3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
When Mohamed El-Dessouqi was born in 1925 to Umm Kulthoum's older sister, Sayeda, he was propelled, for better or for worse, into a life forged by his celebrated aunt. "We used to live with her, and after the death of Khaled [Umm Kulthoum's brother] in the '50s, I took over the management of all her affairs," says El-Dessouqi. In practical terms, this meant a 24-hour job that has come to define his existence.
Until the very end
Mohamed El-Dessouqi's life has been inextricably linked to Umm Kulthoum. Fatemah Farag listened as the diva's nephew and long-time manager reminisced
Umm Kulthoum's funeral procession in Tahrir Square
He was well trained for the job. Not only a close family member, El-Dessouqi obtained a degree in electrical engineering and became a sound engineer. "I would work every day from 7.00am until 11.00 or 12.00 at night. Umm Kulthoum was a very exacting woman, and the most important thing was her work."
Throughout the years, El-Dessouqi employed his technical knowledge in the service of Umm Kulthoum's concerts and recordings. He was always there, checking out sound systems and fine-tuning the smallest details.
There were also legal and diplomatic skills to be perfected in this singular job. "I wrote by hand all the contracts signed between 'Thouma' and the people who wrote the lyrics and music for her songs," he says. "She would pay well, and everyone was paid for their jobs. In return, she requested exclusive rights to the song."
El-Dessouqi disclaims accounts that the poet Ahmed Rami, for example, took no money from Umm Kulthoum. "Even Rami was compensated fairly; I wrote all the contracts and final receipts myself. These were secret contracts -- you see, Umm Kulthoum wanted all the rights to recordings, because she did not like loose ends."
Indeed, such loose ends could become a headache. El-Dessouqi remembers the court case that involved composer Mohamed El-Mougi, for instance. "They had worked on Lil-Sabr Hudoud (Patience Has Limits) and Umm Kulthoum had given all recording rights to Sawt Al-Qahira. El-Mougi went and sold the song to another company. It could have become a great problem for Umm Kulthoum, but when El-Mougi came to me, I pulled out our contract and later he suffered the wrath of the second company on his own."
When Umm Kulthoum and composer Zakariya Ahmed were at odds over Ahmed's percentage in radio recordings, El-Dessouqi was there to smooth ruffled feathers and get everything in writing. "I called him and told him, 'There is no reason for conflict, let's meet'," explains El-Dessouqi. They met privately, in the garden that used to line Orouba street. "We sat on a bench, with the cars going back and forth, and came to terms. Later, I took him to the lawyer and finalised our agreement."
Umm Kulthoum's perfectionism was not just for matters of business. Recalls El-Dessouqi: "For any song, she would have around 30 rehearsals. On the day of recording, we would record a part of the song, then stop and listen -- then rework it until she felt it was as close to perfection as possible."
One day was not always enough for the perfection she required. "I remember going home with her at night after a long and grueling day of recording. She would suddenly tell me, 'We are going to record again tomorrow. One of the violins started a bit early.' I would tell her that I heard no such thing and she would turn to me and tell me, 'You didn't, but I did. We will record again tomorrow'."
El-Dessouqi chuckles and looks fondly through thick glasses at the framed photograph of Umm Kulthoum on his desk. "We always went home together. When we were recording with Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, he would sometimes come with us; the drive was an opportunity for him to ask, 'What did you think?' When she was not altogether pleased, she would reply, 'What do you think?' We would know she was displeased."
Did her attention to every detail, and her legendary willfulness, disturb those who worked with her? "No. People were drawn by the concern she had towards her work. She taught those around her the meaning of seriousness."
It was a gravity that extended beyond professional boundaries and into her personal life. "Her predilection for grief was very strong," says El-Dessouqi, clenching his fist. "I remember after the 1967 defeat [in the war with Israel], she became so despondent that she left her bedroom and locked herself in the basement. No one could talk her out of her grief."
Being the woman she was, however, Umm Kulthoum never let her sadness get the better of her. El-Dessouqi recalls her war efforts: "She decided that she would support the struggle [against Israeli occupation] by holding concerts. We went to Mansoura, Tanta and Alexandria, in addition to two concerts for the army."
