Umm Kulthum: 'The Lady' Of Cairo

Umm Kulthum

At a moment when the Arab world was buffeted by modernity, Umm Kulthum's voice was a lodestar. courtesy of Arab Film hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of Arab Film

I did not really understand Umm Kulthum's mystique. That's because I grew up in the U.S. listening to Bob Dylan records with my dad, who came here from Syria as a young graduate student. For his part, my dad, Fawwaz Ulaby, grew up listening to one of the Arab world's most legendary vocalists. When I asked him about the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, he got all swoony. Most Arabs I know share a deep, almost visceral attachment to the voice of "Il Sit" (or "The Lady"). So what was it about that voice that made Umm Kulthum arguably the Arab world's most treasured singer from the 1940s through the present?

"It's so hard to describe," Dad said. "[Her] words penetrate into your ears, into your psyche, into your brain when you're listening to her say things like inta omri, which means 'You are my life, you are my world.' "

Like me, ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson did not fully understand Umm Kulthum's appeal when she started to study the singer. But she learned over the course of researching a scholarly book about Umm Kulthum that also served as the basis of the excellent documentary, A Voice Like Egypt. Danielson says Umm Kulthum's concerts were famous for the spontaneous cheers that would break out whenever her performance seemed to close the gap between poetry and emotion. Poetry is a deeply revered art form in the Middle East, and Danielson gives an example. When you hear Umm Kulthum sing, "I'm afraid your heart belongs to somebody else," in the song "Ana Fe Entezarak," she nails that anguish.

"And the way she treats the word 'somebody else,' which is 'inse'en,' is just heartrending," Danielson says. "You can hear the feeling of the poem come through in the way that she sings it."

Nations Listen

Umm Kulthum's legendary concerts were broadcast live from Cairo on the first Thursday of each month from the 1930s to the early '70s. The Arab world's buzz and bustle stopped from Medina to Marrakesh, from Jeddah to Jerusalem. Shops closed. Families gathered to listen for four, five, even six hours of rapture.

Part of Umm Kulthum's appeal came from her humble origins as the daughter of a rural village cleric. They sang together at religious rituals. She went to Cairo as a young woman from a small village, part of a mass migration of people seeking work. Umm Kulthum soon garnered attention for her powerful voice, but people laughed at her cheap cotton clothes and country manners. They whispered she didn't know how to use a knife and fork. But Umm Kulthum strategically crafted an image that played on the romance of being from the land. Meanwhile, she began studying classical poetry and music. And she copied the wealthy Muslim women who were becoming her fans. Umm Kulthum was never beautiful, but she ripened into a sophisticated star.

"She was the original diva for us," says Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American poet who grew up in Brooklyn. Hammad says she remains awed by Umm Kulthum's ability to juice lines and embellish language. She says that, while Umm Kulthum's songs were usually not really religious, they all reflected a childhood spent praising God.

"There's something about the fact that, even when she's not saying Allah, she has said it so many times in her life that everything is inflected with the notion of Allah of the most high," Hammad says. "And so, whether she was talking about secular love, there was something there. It's like Sam Cooke's music for me: something about church and fellowship and Juma, Friday prayer."

Songs Of Enchantment

It's fair to liken Umm Kulthum's music to the blues in the way she blended together Quranic recitation, classical love poems and folk songs. Ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson says it also included tarab — a unique quality of Arab music that translates best to the word "enchantment."

"But what it refers to is the experience of really being carried away by the music," Danielson says, adding that she heard that illustrated when she interviewed people about listening to Umm Kulthum's broadcasts. "People would tell preposterous stories about getting up and leaving the house and not knowing where they were going, and just all kinds of experiences of completely forgetting your troubles, completely being outside yourself, having been transported by the experience."

At a moment when the Arab world was buffeted by modernity — the aftershocks of colonialism, corrupt leadership and the new Israeli state, Umm Kulthum's voice was a lodestar. Part of tarab is the idea that listeners are as important as singers; that there's a powerful, spiritual exchange between them that is crucial to the performance. And Umm Kulthum and her audience together created something sweet and whole.

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