The pop singer talks about what inspires her music, her love of charity work, and her appreciation for the Gulf region.
Legendary pop singer Latifa puts down permanent roots in the UAE
Although the presence of the Arab singer Latifa has caused a reverential hush to fall over a low-key coffee shop in Dubai's Oud Metha district, she appears oblivious to the attention. Instead, she reaches for her BlackBerry.
"Look," she says, "let me show you why the UAE is so special to me".
The screensaver says it all: a photograph of a teenage Latifa, her mother, and the late Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation, taken in the mid 1980s.
"I was about 17 and it was the first time I travelled in the Arab world outside of Tunisia, just before going to study in Egypt," she explains. "Sheikh Zayed encouraged me a lot with my career and I respected him enormously. He was so wise and incredibly human. He gave me the courage to go and study abroad."
Twenty-five years later, life has come full circle for Latifa. The singer has put down permanent roots in the Emirates having commuted between the UAE, Egypt and her native Tunisia for years. Appreciative of the country's cinematic qualities, the pop legend has shot a total of nine music videos here. She also records new material when she's in town and is in the process of setting up her own music production company in Dubai.
A child prodigy from the age of six, Latifa first rose to fame in Tunisia on stage and in television shows. In her late teens she pursued her passion for the arts and studied at the prestigious Arab Academy of Music in Cairo. It was in that city, she believes, that fate conspired and led her to a chance encounter with the legendary Egyptian singer and composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab. The meeting set her firmly on the path to fame and fortune and the two enjoyed enormous collaborative success, working together until Wahab's death in 1991.
"You know, he was the first person I truly sang for. Incredible. He also wrote songs for Oum Kalthoum," she says. "Artistically, he adopted me completely during my stay in Egypt."
Following the success of the album Akthar Min Roohi (More Than My Soul) and especially the single Ew'ah Tegheer (Don't Be Jealous) in the late 1980s, Latifa sold her car and bought her producer's recording studio, La Reine, and with it her creative freedom.
"It's all thanks to my mother, I was raised to be this way. She taught me to be very independent, self-taught and strong." she says "I have two sisters and five brothers and you know what? My mother doesn't read or write but she made a point of educating every child she had, and I think that's fantastic. My mother is queen."
The years that followed brought Latifa international acclaim and in 2004, the singer won the World Music Award for best-selling artist in the Middle East and north Africa for the album Ma Etrohsh Ba'ed (Don't Go Away). What happened next would have a lasting effect on her.
"The accolade in Las Vegas meant a lot to me and when I was on stage giving the acceptance speech I took a message with me," she says. "I said thank you and I would be even happier if 'Palestine and Iraq were freed' from occupation. ABC didn't air it - many channels didn't - even local broadcaster LBC at first.
"Although they tried to gag me, it made me stronger, and the American audience actually gave me strength as 20,000 audience members of different nationalities all stood up in respect of the statement."
Now with 23 albums to her name, Latifa increasingly finds herself drawn towards humanitarian projects. A quarter of the income from all her concerts goes to charity and she does many public appearances free of charge. She has also established her own foundation, which has built a school in Tunisia and will soon complete ones in Gaza and Egypt. It's a subject she loves to talk about and she proudly shows her wrist, tapping the face of the bright red watch she's wearing.
"See this? It's called B360. I'm proud to be a brand ambassador and we have an arrangement where a percentage of the sales go to a charity directed by me in the Arab world. The biggest pleasure for me is when I'm doing something that gives relief to charity, that's when I feel the most cherished."
She's also giving back to the Arab world creatively - the recent regional unrest having inspired her to pen new songs for an album she aims to complete in the coming months.
Moutasem Kabbani, manager of the music department at Virgin Megastore in Dubai's Mall of the Emirates, expects demand for a new Latifa album to be strong. He compares her popularity in the region to a western artist such as Whitney Houston, saying Latifa's last album from 2009 is still selling well on a weekly basis to fans who range in age from 25 to 60.
"She's got an amazingly strong voice and each album she's released has been different from the last," he says. "Some songs had a western influence, like jazz and tango. And she's also sung Arabic pop, Khaliji, Rai, Tarab, Egyptian, and through this she's reached every music lover in the Arab world."
Back at the coffee shop, when the singer becomes aware Emirati fan Amal Al Jabri has been patiently waiting at the café's exit for a photograph, she invites her to sit down.
"Once I heard the song Inshallah (God Willing) in 1999, I instantly became a fan," explains Al Jabri. "Latifa's powerful voice, the lovely composed music and the meaning of the song itself is so uplifting and positive. It's hard to listen to this song and not be moved by its energy and good vibes. Latifah's quite popular in our family too - especially when everyone gets together, particularly for the Eid celebrations."
Latifa says Inshallah is one her favourite songs too - its integration of French lyrics marking the departure from her singing only in Arabic.
"I love to sing in French, Arabic and even German," she says. "It's just important for me to feel what I'm singing, to understand the words completely and especially the metaphors - that's all that matters."
As she runs through her back catalogue, Latifa momentarily breaks into song with a brief rendition of Take Me I'm Yours from the 2002 album Desert Roses and Arabian Rhythms, which featured Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook from the band Squeeze.
"I hear music everywhere" Latifa says. "Like in this café, the rhythms of daily life, you know, and even birds singing. It's all around and I believe it all comes from God."
"I also know my talent came from God," she adds. "And that's why I make sure I thank him every day!"