shaarawi was taught to read the Qur’an and tutored in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Islamic subjects. Her husband, Ali Pasha Shaarawi, was a political activist and played a leading role in supporting her and the feminist movement. She helped lead the first women’s street demonstration during the 1919 Revolution, and was elected president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. Upon her return from an international feminist meeting in Rome after she founded and became the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, Shaarawi removed her veil in public for the first time. She resigned from the Wafdist party after nationalist and feminist demands were ignored. She continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death. Shaarawi set the foundation for later advancements for Egyptian feminists and remains the unequivocal symbol for women’s liberation movements in the Arab world.
Mohamed Hassanein Heikal
(1923 - )
Heikal is a leading Egyptian journalist and was editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram newspaper for 17 years (1957-1974). He has been, and continues to be, a revered commentator on Middle Eastern politics and affairs for the past five decades. Early in his career he articulated President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s thoughts and has written many books on Egypt, the Middle East and the rise of political Islam. His current lecture series on Al-Jazeera has given him an even wider audience in the Arab world, and covers a large array of topics ranging from general overviews of historical events to criticisms of the Mubarak regime in Egypt today. This series garners him more than 50,000 emails and letters from followers every week – a large portion of which coming from younger fans.
Nawal El Saadawi
(October 27, 1931 - )
El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist and physician. She has written widely on the plight of women in the Arab world and has been a harsh critic of female circumcision – an experience she herself underwent at a young age. While working as a doctor in her hometown of Kafr Tahla, Saadawi saw firsthand the inequity under which rural women live and was subsequently summoned back to Cairo after attempting to shield one of her patients from domestic violence. Saadawi was dismissed from several posts over the following years in Cairo due to her political activism. In 1991, when her life was threatened by Islamists, she moved to North Carolina to teach. She moved back to Egypt five years later and has continued to crusade for women’s rights. In 2004, Saadawi was awarded the North-South Prize by the Council of Europe for her achievements in the protection of human rights. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.
(1907 – May 3, 1991)
The Music Producer Abdulwahab was born in Cairo and is credited with creating the Arabic musical genre. He made his first record at the age of 13, and was then taken under Ahmed Shawqi’s wing a few years later. During the 1920s, Abdulwahab mostly composed traditional music melodies for Shawqi’s poetry. He soon became known as the Singer of Princes and Kings. When the British colonized Egypt, western composition began to influence Abdulwahab’s music. In the 1960s, Abdulwahab began to concentrate solely on composing. In 1964, he collaborated with Um Kulthum, and co-produced the song Enta Omry – in which he used electric guitar garnering him much popularity with the youth. Today, there is no contemporary Arab musician who has not been influenced by Addulwahab’s modern music techniques.
(March 21, 1923 – April 30, 1998)
Qabbani was born in Syria and was a diplomat, poet and publisher. He is renowned for his poetry, which cover topics ranging from love and religion, to Arab nationalism. At the age of 15, Qabbani’s sister committed suicide as she was forbidden from marrying the man she loved due to social constraints. This left a strong imprint on Qabbani who dedicated most of his poetry to love and feminism – causing upheavals in the conservative society around him. It was during the years Qabbani spent in China as the Vice Secretary of the United Arab Republic in its embassies that some of his finest works were produced. When he retired from diplomacy in 1966, Qabbani had already established a publishing house in Beirut. In 1967, the Arab defeat marked the beginning of a major shift in Qabbani’s work from erotic love poems to one highly critical of Arab nations. Because my love for you is beyond words. I decided to shut up.
(1868 – 1932)
The Prince of Poets born in 1868, Ahmed Shawqi was a poet and dramatist who founded the modern Egyptian literary movement, and introduced the poetic epic to Arabic literature. He was the first in Arabic literature to write poetic plays. While studying law in France, Shawqi was greatly affected by the works of French authors such as Moliere and Racine. Upon his return to Egypt in 1894, Shawqi become a leading figure in the Arab literary scene. He was later forced into exile in Andalusia, Spain in 1914 by the British due to his patriotic poems on Egypt and the Arab world. He returned to Egypt in 1920, and was later honored with the title “Prince of Poets” by his peers in 1927.
