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Wistful yet festive: Five Arabic Christmas songs to groove out to this year

The Arab world has a rich catalogue of Christmas songs that are generally more melancholic than their western counterparts
Lebanese diva Magida el-Roumi performs in the ancient Roman city of Jerash in Jordan in 2021 (AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)
Lebanese diva Magida el-Roumi performs in the ancient Roman city of Jerash in Jordan in 2021 (AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)

The background sound to any visit to a department store during the winter, Christmas songs are a hallmark of the western holiday season, but the phenomenon also extends to the Middle East.

Home to the world’s oldest Christian communities, the region has a strong pedigree when it comes to Christmas jingles, which sometimes borrow tunes that are popular in the West.

But you are more likely to encounter the festive melodies of legendary divas like Fairuz or Magida el-Roumi than Mariah Carey or Wham. 

For tracks by those artists and others, check out this listicle by Middle East Eye

But for this year’s selection, Middle East Eye has gone with the subject of wistfulness, which is a common theme in the region’s Christmas musical offerings.

Here are five songs to get you reaching for that warm cup of tea or Sahlab:

1. El Meelad El Jayi (Next Christmas) by Abeer Nehme

Abeer Nehme has been praised by critics for an angelic voice that effortlessly draws listeners into her magical world. 

With lyrics by Wissam Keyrouz and music composed by Marc Bou Naoumer, El Meelad El Jayi is about love, celebration, and the feeling of longing. 

The lyrics concern an absent lover who does not return home for Christmas with Nehme instead consoling herself with the thought that he will be with her the following year.

The song strikes a balance between the pain of a beloved’s absence and the possibility of their return. 

Despite the melancholic overtones, Nehme’s song is also an ode to hope. 

2. De'e Bwabon (Knock on Their Doors) by Magida El Roumi 

Magida El Roumi is one of the Arab world’s most well-regarded contemporary singers and her fame extends way beyond her native Lebanon.

Her song De'e Bwabon is a soothing ballad that painfully represents a love that does not end even for those who have passed away.

The lyrics were written by Habib Younes and the music is composed by Felix Mendelssohn and arranged by Claude Chalhoub. 

They include a prayer for those who are no longer with their loved ones, either because they have died or left the country.

3. Erja' Ya Zamane (Come Back O Time)  by Carole Samaha 

Erja' Ya Zamane is an original song by Carole Samaha that was written by Nizar Francis and produced by Elio Kallassi.

The song nostalgically recalls past times when families would gather at home during the Christmas period.

Its lyrics read:

“So many hearts, that were once with us have gone far away

They are dispersed in alienation

Lebanon longs for their safe return

For its colours to return, for they are the most beautiful of colours.”

This idea of nostalgic longing for something that might not exist is a recurring theme in contemporary Middle Eastern Christmas songs. 

4. Shu Fee Atfal 'am Tebkee  (Many Children are Weeping) by Hiba Tawaji 

An Arabic adaptation of the American Christmas classic, The Little Drummer BoyShu Fee Atfal 'am Tebkee was written by Ghady Rahbani, with the music orchestrated by his brother, Oussama Rahbani.

The performance is a magnificent fusion of paradoxes with beauty, joy, and pain seamlessly woven together in harmony - an intricate balance that only the legendary Rahbani clan could pull off.

The song reminds us of those suffering during Christmas - impoverished children and those affected by wars - and that the festivities enjoyed by some are feverishly desired by others. 

Unlike the English lyrics, the Arabic words emphasise the themes mentioned above:

Christmas has two faces

While one of them laughs, the other is gloomy

The very sadness that is coming from deep within is in agony

There is a voice that screams we have hunger that remains unheeded.

The lyrics do not shun away from criticising the global silence when it comes to famines, wars, and duplicitous, selective solidarity:

The world is standing, watching

The world can see us, but it does not want to heed us

If it hears us, it remains silent

Justice in this world has no heart

It does not speak up.

5. Yalla W'afu (Stand Up) by Hiba Tawaji

Yalla W’afu is a song about humanity, dignity, and dissent, composed by Lebanon’s musical golden trio of the Rahbani brothers and Hiba Tawaji.

A rendition of the Carol of the Bells, the song evokes the revolutionary legacy of Jesus.

The figure of Jesus as a zealot, a revolutionary who led a movement in Palestine and who refused the Roman domination of his people is powerfully summoned in the lyrics:

Faith erupted amidst the field

The revolution of man, against tyranny.

While the lyrics are rich with early Christian motifs - such as the religion's message of liberation - they are also a nod to the revolutionary current present in the modern Middle East.

The song continues:

Today, the revolutionaries are free

On Christmas day, we became free.  

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