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Content warning: This article contains mentions of multiple suicides.
Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti, known by her stage name Dalida, was an international pop and disco superstar who dominated the European and Arab music scene from the mid-1960s to her untimely death in 1987. Although this upcoming week will mark 31 years since her tragic passing, Dalida still holds a special place in my heart, as she does for so many others.
Before I go on, let me provide additional context to my American friends who have unfortunately never had the immense pleasure and privilege of growing up in a Dalida household. Although she (mysteriously?) never made it big in the United States, Dalida was nothing shy of an international phenomenon. Born to an Italian family that migrated to Egypt, she was raised in Cairo and later moved to Paris in her 20s to make it big as a singer. Fluent in Italian, French, English, and Arabic, she was as cosmopolitan as they get, performing in 11 different languages throughout her career. To try to convey just how big of a deal she was, let me throw some quick facts at you. Dalida sold 175 million albums and singles worldwide (use Queen Bey’s 100 million as a reference); she was the first singer ever awarded platinum and diamond discs; she was the only singer twice honored with the World Oscar of Recording Success. And, if breaking all the music records wasn’t enough, she was also granted the freaking Presidential Medal of the Republic of France awarded by none other than Charles de Gaulle.
So yes. She was a big deal. Scratch that. She is a big deal.
This is especially true for my gloriously loud and joyous Lebanese family. Living in the United States as first-generation Americans, my sister and I play her hits whenever we’re feeling homesick. Without fail, her melodies are the backdrop to every summer I spend in Lebanon—car rides to the mountains, family barbecues, holiday dinner parties, you name it.
However, the love story my family has with Dalida is not a singular one. Although many countries in the eastern hemisphere have since moved on, my little country’s affection for the superstar still runs deep and true. If you ever took it upon yourself to walk around the city of Beirut (as you should, it’s a beautiful city), you would not find a single person who is not a fan. Her albums have been handed down from grandparents to parents to children in many Lebanese households. In fact, I have a theory that Lebanon’s cemented Dalida devotion is no coincidence. I believe that the explanation as to why she has remained so relevant after three long decades is that her music encapsulates the spirit of the Lebanese people. Before dismissing me as melodramatic, hear me out.
Despite her mind-boggling fame and success, Dalida’s personal life was permeated by a series of heartbreak and loss. In 1967, Dalida’s fiancé, Luigi Tenco, committed suicide after losing in a singing competition. She discovered him in their hotel room with a bullet wound and a note. A few months later, she had an abortion that left her infertile. Only three years after this, her ex-husband, Lucien Morisse, also took his life. In 1975, one of her closest friends, singer Mike Brant, jumped off a building in Paris. In 1983, her past boyfriend of nine years inhaled the exhaust of his car. Amid this series of crippling loss (only made worse by the relentless press), Dalida kept on performing. Like a faucet you cannot turn off, Dalida produced hit after hit after hit.
In 1979, the starlet released what has now become one of her most celebrated hits, “Laissez moi danser” (“Let Me Dance”). A triumphant anthem of liberation, Dalida demands to be allowed to dance and sing in liberty (“laissez moi chanter, danser en liberté toute l’été”) and declares that the only things that matter in life are love and laughter (“moi, je vis d’amour et de rire”). This hit, bubbling with infectious energy and bursting with vitality and purpose, seems to be at odds with her somber and grief-ridden personal life. Particular lyrics in the song seems to address her past distress. Refusing to be drowned by all her sorrow, she resiliently proclaims that she lives as if she were eternal and as if the news could no longer cause her any worry (“je vis comme si j’étais éternelle, comme si les nouvelles étaient sans problèmes”).
The second verse reinforces this brazen message by stating that with practice she has learned to live a liberated and balanced life (“je vais, je viens, j’ai appris à vivre comme si j’étais libre et en équilibre”). This song more than any other in particular seems to summarize best her outlook on life and loss; in interviews, she would famously state that one always must have insolence, candor, and belief in oneself (“il faut avoir de l’insolence, de la candeure et de la foi en soi”).
During the release of this rhythmic disco hit, Lebanon was four years deep into a violent civil war. From 1975 to 1990, the war tore Lebanon apart, transforming every major city into mounds of rubble. However, in a backdrop of bombs and gunshots, Dalida was played throughout the country. Fully aware of the following she had in Lebanon, the singer even wrote a song entitled “Lebnan” addressing our civil war. In her dedication, she reinforces that despite the war and the fire (“el hareb, el nar”), there is love all around (“el hob wen makan”) because Lebanese hearts are bigger than any other (“alb kbir kbir”). In a generation of tremendous loss for the singer and the country, music was both an escape and an emancipator.
Admittedly it may be absurd to state that one woman’s personal challenges are analogous to a whole country’s strife. But, this analogy stems not from the challenges themselves, but rather from the attitude adopted to overcome these challenges. Dalida was (and still is) such an icon because, despite her eventual suicide, she exuded resilience from every pore in her body. We have adopted her hymns of liberation and joy as anthems of our own—a refusal to give in to the grief and despair of past strife.
Despite the past civil war, despite the current ubiquitous corruption and political instability, the Lebanese people have a famous reputation of celebration and liveliness.
Perseverance is in our blood, and we revolt by tenaciously gripping onto our exuberance, no matter the political situation.
This is why, despite 31 years since her passing, you will still hear Dalida being played in every Lebanese restaurant, backyard, or nightclub.
Tara Ghandour can be reached at email@example.com