|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
24 - 30 December 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Epic of a nation
Through the radio her force-field drew in millions of Arabs, who not only cherished the protracted love songs and beautifully rendered qasa'id (long, often very difficult poems in literary Arabic), but hailed them, along with Gamal Abdel-Nasser's speeches, as the very expression of their collective identity. The impact of her performances was such that people were said to be inebriated for hours just watching her perform, and her paraphernalia, most of which was lost following the demolition of her famous villa in Zamalek, was subject to the most insuperable scrutiny.
As the millennium draws to a close, Kawkab Al-Sharq (the Star of the East) has never been more popular. She features on the World Wide Web, and boasts a secure position in the CD stores of the West. Films depicting her life have appeared everywhere, and academic studies continue to assess her achievement. At home, her cassettes are selling as successfully as the latest pop mega-hits, her presence is strongly felt in the media and a whole range of institutions bear her name, including a radio station that broadcasts four hours of her music daily.
To coincide with her alleged centenary (her actual date of birth is more probably in the range of 1904-5), the Ministry of Culture is now embarking on an LE10 million project aiming to build an Umm Kulthoum Museum near the beautiful Manasterli Palace, overlooking the Nile. The museum will include objects and documents as well as audio-visual installations intended to "bring Kawkab Al-Sharq back to life".
Minister Farouk Hosni has declared that founding a museum dedicated to Umm Kulthoum has been "a personal ambition" of his since he was appointed minister. Samir Gharib, head of the Cultural Development Fund, said the project was already under way.
Ne'mat Ahmed Fouad (a writer and academic whose career has been partly devoted to Umm Kulthoum), talks about the new project, the great singer's place in the nation's collective memory, and the resilience of her inimitable songs.
"How could you refer to her simply as 'a woman'?" Ne'mat Ahmed Fouad is scandalised by my lack of decorum. Umm Kulthoum was a woman, I had said, who managed to command everyone's respect through performing at a time when public performances by females were regarded as strictly taboo.
"I don't care what the society was like," she continues. "She is the lady of ladies, the very symbol of Egypt, not just 'a woman'. Of course," she says, in a different tone now, "Umm Kulthoum is also a simple Egyptian who grew up in the countryside but managed to rise above the most prestigious palaces and castles. For me, no one -- not even a princess or a queen -- will ever be like Umm Kulthoum. I mean, there are plenty of princesses. But the symbol, the embodiment of Egypt, is Umm Kulthoum alone."
Fouad flicks through her notebook, where she has jotted down nearly three pages of notes in the interval between hearing my questions on the phone and receiving me in her house in Zamalek -- not far, in fact, from where Umm Kulthoum used to live. "Because she had an immense respect for her homeland and her people," Fouad says with emotion, "Umm Kulthoum was universally revered. Suffice it to say that those who fought her are dead [in people's memory] even though they've actually outlived her."
But in view of the fact that Umm Kulthoum's villa was destroyed to make space for a high-rise building, history seems to have passed a different kind of verdict. "A new museum is no consolation for the loss of the house," says Fouad. "I remember queuing up with countless others to see Victor Hugo's home in Paris. On the other side of the road stood Louis XVI's palace, and there was no one there to see it. Everyone wanted to see the poet's house. Everything in it was very basic... and yet, at every step, there were security guards watching over the house's contents, as if these simple things were priceless treasures." By then Fouad seems genuinely upset and she heaves a bitter sigh. "Can you imagine what Umm Kulthoum's house would have been like," she says, "full of genuine treasures as it was, all the gifts she was given, from all over the world, the jewelry and the medals and everything? They're all gone now, scattered all over the place. How much of what's been lost could this museum possibly gather?"
For Fouad, who has led a press campaign calling for improved care of ancient and Islamic monuments, Umm Kulthoum and the monuments are inextricably linked, even though she regards the museum project with outspoken suspicion. "What museum? Propaganda is all there is to it," she shrugs. "Whenever the authorities are confronted by a crisis in the area of monument preservation (the monuments are still subject to abuse and under threat of disappearing, you know), every time a crisis confounds them, they pay a little more attention to Umm Kulthoum."