(August 31, 1960 - )
Nassrallah is the current Secretary General of the Lebanese Islamist party and paramilitary organization Hezbollah. Originally from the south, he grew up in Beirut and showed an early interest in Islam – unlike the other members of his family who were not particularly religious. Due to civil war in Lebanon, he and his family moved back to the south where he joined the Shiite political party Amal. After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon, Nassrallah joined the political party Hezbollah – of which he became leader after the assassination of its former leader in 1992. Nassrallah is considered a hero by many in Lebanon and the Arab world due to Hezbollah’s military campaigns during the late 1990s that are credited as the main factors that lead to the Israeli withdrawal from the south in 2000. This ended 18 years of Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon – with the exception of the disputed Shebaa Farms area. In the history of mankind, occupation leaders hang on to the land that they’re occupying. People fight to liberate their land. But in the end, the people’s will is what achieves victory.
Hassan Al Banna
(October 14, 1906 - February 12, 1949)
Al Banna is one of Egypt’s most notable and contentious social and political reformers. The son of an Islamic Hanbali teacher, Al Banna was already a member of a number of Islamic associations at the age of 12, and partook in anti-British demonstrations in Egypt. He became appalled by the rise of secularism and what he saw as westernization of Egypt’s traditional morals. As a result, Al Banna established the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1928 to combat this wave of western thought. By 1940, the Brotherhood grew to more than 500,000 active members in Egypt alone. It was banned by Egypt’s prime minister in 1948, leading to his assassination by one of its members. In retaliation, Al Banna was killed in February 1949 by a government official. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood maintains a wide and growing presence in the Middle East, and has spurred the creation of a number of political parties – most notably the Islamic Action Front of Jordan and Hamas of Palestine.
(October 8, 1946)
Ashrawi is a Palestinian legislator, human rights activist and scholar. She was the official spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East peace process from 1991 to 1993 and has been elected several times to the Palestinian Legislative Council. She was a leading figure during the First Intifada and currently serves on the advisory board of, among others, the World Bank Middle East and North Africa and the International Human Rights Council. Ashrawi earned her PhD from the University of Virginia and established the Department of English at Birzeit University. She holds several honorary degrees and is the recipient of several international awards such as the Olof Palme Award, the Defender of Democracy Award, the Jane Addams International Women’s Leadership Award, the Distinguished Alumna Award of the University of Virginia Women’s Center, the Distinguished Lifetime Achievements AUB Alumni Award, the Sydney Peace Prize, and the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Peace and Reconciliation.
(August 3,1903 – April 6.2000)
The Supreme Combatant Bourguiba was the founder and First President of the Republic of Tunisia (1957 - 1987). He was considered an innovator for women’s rights in the Arabic and Islamic worlds. His reforms included: legalization of divorce, the prohibition of polygamy, raising the age at which girls could marry to 17, and the institution of a revolutionary code in August 1956, which gave women unprecedented rights. After failed socialist policies, Bourguiba embarked on an ambitious liberal model for economic development. He has often been compared with President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey because of his pro-Western position and his efforts to combat a rising Islamist opposition in Tunisia during the 1980s. He was constitutionally impeached in 1987 for medical reasons. Bourguiba’s reforms unequivocally changed Tunisian society through female emancipation, public education, family planning, the building of infrastructure, and his anti-poverty and pro-literacy campaigns.
(March 10, 1976)
The Temptress Haifa Wehbe was born in the southern Lebanese town of Mahrouna. Growing up, Wehbe knew that she would be famous and always dreamed of being a celebrity. Her star came when she participated in the Miss Lebanon competition in 1996 and won the title of Runner-up. In 2002, her first album debuted to much criticism, but also to much popularity. Many have argued that Wehbe lacks talent, and that her fame is attributable only to her looks and physical appeal. She has nonetheless started a trend in the Middle East as women all over the region, famous and otherwise, try to emulate her look and sense of style. Wehbe creates much controversy wherever she goes, sparking political arguments and debates in parliaments from Bahrain to Egypt.
