3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The other Umm Kulthoum
Why was the Umm Kulthoum TV series so popular? Youssef Rakha looks at seven writers' commentaries
Umm Kulthoum as phenomenally popular Ramadan TV catered to a broad variety of tastes: latter-day patriots were tickled by the show's generally orthodox treatment of the politically charged atmosphere in which Umm Kulthoum rose to fame; aspiring cultural and social historians scrutinised the show's reconstruction of the sights and sounds, the mores and morals of the long historical expanse in which the life of Egypt's most-loved diva unfolded. Viewers assessed, with varying degrees of approval, various actors' portrayals of their favourite poets, musicians and public figures who figured in the singer's personal and professional biography, while straightforward Umm Kulthoum aficionados tended to concentrate on the show's presentation of the woman herself: her inimitable personality; her modest family background; her image on stage, in the studio and at home; and the mannerisms in which her earthy wisdom revealed itself.
It is to all of the above that a number of well-respected writers -- none of whom are TV critics by profession -- have since applied themselves in what amounts to a spontaneous press campaign hailing the show as a major socio-cultural event -- conveniently coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Umm Kulthoum's death. Despite the near consensus concerning its "excellence" -- and if not that, at least its "importance" -- these writers have shed critical light on the show and its subject. As opposed to actress Sabrine's depiction of the diva, writer commentary as a whole recollects an altogether different Umm Kulthoum -- one whose success story rings an ultimately truer note.
Poets Farouk Shousha and Farouk Guweida have each supplied extended eulogies, with an emphasis on the lyrical, poignant side of the Umm Kulthoum saga. Shousha focused on the show's portrayal of the poet Ahmed Rami (Kamal Abu Rayya's performance was remarkable), while Guweida, in typically flowery language, praised the research undertaken by Ni'maat Ahmed Fouad, whose book Umm Kulthoum wa Asr min Al-Fann (Umm Kulthoum and an Era of Art, 1975) provided the basis for the script. Elsewhere there is favourable commentary on the link forged by the show between the figures of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Umm Kulthoum. Social critic Salah Eissa contends that the singer's career would have come to an end following the 1952 Revolution were it not for Nasser's insight into the value of recruiting her massive talent for the nationalist cause. Eissa's article in the opposition daily Al-Wafd largely ignores the quality of the show itself as entertainment, concentrating instead on its historical-political significance for us today.
In connection with the two major shifts in political orientation that took place during Umm Kulthoum's career (Nasser's 1952 Revolution and Sadat's 1971 Corrective Revolution) Eissa posits "despot creators", whose job it is "to spray insecticide on history" -- that is, to ignore all that has preceded one regime in order to blindly perpetuate another, with little or no concern for the actual value of either. Eissa lauds script-writer Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman's ability to avoid this kind of sterilisation by subtly showing what was commendable about both the monarchy and Nasser's regime: the altruism of the capitalists who supported the diva early on, and her collaborators' commitment to impressive standards of excellence, for example. Sadat's despot creators had turned Umm Kulthoum into an insignificant remnant of Nasserist history, Eissa says. Left to their own devices, Nasser's would have done the same. But it is only natural that Abdel-Rahman's latter-day contribution should elicit such a reaction, since "the show ... made people realise that they had been unjust to Umm Kulthoum; hence its popularity, which is a reflection of that guilt."
Author and journalist Mohamed Salmawy shares with Eissa the belief that Umm Kulthoum came to be an integral part of Nasser's nationalist undertaking but, unlike Eissa, he does not emphasise the positive aspects of pre-1952 life. Salmawy, too, focuses on the last two years' of Umm Kulthoum's life, explaining that "whereas the show simply tells us that she fell ill and died, the truth is much more complex."
From top to bottom: Fayrouz, Faten Hamama, Fareed El-Atrash, and an anonymous admirer
Salmawy identifies three areas that the show and its cast did not illuminate sufficiently. He recalls Umm Kulthoum's "majesty, her uniquely daring pride" -- the main quality she shared with Nasser and one which was not portrayed forcefully enough by either performer (Nasser was played by Riyad El-Kholi): "Some of the characters that the show pictured talking familiarly with Umm Kulthoum would not have had the courage to address her that way in reality... The sweet, polite image she promoted through the media formed only part of her personality; the second part was overpowering and rigorous."
Besides downplaying the diva's remarkable humour, Salmawy writes, the show almost ignored the fact that her final illness was coloured by profound personal disappointment following the failure of her large-scale charity project, which many believe, rightly or wrongly, was more or less taken over by Jihan El-Sadat's similar project, Al-Wafaa wal-Amal.
Pervasive among the writings inspired by the series is a distinct sentimentality, a sense of hankering back to better, bygone times. Along such nostalgic lines, political science professor Hassan Nafaa writes: "Director In'am Mohamed Ali managed, in this work, to employ a refined and beautiful text... to present the Egyptian people through Umm Kulthoum as a mirror in which to see itself, and to remember forgotten aspects of its majesty and its genius. In this way the director struck a successful chord, unleashing the potential patriotism of the Egyptian people." Dramatist Alfred Farag similarly speaks of Umm Kulthoum's "beautiful presence in the framework of her beautiful times... It made me start looking for Tamay Al-Zahayra on all of my maps, but alas I could not find it at all, for the village that gave us one of Egypt's greatest 20th-century daughters is so small it must be ignored." Farag, much like Nafaa, makes no critical comments, but his approach underlines the fact that the show, as an "open invitation to visit the 20th century and stop at its major events", could have paid but little attention to the lives and personalities of other characters.
Literary and cultural critic Ragaa El-Naqqash, for his part, wrote two articles on two significant personalities whose paths crossed that of Umm Kulthoum. "Every great person's biography bears not only the story of the person in question, but also other people's stories," El-Naqqash writes, proceeding to fill in the gaps. Tal'at Harb is the patriotic capitalist who founded the country's first national bank and the first fully Egyptian large-scale enterprises, including the record company that distributes Umm Kulthoum's music to this day. His life remains largely unknown, but what little the show presented was invaluable (a TV series on Harb's life is currently in the making). El-Naqqash also reveals that Islamic jurist Mustafa Abdel-Razeq championed Umm Kulthoum's cause in her rivalry with Munira El-Mahdiya during the 1920s, defending her in the unsigned music reviews he wrote as the anonymous art critic of the newspaper Al-Siyasa. Abdel-Razeq is an example of the enlightened religious intellectual whose contribution deserves a complete saga in its own right.
Yet it is linguistics professor Tarek Abdel-Bari, finally, who has written the most explicit and perhaps the most meaningful critique. Abdel-Bari points out that the reverence accorded Umm Kulthoum prevented the show from evoking her human qualities or in any way reducing our ignorance of her private life. Ideal characters cannot even serve as role models, Abdel-Bari writes, because they lack the human potential for identification. By giving us the orthodox, the fully "official" version of the diva -- even in scenes that could have offered insights into her personality -- the show has ultimately flattened and made impersonal an otherwise delightfully rich and contradictory character, who just happened to be extraordinary. "The precise reconstruction of interiors, the slow camera movement, the careful attention to detail... all reflected the spirit and the imagery of those times... but the way the character was presented made it seem as if the producers were treading a tightrope, afraid of falling."