Unlike the ancient monuments, Umm Kulthoum's continuity is under no threat, but one sometimes has the feeling that her older songs are less popular than they used to be. The older repertory is still regarded by many as Umm Kulthoum's higher achievement, and it is a disconcerting thought that it might be in danger of oblivion or neglect. Fouad, however, insists that no single part of Umm Kulthoum's output is more privileged than another. "There is absolutely no danger of her heritage (or even part of it) disappearing," she says. "Because great works always endure. Even if a time comes when they are (deliberately or otherwise) abandoned, these times are of no consequence. It's like having a solid diamond: the stone may be neglected, and dust may settle on it, but this will never in the long run affect the shine, the glitter, or the genuine value of the jewel..."
Fouad has flicked through her notebook a second time, and rises suddenly. She moves to the crammed bookshelf in the corner, where several Pharaonic statuettes testify to her interest in all things Egyptian. "I am not in the least worried about Umm Kulthoum's heritage," she says on her way back, having found what she was looking for almost immediately. "In the 25 years since she died all sorts of new singers have come our way, both male and female, Egyptians and Arabs, all sorts of crazes and fads. But now would you tell me, if you please, has anyone managed to take over Umm Kulthoum's position in Arab music or usurp her place in our hearts? Has anyone managed anything vaguely like Umm Kulthoum's Thursday night concerts?"
"It's not a question of talent," Fouad finally remarks, sitting down again with a hefty volume in her hands -- her own book on Umm Kulthoum. "Many people have talent and a beautiful voice. What made a difference was her intelligence, the enormous knowledge she cultivated, her taste. She taught herself so many things, from foreign languages to pre-Islamic poetry, everything! From 1948 until 1951, you know, everyone spoke of getting rid of the British. She sang, Demands are not met by wishes; the world can only be taken by struggle, and it was like thunder! That line from Shawqi's famous poem affected us more than anything else in the papers or on the radio.
"I will read you a passage here which sums it all up for me: She made history just as history made her. Among the historical figures who are female, we sometimes find intelligence behind the fact of their entering history, sometimes beauty or elegance, and sometimes political or military heroism. Umm Kulthoum is a historical figure who combines all of these: the intelligence she possesses, her sense of humour and refined sensibility, her supreme ability to sing and the power of her performances... She is also a historical figure by virtue of her contribution to the patriotic community in the ordeal of 1967, when she toured the world raising not only hard currency but also people's morale, an even harder currency. Where she stirs emotions and unites the Arab peoples, she embodies love; and where she brings wealth into her country, both during her life and posthumously, she embodies fortune and good will. She is as much a symbol of the values she upheld as a landmark in the history of music... Umm Kulthoum is thus much more than a mere singer. She is the epic of a nation."
A CENTURY'S VOICE: In the 1910s, word spread of a little girl from the village of Tamay Al-Zahayra (near Simbillawayn in the eastern Delta) who could sing the repertory of the mashayekh (religious leaders) just as adeptly as a grown man. She was not yet eight when she performed for the first time at the house of the omda (village mayor), but people already spoke of her impeccable command of literary Arabic, and her astonishingly powerful voice.
Her name was Umm Kulthoum, and her scrupulous renditions of the customary tawashih (religious songs recounting the biography of the Prophet Mohamed) quickly attracted the attention of patrons from the neighbouring towns and beyond. Wealthy families sought out the little country girl who, dressed in the outfit of a Bedouin boy, managed to hold sway over an audience of grown-ups.
Eventually, with the help of musicians Abul-Ela Mohamed and Zakariya Ahmed, and under the patronage of the prestigious house of Abdel-Razeq, Umm Kulthoum made her debut in Cairo, and from then on embarked on a rigorous daily routine designed to extend and deepen her knowledge of music and poetry, and to give her better control of her capacities as both a popular singer and a lady of style.