Rashid bin SaeedAl Maktoum
(1912 – October 7, 1990)
Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum
(July 22, 1949 - )
Sheikh Rashid was the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ruler of Dubai. He was one of the founding members of Dubai and co-founder of the UAE. After the discovery of oil, he oversaw the construction of a modern seaport and airport in Dubai; and it was during his reign that the emirate began to flourish into an international city . With the help of his brothers, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed, Sheikh Rashid’s third son and current prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, continued to build upon the foundation his father began. He oversaw the development of numerous building projects and the set up of Dubai Holding; while also spearheading development and aid projects in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Yemen. Sheikh Mohammed also donated US$ 10 billion to establish the Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum Foundation to improve research and development in the Middle East (one of the largest charitable donations in history). Additionally, he launched Dubai Cares to raise money to educate one million children in the developing world – donations currently exceed $910 million. Sheikh Mohammed has been credited with putting Dubai on the map as a regional economic power and major international player in the horse racing world through Dubai’s world-renowned Godolphin Stables.
Naji Salim Al Ali
(1938 – August 29, 1987)
Ali was a Palestinian cartoonist who drew over 40,000 cartoons and received first prize in the Arab cartoonists’ exhibition in Damascus in 1979 and 1980. The subjects of his satirical works are political criticisms of Israel and sharp commentaries of Palestinian and Arab politics and political leaders. His most famous character, Handala, has become the quintessential symbol of the Palestinian struggle, and who serves as a constant observer in most of Ali’s cartoons. His most famous works were produced when he lived in Kuwait working for several local newspapers. He moved to London in 1987 to work for Al-Qabas newspaper’s international edition, and was soon after shot by an unknown person – he died five weeks later. Ali was posthumously awarded the “Golden Pen of Freedom” award from the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers in 1988. He was described by The Guardian as “the nearest thing there is to an Arab public opinion.” This being that I have invented will certainly not cease to exist after me, and perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that I will live on with him after my death.
(August 24, 1929 – November 11, 2004)
Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini was born to Palestinian parents in Egypt and spent his entire life dedicated to the liberation of Palestine. More popularly known as Yasser Arafat or Abu Ammar, he was and still is one of the most important figures in modern Arab history. After studying civil engineering at Cairo University, Arafat’s battle began. He fought alongside the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and later became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat was the founder of the political party Fatah and President of the Palestinian National Authority until his death. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for the 1993 peace negotiations in Oslo. Both highly criticized and praised, Arafat is seen today by many as a martyr who died still fighting for the Palestinian cause.
The Victory march will continue until the Palestinian flag flies in Jerusalem and in all of Palestine.
(February 22, 1919 – September 20, 1999)
The Marilyn Monroe of the Arab World. Carioca, born Badawiya Muhammad Kareem Ali Sayed, was a world-renowned Egyptian belly dancer and icon. At the age of 14, Carioca ran away from her family to Cairo to pursue a career in the arts. She managed to work under Badi’a Masabni – a belly dancer, teacher and owner of a famous cabaret. Carioca was later introduced to Suleiman Nabil the manager of the Opera house, where she learned ballet. As a dancer, she started experimenting with different styles and techniques. Just as Abdulwahab introduced Latin sounds to his music, Carioca started using Latin dances in her acts. (Her name, Carioca, is actually derived from a Brazilian samba dance.) She married 14 times and starred in over 300 movies and television shows. She was a non-conformist who spoke up for union worker rights, and was even imprisoned for three months in 1953 because of her support for a post-revolutionary return to a constitutional monarchy. Tahia Carioca sings with her body. – Um Kulthum
King Abdul Aziz Al Saud
(1876 – November 9, 1953)
King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdur Rahman Al-Faisal Al Saud was the first monarch of Saudi Arabia and from whom all the kings of Saudi Arabia descend. Ibn Saud, as he was known in the West, re-conquered his family’s ancestral home city of Riyadh in 1902 from a rival family. He then began to secure his control over Najd (1922) and the Hejaz (1925) – ending 700 years of Hashemite rule and tutelage of Mecca. He continued to acquire control of the Arabian Peninsula until, finally, he founded the nation of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Ibn Saud founded the militant religious organization, Ikhwan, and revived an alliance with Wahhabi leaders – effectively establishing Wahabism as the primary form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. In 1938, he presided over the discovery of petroleum in Saudi Arabia and granted substantial oil concessions to American oil companies.
