Al-Ahram Weekly Online
27 Dec. 2001 - 2 Jan. 2002
Issue No.566
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Umm Kulthoum superstar

The new Kawkab Al-Sharq Museum gives the work of Egypt's leading diva a peculiarly postmodern flavour: Youssef Rakha and Nevine El-Aref report



photos: Sherif Sonbol
Opening tomorrow, two days prior to the birthday of the subject in question (31 December), the Kawkab Al-Sharq (Star of the East) Museum is a state-of-the-arts project celebrating the life and work of the legendary singer Umm Kulthoum (1898-1975). To be inaugurated by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, accompanied by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, the project is the culmination of a number of endeavours undertaken by the Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the relevant government organisations. First, the Manesterly Palace grounds, a 19th-century architectural complex located at the southern tip of Al-Roda Island, near the Nilometer, was extensively re- planned and re-tiled. The gate now opens onto a spacious path lined with bazaar-style shops selling, among other things, Umm Kulthoum tapes as well as Ministry of Culture publications -- art books, translations and CDs. Secondly, as Salwa Heram, director of the Manesterly archeological site, points out, the now whitewashed stone structure in which the museum is housed -- originally a museum of precious stones owned by the Ministry of Irrigation and Public Works, which landed in the lap of the Ministry of Culture by way of the Egyptian Authority on Antiquities -- was entirely refurbished and redesigned for the purpose by a cutting-edge interior decorator from Italy, Maurizio Di Paolo, who incorporated the latest lighting, display and air-conditioning technologies into the framework of his plans, thus giving the venue a zippy postmodern feel. Thirdly, as much of the diva's memorabilia as possible was painstakingly collected and set out, though until a few days before the opening no information on what these objects are, when or where they came from was publicly available -- a rather crucial omission that takes away from an otherwise fascinating experience.

The powers that be seem pleased enough with the result of their efforts, anyway. "This beautiful location," Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly, "is ideal for an Umm Kulthoum museum. It was chosen only after long and meticulous deliberation. As you see the venue occupies a magnificent archeological site on the bank of the River Nile," he added, "a subject to which Umm Kulthoum devoted many of her songs." Founding the museum, he explained, was undertaken within the framework of a more expansive, long-term project to establish many such venues focusing on the achievement of the pillars of modern Egyptian culture, like composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and poet Ahmed Rami, both of whom, incidentally, collaborated with Umm Kulthoum. What makes this possible, Hosni went on to indicate, is the availability of funding from the newly formed Cultural Society, a group of 20 Egyptian and Arab businessman who, through establishing museums as well as organising festivals, restoring antiquities and patronising the arts, hope to make a tangible contribution to the cultural arena. This, he concluded, is the first project to be funded by the Society. The Society, one can safely surmise, works in close contact with the various arms of the Ministry, one of which is the Cultural Development Fund, whose head, Salah Shaqwir, proved even more enthusiastic. "To me," he told the Weekly, "the opening of the Umm Kulthoum museum is a dream come true."

The pleasure of sauntering through the Manesterly Palace grounds is indeed almost dream-like in its intensity. A stunning, pagoda-like structure, it is adjoined by an enormous terrace, the lower part of which, jutting out directly into the water, will be turned into a cafeteria. Further from the main building, a small garden lies directly in front of the museum, with a small statue insinuating musical notation and bearing the diva's name at the centre of the garden. From this angle, the view of the bank is sadly obstructed by a gaudy commercial boat-restaurant; yet the quietude of the space and the sense of vitality with which the Ministry's work injects it -- parts of the grounds seem to be still under construction -- make up for this aesthetic imperfection. They make up, too, for the loss of Umm Kulthoum's residential villa, an equally interesting piece of architecture in Zamalek, which was replaced by a high-rise hotel that bears the diva's name. Walking into the museum, therefore, one is already well-disposed towards its contents. And the postmodern atmosphere aside, many of them live up to one's expectations. Guided by poet Ahmed Antar, the museum director, the viewer has, in addition, access to information on some of the diva's various possessions and implements, well- protected and appropriately lit in their state-of- the-arts glass displays; comprehensive, well- organised information will, one hopes, be available to the public on the opening of the museum.

The first thing one sees is the diva's red écharpe hanging above her sunglasses -- an installation, almost, that brings one image of Umm Kulthoum vividly to mind. Of the three sets of shoes and purses on display opposite, however, only one pair matches the purse with which it is placed. And the eight galabeya-style dresses down the corridor represent neither the range nor the elegance of Umm Kulthoum's customary attire. Several photo-collages look by turns like a family album and stills from a biographical documentary. One large picture portrays Umm Kulthoum with the older performer and casino-owner Badi'a Masabni; another shows her playing with an orphan girl; a third comprises the image evoked by her écharpe and sunglasses: these are busy and racy compositions, worthy of the high- powered artistic gestures of the second millennium, certainly, but a little too rushed for the pace of the diva's times -- a paradoxical trait that seems to beset every aspect of the museum, the discrepancy between the slow-paced and sedate aura that surrounds Umm Kulthoum and Paolo's postmodern panache. "All I knew is that I liked her music," Paolo explained, "without understanding the words. But I didn't agree to design the interior until I found out about her status here in Egypt." Indeed it often seems as though Paolo, while feeling for Umm Kulthoum, remains unaware of the social and cultural registers to which she responded as a public figure; the framework in which her belongings are shown invokes none of her classicism, grandeur or grassroots decency.

Objects on display range from Umm Kulthoum's diplomatic passport (a mark of distinction with which very few performers have been blessed) to the 1934 contract she signed with the Egyptian radio corporation and transcriptions of her song lyrics in the handwriting of Ahmed Shawqi and Bairam El-Tounsi. There are framed photos that once hung on the walls of her villa, recording equipment she owned, medals and trophies she earned and letters she received from heads of state and other figures of magnitude. "All these items," Antar explains, "were collected from her relatives, who had possession of such trophies as the Nile Medal, presented to her by King Farouk in 1946, and the Order of Merit given by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1960." Other objects came from aficionados: Elwi Farid, the owner of a tourist agency, for example, contributed 160 original recordings of her music. The wave- like surface of one wall -- and here Paulo's mark is evident again -- doubles as a screen on which footage of the diva can be screened, accompanied by the sound of her songs. A small library offers nearly all that has been written about her in Arabic, while affording viewers the opportunity to enjoy digitalised audiovisual material relating to her career -- her many recorded concerts, for example. But perhaps the highlight of the exhibit is Umm Kulthoum's pocket-size notebooks, in which she managed her budget and brushed up on her French vocabulary. A lone, unidentified oud looks unfit for use, though: either it is still being made, or it has endured a serious act of vengeance.

The opening celebration, Hosni has said, will set the pattern for cultural activities at the Manesterly Palace grounds: "a special evening evoking the original atmosphere of Umm Kulthoum's own concerts, especially in the early stages of her career." Even if this holds true, however, and regardless of its many merits, the venue around which such activities are to be organised remains far from evoking any such atmosphere.

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