No sooner had she established herself in the city than she mobilised a whole battalion of supporters and instructors. She began to interfere directly in the writing and composition of her songs, subduing everyone and everything to her own distinctive style. Upon her first appearances in the capital, the great writer Abbas El-Aqqad recalled being told of a "Bedouin girl" who was becoming more and more in vogue among the connoisseurs of traditional music. "Is she really Bedouin?" he asked, and the writer Mahmoud Taymour replied that he would find out when he saw for himself.
It was the stigma attached to public performances by females that prompted the family to insist on such incongruous accouterments, and initially to restrict the range of Umm Kulthoum's repertoire to religious songs. The "image of Islamic modesty", as historian Hussein Fawzi later called it, helped Umm Kulthoum advance her brilliantly lucrative career without incurring a loss on her reputation as a young woman from the country. Even at this stage she embodied the unusual and relatively novel notion of a female singer whose moral integrity was airtight, a woman performer whose spectacular success depended on her artistic excellence alone, not on any feminine charms she might possess. Umm Kulthoum had learned the Qur'an in the local kuttab (a small school where children memorised and learned to read, write, count and recite the Qur'an correctly) and, besides giving her her widely acclaimed life-long skill in the articulation and delivery of the qasa'id, the experience had made the child a sheikha in her own right. When she moved to Cairo for good in the early 1920s, she had already set the pattern for an achievement that defies description: at once indigenous and legendary, self-evident and paradoxical, earthy and (very literally) phenomenal.
Before long the little Bedouin girl had incorporated taqatiq (light songs in colloquial Arabic, usually on the theme of love) into her repertory and (from the mid-1930s on) was playing the lead in a number of musical films. She worked on developing the image of restrained stylishness and classic elegance that would characterise her public demeanour for the rest of her life. Significantly, she also procured her emblematic handkerchief (a constant companion on stage and, along with the colour of her dress and the shape of the brooch that would adorn it, a source of speculation for millions).
By the mid-1920s she had her own takht (small orchestra), and was earning more than any other singer in record contracts; by the early 1930s, she was firmly on her way to becoming the unchallenged mistress of Arab song. One story has it that, when a lesser spirit called herself Umm Kulthoum in an attempt to appropriate the real singer's fast growing popularity, handouts were circulated in the theatres and music halls of the city bearing Umm Kulthoum's picture with the following message: "I alone am the original Umm Kulthoum and I am Umm Kulthoum Ibrahim El-Beltagi. As for the others, they are false ummahat [mothers, singular umm] of Kulthoum, whom Kulthoum himself disowns, denying their relationship to singing..."
Umm Kulthoum was unquestionably one of the most discerning artists of her time, but she was also an astute businesswoman eager to exploit opportunities as they became available to her and ready to pounce on potential rivals and detractors. In her life as much as in her music, she would always strike a winning chord between pragmatic sense and aesthetic sensibility, daring to challenge the rules without breaking them, soaring high while remaining close to the ground.
A young woman who sang men's songs, a child prodigy who brought fame and fortune to her humble family, a country girl who, largely on her own initiative, managed to make it to the big city -- Umm Kulthoum would always tread a fine line between tradition and modernity, convention and innovation, established order and the need for change. "There is no doubt that Arabic singing has developed," she said in a 1960s interview. "How much better today's songs are! It's a leap, not just an improvement. But the music developed faster than the words. It became more expressive of meanings, more congruent with syllables. Its aspect of tarab [enchantment] is no longer pursued for its own sake." At a time when complaining about the deterioration of Arabic music has become the norm, this may sound odd indeed, but one must not forget that it is Umm Kulthoum and her contemporaries who form the peak from which we are said to have fallen.
