3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Little wonder that the 37-episode series on the renowned Kawkab Al-Sharq (Star of the East) -- broadcast daily during the month of Ramadan -- had viewers across the Arab world glued to their TV sets when 10.30pm came around. A story of rags to riches that exerted an irresistible fascination on writers and performers as well as audiences, the series, which starred Egyptian actress Sabrine in the title role of Umm Kulthoum, employed a cast of 250.
Small screen, big successThe television series Umm Kulthoum, broadcast in most Arab countries, gave its audience a chance to rediscover a beloved legend. Hanan Sabra goes behind the scenes
The script, based on Ni'maat Ahmed Fouad's biography, Umm Kulthoum wa Asr min Al-Fann, was adapted by Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman and directed by In'am Mohamed Ali. The show's popularity and subsequent critical acclaim spawned a surge in Umm Kulthoum fever. Since the series, sales of Umm Kulthoum's albums have increased, many being sold to a new fan base who were not even born when she died 25 years ago.
It took script-writer Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman four years of investigation to write a story about Umm Kulthoum's life and unlikely success. "I'm one of the diva's admirers," Abdel-Rahman told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Umm Kulthoum remains today a model against which other performances are measured. Like President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, she represented the value of self-confidence and intelligence -- and the quintessence of local society and culture."
Umm Kulthoum's voice and singing style developed and changed throughout her life and, over time, so did Egyptian music. Ammar El-Shire'i, who composed the music for the series, told the Weekly that the songs he selected for the score in each episode were carefully chosen to match the times and the music of the period being covered.
"She was good because she could recite the Qur'an," El-Shire'i told Egyptian Television. "Her voice was full of everyday life. She sang naturally; she never sang a line the same way twice."
Writer Mustafa Amin described Umm Kulthoum as "several women in one" -- a complexity that the series strove to convey, and a fact that was literally true as far as the music was concerned. El-Shire'i employed the voices of four different singers (Shaimaa El-Shayeb, Riham Abdel-Hakim, Zeinab Mustafa, and Amal Maher) to recreate the evolution of Umm Kulthoum's voice over the 50 years of her singing career, finally using recordings of Umm Kulthoum herself for the years after 1945.
Director In'am Mohamed Ali spent two years preparing for the series, collecting about 1,500 photos covering all decades of the Lady's life: "I read books and articles about Umm Kulthoum and the important people who surrounded her," Ali said. "I listened to the few interviews she did with Egyptian Television and Radio to know more about her personality and habits; how she sang, sat, talked, walked; how she dealt with others and how she succeeded in sustaining her popularity for so long."
Sitting in her house, surrounded by photos of the legend and listening to Umm Kulthoum's famous song Enta Omri (You Are My Life), Ali recalls the labours that went into shooting the series: "Every scene was like a difficult birth. The most difficult one was Umm Kulthoum's death, because it brought back the memory of one of the saddest moments in my life," she said.
Samia Abdel-Aziz, professor of costume design at the High Institute of Cinema, was responsible for the clothes used in the series. Apart from films showing the fashion in different decades, Aziz's main source of information was old photos. "Mohamed El-Dessouqi [Umm Kulthoum's nephew] and her assistant told me more about her style," says Aziz. "Her glasses, her handkerchief and famous diamond brooch... How she used to dress at different stages of her life." The dresses, suits and accessories used in the series cost a total of LE500,000.
Sabrine, the actress who so successfully took her audience back to the era of Umm Kulthoum, was widely acclaimed for her portrayal of the legendary diva. "Passers-by now call me 'Thouma' [Umm Kulthoum's nickname]," Sabrine told the Weekly. "Playing her was a great honour -- a patriotic service."
This sense of patriotism -- more specifically, of the pan-Arabism considered characteristic of the Nasser era -- elicited debate in other quarters. Abdel-Rahman, a known Nasserist, has been criticised for ignoring the late President Anwar El-Sadat's era, including the 1973 War. He was also criticised for not mentioning Syrian singer Asmahan and composers Mohamed El-Mougi and Kamal El-Tawil, despite their collaboration with Umm Kulthoum.
"The intention was not to deal with all events and people in Umm Kulthoum's life -- there would have been thousands," commented Abdel-Rahman at a symposium. "She stopped singing in 1972. Both El-Tawil and El-Mougi cooperated with her at the peak of her success; neither of them played a significant role in it. As for Asmahan, her family refused to discuss [Umm Kulthoum] or the rumour that Umm Kulthoum had her killed out of jealousy. The fact is that many other people would have loved to kill her. We all remember that she worked with three international intelligence agencies and died in a car accident," Abdel-Rahman added.
Many believe Umm Kulthoum unified the Arab world more than anybody else has or could. "Art is the only thing that imposes itself on others," Umm Kulthoum is quoted as saying in musicologist Ratiba El-Hifni's book (Umm Kulthoum, 1997). She herself surely illustrated the maxim -- and continues to do so, a quarter of a century after her death.