Of her first concert in Damanhour, El-Dessouqi remembers a fervour shared by Umm Kulthoum and her fans. "When we got there, we found that the people of the town had collected gold ingots to contribute to her effort. She was so moved by the gesture, she went on to sing a long concert despite the heat. Sweat was pouring into her eyes throughout her performance and I remember we had to apply cold compresses to her eyes the whole night."
For her Paris concert, the contracts had been signed before the defeat. "After it happened, the lawyer who was our intermediary called us up and asked us to cancel the arrangement," says El-Dessouqi. "His name was Mohamed Abu Afia; he was afraid that Zionist extremists would attack her. She stuck to her insistence, though. She told him, 'If you do not finalise the arrangements, I will finalise them myself!' She meant it, too."
Paris brought in its wake concerts in Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Libya. "I remember arriving in Morocco and being overwhelmed by the warmth of our reception. It was unbelievable -- thousands of people who knew her and loved her. We did not really expect to be so well received. And it was the same everywhere. The money we received -- every bit of it -- went to the government's war effort," he said.
El-Dessouqi looks down at the paper in front of him and pauses. The dark hush of his Zamalek flat suddenly impresses itself on us; a sense of times past quietly preserved. The interior walls are covered in ornate wallpaper, interspersed with old paintings and tapestries embroidered with Qur'anic verses.
"I was the one who had to inform her of Abdel-Nasser's death," El-Dessouqi announces, abruptly breaking the silence. At the time, Umm Kulthoum was in Russia for a performance. "I went to check on the theatre where she would perform and met [journalist] Kamal El-Mallakh, who told me. I thought it best to wait till morning before breaking the news to her. First thing the next day, I told her and she began to cry. I asked her, 'Why are you crying?' and she told me, 'I am crying for the country.' We came home immediately and all of us went through a very difficult period -- maybe she more than anybody. Her grief was so profound."
But then so is El-Dessouqi's -- even after all these years. Trying to hide a slight tremor in his hand with the newspaper in front him, he begins to talk of her illness. "When she first told me of her kidney problems, I tried to make light of them. She reminded me that [famous actor] Anwar Wagdi had died of kidney trouble."
Again, he sits quietly for a minute before recounting his last night with his beloved Thouma in 1975. "That day she seemed very unhappy, so I called a consultation of doctors comprised of Dr Zakariya El-Baz, Dr Abdel-Moneim Hassaballah and Dr Yehia Taher," he says. "They examined her and said she was all right. She was in high spirits then, and we spent the evening talking. I told her about a meeting I had the next day at the Cinema Workers' Association for Housing, of which I was president. I told her we had a project to sell land on the North Coast for 25 piastres a metre. She laughed and said it was really cheap, asking me to buy a million metres for her. And I left her."
Little did El-Dessouqi know what was to follow. "At dawn, her servant called me and told me she was in a coma. I rushed into the street in my pyjamas and ran all the way to her house."
Professor of Internal Medicine and Nephrology Rashed Barsoum, then a young doctor, was called to Umm Kulthoum's grand villa on the Nile, but soon it was evident that she had to be moved to a hospital. "They put her on machines and close friends asked me: 'How long are you going to leave her on the machines? What if she is in pain?' It was such a difficult position to be in -- for all of us."
On 2 February, El-Dessouqi received a call from Youssef El-Siba'i, then minister of culture, informing him that Radio Cairo had erroneously announced Umm Kulthoum's death. "He picked me up and we went together to Maspero to meet the minister of information and ask them to correct the news item. They did; but she died the next day."
On 4 February, Umm Kulthoum's body was prepared for burial. Again, the outpouring of public emotion took El-Dessouqi by surprise. "People took the coffin from us and left the route we had designated. I rushed to the burial grounds in Basatin and the police officers were calling me every few minutes to tell me, 'The coffin is now in such and such a place,' until they finally brought her to be buried."
Tears well up in El-Dessouqi's eyes -- he still misses her, as much today as on that day. "It is with the greatest willpower that I contain the grief." He turns away in embarrassment, and the last I hear is his choked voice trying to explain, "We were so close. We did everything together. I took care of everything for her, up until the very end".