Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

The voice of authority

Two women bound by an affinity of spirit: Umm Kulthoum's biographer speaks to Aziza Sami about her friend


Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthoum

Ni'maat Ahmed Fouad wrote her first book on Umm Kulthoum in 1952. It proudly graced the shelf of the singer's bedroom at her villa on Abul-Feda Street in Zamalek until she passed away in the winter of 1975. Hers was a long-drawn-out illness, brought about -- according to those who were close to her -- by a disappointment.

Until the very end, Umm Kulthoum would not let anyone see her ill: not even members of her household, even if she stayed in her bedroom for a week at a time. To inquire about her health implied a sympathy Umm Kulthoum would not countenance, because she was concerned with upholding her image as a strong woman. Fouad would, therefore, inquire after her through the person closest to Umm Kulthoum -- the poet Ahmed Rami.

Fouad was still a young writer, a university student at the Faculty of Literature, when she sent a letter to Umm Kulthoum -- addressed to "the voice from heaven" -- to which the latter responded immediately. It was then that their friendship began.

A shared love for Arabic literature kept the two women in conversation for hours. At Rami's urging, Umm Kulthoum developed the habit of beginning a new book every Monday.

Ni'maat Ahmed Fouad
Some who knew Umm Kulthoum say she was frugal. Accordingly, when visitors came to tea, she would ask for the cups of water to be measured precisely so as to be enough, but no more than necessary, for those in attendance. Perhaps, they suggest, this was a caution rooted in her rural childhood, in which there had never been an abundance of luxuries. Not true, says Fouad emphatically. Umm Kulthoum was too intelligent and too closely acquainted with the required social graces to behave so before her guests.

Her intelligence was her constant guide and made her popular socially, among both women and men. She never demeaned an aspiring talent -- especially if the singer was a woman.

At social gatherings where she was the star, Umm Kulthoum was never asked by her hosts to sing. There would be someone else to do that. And she would always say something positive, letting those present draw comparisons between that performer and her own incomparable talent.

Asmahan was the only singer, it was said, who could ever compete with Umm Kulthoum, and she was not afraid to say so herself. "Only Asmahan and I can reach a certain note," she once told Fouad, as they sat in the living room of Umm Kulthoum's villa.

She had her moments of trepidation, before every single new song and every single concert. She would peep out at the audience from behind the curtain, preparing alternatives in her mind for the list of songs she would perform. On stage, she kept her distance from the microphone: she knew she could dispense with it if she had to because of the strength -- now mythologised -- of her vocal cords.

As time went by, she was labelled a national symbol, but she was careful never to identify herself with a particular political trend. This writer remembers well when, as a child, she saw Umm Kulthoum at a garden party in the Rushdi district of Alexandria, poised on her chair, the unspoken centre of the event. "In Morocco, they asked me what I thought of Gamal [Abdel-Nasser]. I told them I never discuss politics," Umm Kulthoum said. She was always the picture of decorum, but when the circle of more intimate friends closed in, peals of laughter would ring out. Her reserve was inevitably broken by her bold and quick wit. Later, people would say: "Have you heard Umm Kulthoum's latest joke?"

Fouad was moved to write her second book about Umm Kulthoum -- an extensive work, which took five years to prepare -- because she saw her as the strongest embodiment of a talent that reflected the renaissance in Egyptian life from the 1920s onwards. In the darkened vault of Mohamed Ali's Citadel, Fouad would pore, for hours on end, over yellowing periodicals from the age of Khedive Ismail, wanting to capture the spirit and details of an era from which Umm Kulthoum was born, and the subsequent one which she shaped. She titled the book Umm Kulthoum and an Era of Art.

Fouad travelled to every place Umm Kulthoum had lived or visited, from her home village in Tamay Al-Zahayra to Ras Al-Barr, her favourite summer resort, to Morocco, where Umm Kulthoum had tripped on stage because an adoring fan had grabbed her feet to kiss them.

Fouad was close to Umm Kulthoum's inner circle of friends: composers Riyad El-Sonbati and Zakariya Ahmed, poet Saleh Gawdat and, above all, Rami.

In 1965, Fouad went sailing in Hurghada with Rami to glean more material for the second book she was writing on Umm Kulthoum. Rami was sentimental while El-Sonbati was austere, even severe in his insistence that Umm Kulthoum could attain even greater perfection. Time and again, she would give in to the force of his personality and accept his interpretation of how to sing a certain verse.

Every day at sunset Umm Kulthoum would walk for an hour along the far end of the island of Zamalek, wearing a scarf and sunglasses even while the sun's rays grew weak. It was not as crowded then, and the few passers-by would say: "There is Umm Kulthoum." But none dared to talk to her or to interrupt her brisk walk.

A couple of years after Umm Kulthoum died, Fouad was awakened by a phone call from a mutual friend of hers and Umm Kulthoum's: "The villa has been demolished."

"It cannot be," Fouad cried. "I was there last evening."

Like Umm Kulthoum, Fouad used to take a daily walk in Zamalek, past the villa on Abul-Feda Street.

Still, she went to see. The bulldozers and pickaxes had been hard at work throughout the night. The villa had been razed to the ground in spite of the campaign which Fouad and other writers had led to preserve it and turn it into a national museum.

A piece of brown brick rests on a shelf in the glass cabinet in Fouad's dining room. Frantic with anger, Fouad had searched for a memento in the ruins of Umm Kulthoum's villa the day after it was demolished.

There are other treasures as well. On the shelf is a silk scarf with Umm Kulthoum's picture on it, given as a present from the singer to Fouad. There is a photograph of Umm Kulthoum and Fouad in the villa at Abul-Feda. On the wall behind them hangs a carpet given to Umm Kulthoum as a present by the king of Iraq.

Fouad commissioned an artist to etch verses from the quatrains of Omar Al-Khayyam, as translated by Rami from the Persian and sung by Umm Kulthoum, on eight drinking cups.

"The setting sun has turned to gold, oh Nile

The palm fronds, O Nile!"

These verses, from Shams Al-Asil (The Setting Sun), are inscribed on a blue plate engraved with palm trees, a motif that also adorns the glass cabinet. Fouad describes thus Umm Kulthoum's rendition of the song: "The word Asil would ripple like the waters of the Nile."

Shams Al-Asil was written by Rami and composed by El-Sonbati: Umm Kulthoum's two kindred spirits. Fouad says it was the song she asked to hear hours before she fell into the coma from which she never emerged.

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