Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum: An eternal star who won hearts from East to West

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DUBAI: With her voluminous hairstyle and diamond-studded sunglasses, the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum has one of the most instantly recognizable silhouettes in modern pop culture.

The singer’s storied career saw her pack out venues for 50 years until just before her death in 1975. Such was her status that she is often referred to as “The fourth pyramid” by Arabs, as well as “The star of the East,” “Mother of the Arabs” and “Lady of Arabic song.”

Umm Kulthum was born Fatima Ibrahim as-Sayed El-Beltagi in the village of Tamay e-Zahayra in the Nile Delta in 1898. The daughter of an imam, she learned to recite the Qur’an at a young age and regularly sang with her father at village weddings.

Because of her father’s religious upbringing — and cultural norms — Umm Kulthum often had to dress as a boy when she performed in her youth. She did this at numerous festivals, weddings and other events in order to provide for her family.

The singer’s storied career saw her pack out venues for 50 years. (AFP)

A star is born

After moving to Cairo in 1923, Umm Kulthum was fortunate to land the well-known singer and composer Shaykh Abu Al-Aila Muhammad as her teacher and mentor.

She signed her first recording contract in 1926 and began to put together her own ensemble of musicians. As she started to mingle in Cairo’s cultural scene, she met several poets — most notably Ahmad Rami, who wrote the lyrics for 137 of her songs.

In 1932, she embarked on her first major tour of the Middle East which took in Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, Tunis and Tripoli, and, in 1934, she sang at the inaugural broadcast of Radio Cairo.

Umm Kulthum recorded an estimated 300 songs over her career — tracks that covered universal themes of love, loss and desire.

She thrilled audiences with marathon performances (often a single song would last for an hour or more), which would include songs such as “Enta Omri,” “Alf Leila w Leila,” “Seret El Hob” and “Al Atlal,” packed with such raw emotional power that they continue to hold sway over great swathes of the Arab world.

Saudi playwright and arts patron Mona Khashoggi, who created a West End musical dedicated to Umm Kulthum. (Supplied)

“Her music is so empowering and nostalgic. She reminds us of home,” Saudi playwright and arts patron Mona Khashoggi, who created a West End musical dedicated to the star — “Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era” — that premiered in London in 2020, told Arab News. “I left Saudi Arabia when I was young… Every time I’m sad, I listen to Umm Kulthum, and I think everybody else does that. She is in every home for every age. She is timeless.”

Global impact

The star had close connections to political leaders including King Farouk of Egypt and former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. She also met Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba during one of her concerts in Tunis and to Charles de Gaulle, the former president of France, she was simply “the Lady.”

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (C) and his successor Anwar Al-Sadat (R) pose with Umm Kulthum and Egyptian composer Mohamed Al-Mogi in Cairo in the late 60s. (AFP)

A number of influential Western singers, including Bob Dylan and Maria Callas have proclaimed themselves admirers. The latter described her voice as “incomparable.” Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest rock singers, told the Independent in 2010 that he was visiting Marrakech in 2010 when he first heard Umm Kulthum’s voice and that the experience had “blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.”

“When I first heard the way she would dance down through a scale to land on a beautiful note that I couldn’t even imagine singing, it was huge,” Plant said.

Egyptian composer and conductor Hisham Gabr. (AFP)

“Everything about Umm Kulthum stands out,” Egyptian composer and conductor Hisham Gabr told Arab News in 2018. “Her voice, her mastery, her ability to improvise, and the way that she uses this incredible array of nuances in her voice to express the tiniest and slightest details of the words that she’s singing. She reincarnates melody, reinvents it in so many ways that are quite stunning and amazing. And yet she never loses track of what those words mean and how she can convey and augment those meanings to her listeners.”

Khashoggi, whose father was a friend of the singer’s family, said: “She inspires me as an artist. She is an idol for me and I think for every woman. She stands for the empowerment of women, for working hard and perseverance. I’m a big fan.”

A unique talent

Apart from the astonishing power of her voice, one thing that set the singer apart from her peers was her renowned diction. Arabic language experts have said that Umm Kulthum’s pronunciation of lyrics was unlike any other artist.

“She was like a professor of Arabic pronunciation,” the late Egyptian radio commentator Amal Fahmy previously said in an interview.

Kassem Wahba, an associate professor of Arabic at the American University in Dubai. (AUD)

Kassem Wahba, an associate professor of Arabic at the American University in Dubai, told Arab News: “Because she learned the Qur’an, her pronunciation was perfect. Most of her songs were poems in fusha (classical Arabic).”

Khashoggi echoed Wahba’s words. “She spoke Arabic perfectly because of (reciting the Quran). Her Arabic was excellent,” she said. “I don’t think there is anybody like her.”

Iraqi men gather and socialise at Umm Kulthum Cafe on Rasheed street, the oldest street in Baghdad in 2019. (AFP)

The playwright also noted the onstage charisma that Umm Kulthum radiated with seemingly little effort. “I don’t know what she did, but she was amazing,” Khashoggi said. “She sang with such confidence — it’s 100 emotions in a second. And she basically stood still. But even with a gesture… if she just moved her hand, everyone would get excited.”

If reports are to be believed, after Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 aged 77, four million people attended her funeral — around 10.5 percent of Egypt’s population at the time, which was around 38.55 million.

If reports are to be believed, after Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 aged 77, four million people attended her funeral. (AFP)

Enduring legacy

Umm Kulthum’s legacy lives on. In recent years, events companies have staged concerts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE in which the singer “appears” as a hologram.

The Arab World Institute (IMA) in Paris hosted an exhibition last year titled “Arab Divas: From Umm Kulthum to Dalida” to honor the “Star of the East” and other renowned singers, and the show will next appear in Amsterdam in March 2023.

An area is dedicated to the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum as part of the ‘Divas’ exhibition at the Arab World Institute (IMA) in Paris in 2021. (AFP)

The exhibition’s curator Elodie Bouffard said this week that the exhibition in France was “an exceptional moment for the IMA.”

“We received an impressive number of guests — we were fully booked every day,” she said. “And compared to other exhibitions this one had a very young age range — mothers with their kids.”

Forty-seven years after her death, Umm Kulthum continues to inspire new generations with her unique and timeless talent.