When my four-month-old Basma started fussing and kicking for no good reason, I suggested to Mom to play her the nursery rhyme that every living Arab must’ve listened to at least once in his/her life time: Mama Zamanha Gaya (Mom is on her way).
This famous rhyme was composed and sung by Egyptian singer Mohammed Fawzi (1918-1966) in the late fifties.
Mom was delighted by the idea as it was a song, she grew up listening to, unlike me who just knew the first part of it. As for Basma’s dad, his eyes glazed; to him the classics were post-1980 and anything before that was archaic and not worth listening to.
On YouTube, there were many new versions of the song but I chose the classic one where Mohammed Fawzi appears with a cute little boy in what was considered the first filmed children music clip in the Arab world in 1956.
The famous opening of the song that is memorised by almost everyone goes: “Mama is on her way, she’s arriving shortly, bearing gifts and things, she brings a bag, with a duck and a goose, that says: Wak! Wak! Wak!”. Basma’s kicking seizes instantly as she listens intently to the catchy tune accompanied by the weird bordering on freaky child laughter. Mom was beaming and my brother turns his head to the other side, wishing he was somewhere else obviously. I lean my head on the ball of my hand and focus on the lyrics of the song for the first time in my life.
It starts with the story of Adil, the boy with apparent ricket problems (described in the song as spindly legs). The doctor visits him and gives him a huge injection as he doesn’t drink milk in the morning (and his friends laughs at him for missing out on that).
Once Adil starts drinking milk, he grows in size and develops muscles in his arm. Then comes the story of Ahmed, the boy full of mischief who walks around with a box of matches.
One day he manages to burn both his hands — while his sister Boosy stood watching — which teaches him a lesson on keeping out of mischief. The song ends with the story of Suad, whose teacher is crossed with for misbehaving in class. Moreover, she never memorises her lessons, manages to lose two books and ranks the twentieth in a class of thirty. However, she suddenly transforms and starts studying and behaving well, which leads her to become the first in her class. Mom was surprised by Suad’s story that she’d never heard before. The version she always heard ended with Ahmed’s Greek tragedy.
Reflecting upon the stories now, they’re filled with axioms that Mom’s generation was brought up on and managed to pass to us: doctors give painful injections, one must keep out of mischief, drinking milk and excelling in studies is not an option.
But how would the new generation of parents and children listen to this song? As many children now are illiterate in their own mother tongue (Arabic), many would either ask their parents for the meaning or use Google to translate the song into English (the new mother tongue of the cools!).
The song would then be interpreted by the new parents’ standards: Adil’s spindly legs (body shaming), his friends laughing at him (bullying), the doctor’s injection (trauma), eating healthy (choice), children misbehaving (freedom of act that’s funny at times!), excelling in studies (unnecessary pressure that destroys childhood). I hope Basma grows enjoying and appreciating this timeless classic the old-fashioned way, just like us.
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer
and the author of: The World According to Bahja. firstname.lastname@example.org