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Remembering 'The Lady' of Cairo Umm Kulthum 45 years on Open in fullscreen

Nur Turkmani

Remembering 'The Lady' of Cairo Umm Kulthum 45 years on

A giant picture of Umm Kulthum painted in Cairo's impoverished Kom al-Ghurab suburb [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 February, 2020

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This February marks the 45th death anniversary of renowned Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress Umm Kulthum, known as the star of the east.
At least once a week, my father will lay back on a couch, put on an Umm Kulthum song – usually El Atlal or Rubaiyat el Khayyam – and listen for around an hour.

Seemingly intoxicated, his fingers will move gently, like a lone corn stalk on a brisk afternoon, to the music preluding Umm Kulthum's arrival.

Sometimes tears gather around his eyes right before her first word. Other times, he summons my siblings and I with a silent head nudge to tell us to enter the song with him.

Halfway through, he will light up a cigarette – one of the only occasions he craves one – and take drawn-out drags. Akh, he will say, when she lingers on a syllable, don't tell me she isn't godly.

My father, unlike my mother, isn’t religious. Also unlike my mother (or I), he doesn't have the urge to indulge in emotions – he is straight to the point when there is a serious matter and goofy on most other occasions. But during this one hour, when he sits with an Umm Kulthum song, he is carried elsewhere and his feelings – those bottled up and unnamed – are held with a tenderness we all become witnesses to, just by watching him. 

Umm Kulthum appears on a poster for the Egyptian
film Fatima directed by Ahmed Badrakhan
[Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images]

In this brief moment, his feelings – those bottled up and unnamed – are held with a tenderness we all become witnesses to, just by watching him. 

Hands down, Umm Kulthum – nicknamed the fourth pyramid, the Lady, the star of the east – is the most legendary Arab singer. 

Even today, 45 years after her passing, she is ubiquitous: from Cairo to Ramallah and Homs, her voice is on the radio in the taxis and buses; her lyrics inscribed as elegant calligraphy on wedding invitations; her iconic face, with the black sunglasses and bouffant hairdo, framed aesthetically across hip cafes in London and New York. The Dubai Opera even staged her as a hologram recently. 

Umm Kulthum was born at the turn of the twentieth century in a rural village to poor parents. Surprised by how quickly she learnt verses from the Quran, her father, a muazzin at the local mosque, took her along to his religious performances.

So as to not draw attention to her, he dressed her as a Bedouin boy with the traditional masculine head-piece. But when he worried too much about people questioning the ethics of his daughter's singing, it was Umm Kulthum's mother who rushed to her defence.

By the 40s and 50s, people across the Arab world had begun to close up their shops and rush to cafes or to their radio-owning neighbours' homes to listen to her sing live on Thursdays. She worked with a diverse range of poets, from the vernacular Bayram el-Tunisi to the deeply prolific Ahmad Rami, and composers, including Mohamad Qasabgi, Mohamad Abdel Wahab, Zakaria Ahmad, and Riad el-Sonbati.

Said to be incredibly detail-oriented and hardworking, Umm Kulthum was a tarab singer par excellence who captured crowds and created with them shared moments of euphoria for hours on end.

Her performances, most often improvised, always changed depending on the crowd, what they nodded and sighed to, and whether the evening's atmosphere demanded an explosion, a melancholic altitude, or something lighter and unhurried.

My father tells me that after listening to her singing, people were said to break into overwhelming tears or to rush out of their houses in a stupor, not knowing what to do or where to go with themselves. 

After listening to her singing, people were said to break into overwhelming tears or to rush out of their houses in a stupor, not knowing what to do or where to go with themselves

In a stunning poem, Umm Kulthum Speaks, Lebanese poet Zeina Beck Hashem imagines Umm Kulthum saying:
"I was a little boy with the voice of a God/ once. How else could my father set this spell of mine/ free? So I dressed my voice, first with boy's clothing,/ then with the Quran, then with poems, then with Egypt,/but all these were merely pretexts/ for the magic that rose out of my throat./Don't you see how the streets are empty/ on my radio Thursdays? Do you know what tarab/ means? To repeat, to carry everyone back/ to their hurt./ I bent the sentences I sang/ into portals, and what else could you have screamed/ but Allah Allah Allah for hours?"

She was also a people's person, touching Egyptians and Arabs from across the board, sitting gracefully in between binaries or, rather, knowing how to tread them with care. 

Umm Kulthum was modest, in her long gowns and rigid posture, and religious, reading from the Quran before her performances and invoking God all throughout.

She was also unafraid of causing tremors. During a concert in 1949, she stunned royalists by singing a verse, written by poet Ahmad Shawqi, that described Prophet Muhammad as "the Imam of Socialists". Her devoutness and commitment to Islam accompanied her defiance as a woman. In a famous speech directed to women in Tunisia, Umm Kulthum encouraged women to take off their headcovers, declaring, "We can keep our heads up and without a cover."

Umm Kulthum also took pride in her rural heritage, often describing herself as a fallaha, a peasant, while being part of conversations in Cairo with the intellectual and political elite of the time. 

She sang piercing love sings filled with lust and yearning and she sang for the nation, for Palestine, and for the Arab world. She was el-sitt, the lady, and she was also al umm, the mother. She was the most public of figures, but she worked hard to keep her personal life private. She was mystery, she was hope, she was tradition, she was modernity, and she was the embodiment of the desire to forge an Arab identity, one that is resilient and socialist and emancipatory. 