The Rahbanis Pioneers of the Modern Arab Song
Fairuz was born Nouhad Hadad on November 21, 1935 in Jabil al Arz (Cedar Mountain) to a Marronite family. Although she was known as a shy child with few friends, Fairuz was already known at the age of 10 for her beautiful voice at school. She was discovered in 1950 by a teacher at the Lebanese Conservatory, who introduced her to the head of the music department at the Lebanese Radio Station. It was there that she met the Rahbani brothers – Assi (born 1923 and who later became her husband and died in 1986) and Mansour (born 1925) – through whom her career was launched. The Rahbanis, along with Ziad, Assi and Fariuz’s son, created a new genre of music in the Middle East and were the first Arab production team to simultaneously write the lyrics and compose the music to Arabic songs. The Rahbanis also started the careers of Sabah, Wadi Al Safi, and Najat al Saqira.
Abdul Majeed Shoman
(1912 – July 5, 2005)
Shoman was the Chairman of the Arab Bank – one of the largest privately owned banks in the Middle East. Founded in Jerusalem in 1930 by his father, the bank spread to all major towns in Palestine and capitals of adjacent Arab countries. The bank has survived through decades of political turmoil and nationalization policies, and has come out flourishing. Shoman became chairman in 1974 and presided over the expansion of 378 branches in 27 nations across the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe – establishing the Arab Bank as one of the most extensively spread Arab-owned financial institutions in the world. He also acted as Chairman of, among other charitable organizations, the Abdul Majeed Shoman Foundation, which honors individuals committed to preserving the Arab heritage of Jerusalem. The bank today is the only commercial bank with a wide system of branches in the Palestinian Territories.
(January 25, 1926 – July 27, 2008)
The Iconic Filmmaker Gabriel Youssef Chahine was born in Alexandria to Christian parents – his mother was Greek and his father originally Lebanese. He became fascinated with acting and theater at his school, Victoria College. After completing his studies at Pasadena Playhouse in California, he moved back to Cairo and quickly entered the film industry. At the time of his return, Egyptian cinema was regarded as the Hollywood of the Nile. With only two movies under his belt, Chahine entered the Venice Film Festival and created a commotion among the international film community. His movies are iconic because of the controversial themes he tackles, which are traditionally considered taboo in Middle Eastern society – fallen women, drugs and politics. Chahine’s work has garnered him many admirers in the region and abroad, and led to a Cannes Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. For me, the essential is to be able to tell my story without being overly preoccupied with historical constraint.
(April 10, 1932)
The Celebrity Sharif (born Michel Demitri Chalhoub) was born in Alexandria, Egypt and raised as a Roman Catholic. He attended the prestigious Victoria College before continuing on to Cairo to receive a degree in mathematics and physics from Cairo University. In 1953, Sharif began his film career when he starred in Youssef Chahine’s movie Sera fil Wadi (Fight in the Valley) opposite Faten Hamama (who he later married and converted to Islam for). Having already achieved fame in Egypt, Sharif starred in the Hollywood production of “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962, which earned him an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. He was also nominated for an Oscar for playing the lead in “Dr. Zhivago.” He was the object of some criticism among Arabs when he starred opposite Barbra Streisand – a Zionist supporter – in “Funny Girl.” Today, well into his 70s, Sharif still stars in both Egyptian and foreign films.
Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahab
(1703 – 1792)
The Political Islamist Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahab at-Tamimi remains one of the most influential men in the Gulf two centuries after his death. He was an Islamic scholar and follower of the Ibn Hanbali School of jurisprudence. He was expelled from his hometown in Najd due to his widespread influence, and was invited to move to neighboring Dir’iyya by its ruler Muhammad Ibn Saud whose brothers had been students of Abd Al Wahab. A pact was subsequently formed between them whereby Ibn Saud would implement Abd Al Wahab’s teachings and enforce them on neighboring towns. In return, Ibn Saud and his descendants were provided with a movement for the state they would eventually create – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Today, the Islamic Salafi movement – dominant in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait – typifies Abd Al Wahab’s teachings. Although Abd Al Wahab never specifically called for a separate school of thought, it is from him that the term Wahhabism is derived.