From the moment she set foot in Cairo, her story is not only that of an ambitious provincial who aimed for and achieved an astounding degree of urban prosperity and renown, it is also the story of the golden age of Arabic music, and of a whole nation's attempt at formulating a distinct and revitalised sense of cultural identity. She arrived in the capital just after the 1919 Revolution (when the exile of the great statesman Saad Zaghloul by the British sent millions to the streets calling for national independence), and when she first started having songs composed and written specifically for her -- by poet Ahmed Rami (said to have harboured an unrequited love for Umm Kulthoum throughout his life) and musician Mohamed El-Qasabgi (one of her earliest tutors and the life-long oud player in her exclusive orchestra) -- the stage was set for fundamental changes in the socio-political fabric of Egyptian life. These were changes that affected Umm Kulthoum and to which she would eventually contribute, but, more importantly, they were changes that made it possible for the village girl with the Bedouin headgear to turn into the abiding symbol of an era.
In the late 1940s when, following a series of health troubles and the deaths of her mother and brother, Umm Kulthoum contemplated retiring, she had already commanded a rich and eventful career in the course of which she established herself not only as a singer who worked with (and to some extent controlled) some of the most remarkable lyricists and composers of her time (Beiram El-Tunsi and Riyad El-Sonbati among them), but also as a public persona who came to represent all that was authentically Egyptian.
While the struggle for independence continued, Umm Kulthoum was also setting a precedent as a poor man's daughter who could move, by dint of her natural ability and good sense, in the upper echelons of society. Both the sense of ultimately belonging to the people and the hankering after what was authentically Egyptian made her a likely candidate for the role of first lady in the newly independent Egypt of the 1950s, especially since Gamal Abdel-Nasser did not believe that the wife of the president should play a public role. In 1948, Umm Kulthoum had insisted on celebrating the return of the Free Officers defeated at Al-Falouga in her own house, against the Minister of Defence's wishes, and met Nasser for the first time. When news of the 1952 Revolution reached her while she was on vacation in Ras Al-Barr, she was quick to commission a patriotic song to mark the occasion and announce her adherence to the new order.
Although she never engaged in the kind of excessive glorification of Nasser's person at which her most popular rival, Abdel-Halim Hafez, excelled, the figures of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Umm Kulthoum became associated in the public imagination as the very tokens of what this new Egypt constituted, and patriotic songs (speaking of the Revolution and its vision of an "Egypt for the Egyptians" where the fellah was liberated from the chains of feudalism), would occupy a major part of Umm Kulthoum's repertoire for the next decade. On one occasion Riyad El-Sonbati spoke of his work with Umm Kulthoum as being like the construction of the High Dam, Nasser's greatest project of the time.
Indeed, it was Nasser's reign that witnessed Umm Kulthoum's fullest flowering as the supreme exemplar of Egyptianness. From her late marriage to a notable doctor (Hassan El-Hifnawi) to her long-awaited collaboration with the great composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, together with a host of younger lyricists and musicians (including Baligh Hamdi who, despite belonging to a much later generation, composed some of Umm Kulthoum's most enduring and well-liked songs); from any number of official honours (both musical and cultural), to a series of fund-raising concerts conducted worldwide in the wake of the 1967 War -- Umm Kulthoum's image and voice were omnipresent throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and (despite a growing resentment on the part of left-wing intellectuals and, later, a less conciliatory relation with the Sadat regime), her popularity continued to gather momentum.
She remained active well into the mid-1970s, when an exacerbated kidney condition forced her to withdraw from the public arena. In 1975, her death caused such a havoc that the funeral went out of control as the coffin was virtually stolen and moved from shoulder to shoulder on a three-hour trek through the city. A few days earlier, the media had made the mistake of announcing her death before it actually occurred, and millions of people had gathered around her house in what amounted to a rehearsal of the final event.
"People die and never know what their funerals are like," she told journalist Mustafa Amin on the phone as she lay on her deathbed. "As for myself... I am confident of people's love."