Her father, when he discovered his daughter’s extraordinary talent, dressed her up as a boy. This was the only way she could sing in front of a conservative audience. Meet Umm Kulthum
Fatima Ibrahim es-Sajjed was born in 1898 in a small village in the Nile Delta. She came from a traditional, religious family and a conservative community. Her father was an imam, while her mother looked after the house. Fatima’s father, to earn extra money, sang religious songs at weddings, and was also a reciter of the Koran. He noticed the exceptional talent of his growing daughter, admired her voice, and began taking her to religious ceremonies with him, where he sang.
In those days, in the conservative community, it was unacceptable for girls to attend these types of gatherings, let alone sing at them. Fatima’s father, not wanting to waste the girl’s talent, disguised her as a boy so that she could sing in front of a larger group of people.
He also wanted her to further develop her unique, deep voice. He sent his daughter to Cairo, where she was to study under the guidance of the most renowned Egyptian artists.
Umm Kulthum, the “fourth pyramid”
Due to her working-class origin, her beginnings in the capital were not easy. However, Fatima became soon one of the most important female artists in the Arab world. Umm Kulthum, the Arab diva, the “fourth pyramid” and the “voice of Egypt”.
Although she started with religious songs and the Koran, her work was primarily associated with traditional Arabic poetry, and thus with the themes of longing and love. “Enta omri”, “You are my life” is a 59-minute track in which Umm Kulthum sings about feeling and desire: “my life never knew joy before you, (…) I forget about pain with you”.
Umm Kulthum also boldly raised the issues of politics. She was a close friend of the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Her song “Wallahi zaman, jaa silahi”, “How much time has passed, my arms”, referring to the head of state, for a moment became the Egyptian anthem in 1960-1979. She was also outspoken about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Take me with you to Palestine, (…) I am looking for my home, which is there” – sings in “Asbaha ‘andi alana bunduqijja”, “I have a gun now”.
She was distinguished by spontaneity, expressiveness and creativity. No performance of her pieces was the same, all accompanied by perfect Arabic and impeccable diction. Umm Kulthum has recorded around 300 songs, performed at hundreds of concerts in many countries. They were attended by crowds and were also broadcast on the radio.
Cairo held its breath
Umm Kulthum died in 1975 from kidney disease. Her funeral was further evidence of her greatness. About four million mourners came, more people than during President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s funeral service. As the procession with her coffin was walking through the streets of Cairo, traffic was stopped.
Decades have passed since her death, but Umm Kulthum remains vivid in the memory of Egyptians as well as fans around the world. She also became an idol for other creators, including Maria Callas, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant. In 2019, the first hologram concert of Umm Kulthum took place. In 2001, Egyptian authorities opened a museum in honour of the artist. Her monument in the Zamalek district of Cairo can be seen from a distance. Even coffee shops in different parts of the Arab world are named in her honour, for example in Baghdad.
Links to the songs “Enta omri” and “Asbaha ‘andi alana bunduqijja” can be found in the comments below this post. There you will find this link to the entire text about Umm Kulthum.
The article is published as part of a series in which we introduce music from various cultures. We pay attention to its contexts and characters related to it. The originator of the series is Michał Misiarczyk.
Sources: Arab News, Wikipedia, The New Arab, Middle East Eye.
Translated by Dawid Mliczek.