It is in the latter that Umm Kulthum's memory is tricky. For many, she is a political tool: a reminder of an imagined 'what could have been', an icon of the era of so-called Arab nationalism.

The music critic Elias Sahab, for instance, saw her as a "drug that leads Arabs to linger in truancy". Other critics agreed – especially when recalling the 1967 Arab defeat to Israel and the ensuing failure of Arabs to look inwards and critique the dangerous wave of Arab nationalism that had guided them into said defeat.

In an article on Umm Kulthum's literary lives, academic Zeina Halabi shows how Egyptian authors – specifically Albert Cossery, Waguih Ghali, and Ahmad Negm – problematised Umm Kulthum as a reflection of Gamal Abdel Nasser's dangerous and hegemonic narrative. Indeed, during the golden era, it was Umm Kulthum and Gamal Abdel Nasser who most personified that historical moment of time.

In a famous speech directed to women in Tunisia, Umm Kulthum encouraged women to take off their headcovers, declaring, 'We can keep our heads up and without a cover'

Nasser's speeches, for instance, were often broadcast after her monthly radio concerts, which had become more nationalistic in nature. One of her songs, performed during the 1956 Suez Crisis, Wallahi Zaman, Ya Silahi it's been a long time, o weapon of mine, replaced Nashd el-Hurriya – the Anthem of Liberty as Egypt's anthem from 1960 to 1979 (funnily enough, it was also the anthem of the United Arab Republic, a federation of Egypt and Syria that failed not too long after its formation).

The authors Halabi cites rid Umm Kulthum of transcendence, painting her as an embodiment of authoritarianism instead.

Similar to many critics of Arab nationalism, Halabi argues that they "were troubled by the implications of idolatry and icon fetishisation that sustain monolithic narratives."

Certainly, the nostalgia with which that era of Arab nationalism is evoked has been exploited in the region as a form of control that continues to haunt our political systems. 

Shirin Neshat's  'Looking for Oum Kulthum' photo exhibition at Galerie Azzedine Alaia on November 5, 2019 in Paris, France [Getty]

Not so long ago, after my father finished watching the 8pm news broadcast, he shook his head and muttered that we, the Arabs, are a lost cause. Afterwards, he played El Atlal and softened, commenting that Riyad el-Sonbati, the composer behind the song, was revolutionary. 

In what my memory shamelessly reconstructs as a cinematic scene, baba took a final puff and said, "There was a time when it meant something to be Arab." Such commentary has long been normalised as the backdrop to our everyday conversations across the Middle East – the Arab malaise, as the late Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir called it in his book Being Arab, published one year prior to his assassination. 

I wrote in an email to a friend last December that during the first week of the Lebanese revolution, I did not listen to Umm Kulthum or Sabah Fakhri or Abdel Halim Hafez – the classical tarab singers I listen to on an almost daily basis. I wanted, instead, to feel as though I was breaking up with our past.

For many people from my generation, this is what the Arab revolutions – from Tunisia to Iraq and Syria and Lebanon – mark: a conscious rupture from our history of dictatorships, a refusal to play into the narrative of an Arab malaise.

Umm Kulthum died on February 3, 1975 and her funeral, held at a mosque in central Cairo, was postponed for two days, against Islamic norms, to accommodate for the four million mourners arriving to bid her goodbye

Of course, this rather silly and self-imposed statement did not last. Not too long after, my friend and I drove back from the protests after midnight, blasting Alf Layla w Layla as we passed through the tunnel underneath the infamous Ring bridge, and nothing could have held that feeling we had, that this revolution was larger than life, more than Umm Kulthum singing ya habibi, yalla na'eesh fi 'youn eleilmy love, let's live in the eyes of the night.  

Even for those of us born after the wave of Arab nationalism had become a questionable project altogether, Oum Kulthoum grips us. And maybe Umm Kulthum, for us and for our parents and grandparents, is an act of celebration just as much as she is an act of mourning: a desire to grasp onto something that, perhaps, never existed long enough for us to make meaning of.

Sarah, the protagonist from Rabih Alameddine's book I, The Divine, writes in her memoir, "These days I avoid Umm Kalthum, but not because I hate her. I avoid her because every time I hear that Egyptian bitch, I cry hysterically."

I think the hysteria is a nostalgic return to a moment where – even if only for an hour, or three, or six – things promise to turn out alright after all. That scary, scary language of hope, the reminder of love somehow existing amidst it all, the sight of the Mediterranean Sea – lapping waves and diamond pebbles and all – after a week of dreadful rain.

Umm Kulthum died on February 3, 1975 and her funeral, held at a mosque in central Cairo, was postponed for two days, against Islamic norms, to accommodate for the four million mourners arriving to bid her goodbye. 

For decades to come, I imagine that Umm Kulthum will remain a symbol – for Arab nationalists, military apologists, brown feminists, second generation diaspora reclaiming their Arab identity, postcolonial theorists, protesters, orientalists, musicians, and poets.

More than anything though, to me, Umm Kulthum is the woman who makes my father cry, who takes him back to a world I will never be a part of, and who reminds me of a world I hope to always be a part of the fight for.


Nur Turkmani is a researcher based in Beirut, working mainly on gender and secular movements in the Middle East

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