Umm Kulthoum (Al-Sitt)
she sang, she was never the heroine. People heard their
own story in her songs."
Amal Fahmy, Egyptian radio commentator
were back in Cairo once again. We had spent more than three
years in the city on the Nile (1993-1996) and were back
to celebrate Millenium 2000 in this Eternal City. The entire
city was engrossed in a television programme. I too would
have fallen under the spell – had I had known earlier of
the thirty-seven episode television series 'Kawkab Al-Sharq'
depicting the life of Umm Kulthoum. She was the Egyptian
diva whose phenomenal fifty year singing career entranced
yesterday and today Egypt and the Arab world.
the month of Ramadan in December 1999 and January 2000,
the global Arab-speaking population from the Maghreb countries
in North Africa, to the Gulf states, the countries of the
Fertile Crescent and the Arab Diaspora from New York to
New Zealand was immersed via Arab satellite cable television
in the 'Wonder of the Age'. The unique songbird in the Arab
world who encompasses both a legend and a myth (the salient
ingredients of an icon) was portrayed on television by Egyptian
actress Sabrine and supported by a cast of two hundred and
fifty. To widespread acclaim, Sabrine reached a milestone
in her career. Arabic newspaper polls showed that the series
was the best production ever in the Arab world. According
to one effusive critic, "Sabrine successfully portrayed
the omnipresent pedestal nobody will ever attain again."
Early in 2000, during the prime time viewing of 'Kawkab
Al-Sharq', the star of the series, Sabrine was received
by the Palestinian-origin, Kuwaiti-born and American University
of Cairo educated Queen Rania of Jordan.
accorded titles as 'Star of the East', 'The Eternal Lady',
'International Chanteuse of Dreams'…Umm Kulthoum was born
into a poor family in the village Tanay in Dakhalia governorate
in Egypt in 1904. By the age of five, she had memorised
poems and religious songs learnt from her father Shaikh
Ibrahim El Beltagi. By the age of nine, Umm Kulthoum had
started her singing career. Interestingly, she once said
"My father was uneasy. The idea that his daughter should
sing in front of men he didn't know, was difficult for him
to accept, but my singing helped support the family. So
he dressed me in boy's clothes, and I sang this way for
several years. I realise now that he wanted to convince
himself, and the audience too, that the singer was a young
boy and not a young woman."
early 1920s, she moved to Cairo in order to pursue her burgeoning
singing career. Other pillars of modern Egyptian culture--Mohamed
Abdel-Wahab and poet Ahmad Rami--both collaborated with
Umm Kulthoum. King Farouk awarded her the Nile medal in
1946. Royalty went into exile in 1952 and politics and rulers
changed hands in Egypt. Not so the 'Voice and Fame of Egypt’.
President Gamal Abdel-Nasser awarded Umm Kulthoum the Order
of Merit in 1960. She always maintained that she was essentially
a fallahah (peasant) who shared essential values with the
majority of Egyptians. Umm Kulthoum is an Egyptian icon
that symbolised Arab nationalist pride and gave the nation
the moral and spiritual uplift following Egypt's defeat
by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. She was the embodiment
of Arab cultural renaissance. Her high-profile concerts
were accorded 'state visit' status. Her Thursday concerts
emptied Cairo's streets as millions turned on the radio
and prepared to listen in hushed awe to the diva's incomparable
voice. Her marathon concerts often stretched to six hours
in length; into the early hours of the morning. A delightful
anecdote that speaks of her legions of devoted followers
goes like this: When one fervent soul failed to take his
usual front row seat at a concert, Umm Kulthoum sent the
police to find him during an intermission. It turned out
that his father had just died. The fan attended the second
half of the concert anyway.
Kulthoum passed away in 1975. Her funeral cortege rivaled
or surpassed, according to many that of President Nasser
who had died in 1970. Here was an outpouring of heartfelt
emotion for the 'Star of the East' who epitomised Arab ethos.
She was buried in the sprawling 'City of the Dead' neighbourhood
of Cairo. Sadly, her villa along the Nile in the aristocratic
neighbourhood of Zamalek in Cairo was sold to Kuwaiti real
estate developers who built a towering apartment block on
the site and went on to name it Umm Kulthoum Tower! Surely
this qualifies as a blatant case of crude capitalism overcoming
Kulthoum's musical repertoire included more than three hundred
songs on themes ranging from love to nationalism to religion.
The majority of songs were sung in colloquial Arabic and
some were in classical Arabic, mostly written by renowned
Arab poets. Her most popular and most beloved by her multitude
of devoted fans is 'Enta Omri' (You are my Life). It was
written for her in 1964. Listening to 'Enta Omri', one is
once again reminded that music transcends all language and
all barriers. Music that touches the heart and has the ability
to move one to tears, sublime music that takes one beyond
oneself. The plaintive Portuguese 'fado', the evocative
voice of the Italian blind tenor Andrea Bocelli, the uplifting
yearning of Abida Parveen and the stirring shehnaii music
of Ustad Bismillah Khan are manifestations of a divine gift
that stirs the soul.
Sharif, the Egyptian actor most recognised by the global
audience has narrated a documentary film on the Queen of
Arabic Songs. It is titled 'Umm Kulthoum: A Voice like Egypt'.
Accolades and critiques of her singing prowess describe
her talent as: 'She is a memory that renews itself endlessly'.
'She is a fragrant memory that never loses its perfume.'
'Her voice combined power, emotion and sensitivity.' 'Umm
Kulthoum's voice could sweep through two octaves, up and
down the musical scale with perfect ease, clarity and articulation.'
who has been part of the Arab world has been touched by
Umm Kulthoum's golden voice and that includes non-Arabs.
Peter Mansfield, a former British diplomat, journalist and
the author of a classic book on the Middle East -- 'The
Arabs' -- in his chapter on Egypt concludes: "No one
in modern times symbolised the ancient and the unquenchable
spirit of Egypt more than the great singer Umm Kalthoum,
who threw the whole Arab world into mourning when she died
in her late seventies in February 1975. Her songs were written
by Egypt's finest contemporary poets and musicians; her
plangent notes belong to all the ages."
Rodenbeck, a second-generation American resident of Cairo
in his highly acclaimed book Cairo: The City Victorious
dwells at length on the Egyptian icon. "The long reign
of Cairo's great twentieth century diva Umm Kulthoum encapsulated
modern Cairo's golden age. Rarely in history has one artist
entranced so vast an audience for such span of years. Umm
Kulthoum was Edith Piaf and Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra
and Luciano Pavarotti rolled into one. To 150 million Arabs
she was the Star of the East, the Nightingale of the Nile,
the Lady of Arabic Song. To Cairenes she was simply al-Sitt
Haider has been both a resident and a frequent visitor to
Cairo over decades. A number of her writings have appeared
in the Egyptian print media. She is also the author of 'Gender
and Development' published by the American University of
Cairo Press, Egypt, 1996.