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El Saher, Kazem (1961–)

El Saher, Kazem

One of the Arab world's most popular stars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Kazem El Saher (Kazim al-Sahir; Kathem al-Saher, Kadhem) is a highly respected musical artist in the Middle East and a cultural ambassador to the West.


El Saher was born in northern Iraq on 12 September 1961 and grew up in the city of Mosul. As a boy, he listened to and emulated the great singers of Arab music, including Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab, 'Abd al-Halim Hafiz and the great Iraqi maqam singer, Muhammad al-Qabbanji. He reportedly traded a bicycle for his first musical instrument, a guitar, and began learning to play the oud at around age twelve. He enrolled at age twenty-one in the prestigious Baghdad Academy of Music, in which he studied for six years.

El Saher wanted to become a singer, but producers were unwilling to allow him to perform his own material. In 1987 his song video "Ladghat al-Hayya" (Snake bite) created a stir when it was broadcast, reportedly without permission, on Iraqi television. Iraqi authorities demanded that El Saher change the song's lyrics, which they interpreted as a critique of the Iraqi political climate following the Iran-Iraq War. El Saher refused—a move that earned him respect and expanded his audience. In 1989 he released the album Ghazal (Love songs) which included the acclaimed hit "Abart al-Shatt" (I crossed the river) and started performing throughout the Arab world. After a hiatus due to the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath, he picked up his career again in 1993—this time outside of Iraq, in Lebanon and later Egypt.

Releasing numerous albums and touring extensively, El Saher has become both a high-grossing superstar and a respected musical artist. His reputation has continued to grow through collaborations with European and North American artists, including Sarah Brightman and Lenny Kravitz. He continues to live abroad, residing alternately in Cairo, Dubai, Paris, and Toronto.


Before he entered the Baghdad Academy of Music, El Saher's self-education through the radio had given him a firm grounding in the rich repertoire of mid-twentieth-century Arab vocal music. He became deeply familiar with both classical Arab music, whose main representatives were Egyptian and Lebanese, and the Iraqi maqam repertoire, a local art form featuring vocal virtuosity and a vast repertoire. This solid grounding in traditional musical styles informs his work as both a singer and a composer.

El Saher has been likened to the great singers of the mid-twentieth century for his live performances. In contrast to the synthesizer-heavy small ensembles that back other Arab stars, he performs with an orchestra of twenty to thirty musicians on Arabic percussion, oud, qanun, nay, and a full complement of strings (violin, cello, and bass). While some of his work makes use of electronic musical sounds, he avoids the use of synthesizers to imitate acoustic instruments. His work frequently features Iraqi folk instruments, rhythms and melodies.


Name: Kazem El Saher (Kazim al-Sahir; Kathem al-Saher, Kadhem)

Birth: 1961, northern Iraq

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: Baghdad Academy of Music, 1982–1987


  • 1998: Receives UNICEF award for song "Tadhakkur" (Remember), lamenting the effects of sanctions on Iraq's children; performed it for United Nations and U.S. Congress
  • 2002: "Ana wa Layla" (Layla and I) chosen number six worldwide in BBC poll
  • 2003: Records "The War Is Over" with British singer Sarah Brightman; collaborates with Lenny Kravitz on antiwar songs

El Saher's music stands out from most Arab popular music for its depth and sophistication as well as for the fact that he composes and arranges his own music. El Saher is known for using melodic modes, or maqamat, that are rarely used in pop music (most Arab pop music uses the few maqamat that are compatible with Western scales, in order to include harmony and fixed-pitch instruments, such as the piano and accordion, in their arrangements). In an era in which the vast majority of Arab pop singers release short love songs in regional colloquial Arabic (usually Egyptian or Lebanese dialect), El Saher writes and performs substantially longer songs based upon poems in classical Arabic. El Saher has set to music works of leading contemporary poets, most extensively the Syrian poet nizar qabbani.


El Saher has become perhaps Iraq's leading cultural ambassador since the 1991 Gulf War, particularly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States and its allies. He has consistently refused to make expressly political statements about the powers that have ruled Iraq, and has focused instead upon the humanitarian toll of conflict and sanctions. He regularly donates concert proceeds to groups that aid Iraqi children.

El Saher has a huge fan base worldwide, including but not limited to Iraqis in the diaspora. Numerous fan Web sites in Arabic, English, and Farsi post up-to-the-minute news on his concerts and musical output. At a time when Iraqi society has been nearly destroyed, El Saher has become a public figure around which Iraqis in exile can unite.


Since he is at the height of his popularity, it is too early to discuss Kazem El Saher's legacy. It is clear that he will be remembered as a leading figure in Arab popular music in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as well as one of Iraq's most significant musicians of the modern period.


Kadhem AlSaher Fans Foundation. Available from


La Ya Sadiqi (No, my friend). Beirut: Music Master, 1993. Rereleased in 1999 on Virgin Records.

Ana wa Layla (Layla and I). Jidda: Rotana, 1998.

Habibiti wa'l-Matar (My love and the rain). Jidda: Rotana, 1999.

Al-Hubb al-Mustahil (The impossible love). Jidda: Rotana, 2000. Released in the United States on Mondo Melodia label.

Hafiyat al-Qadimayn (Bare feet). Jidda: Rotana, 2003. Includes "The War Is Over" with Sarah Brightman.

Intaha al-Mishwar (The quest has ended). Jidda: Rotana, 2005.

                                          Anne Elise Thomas

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