No one in the West has quite the iconic stature that singer Umm Kulthum has across the Arab World. To compare her to only one of the most famous Western singers in history is to drastically underestimate her star power both in the past and in the present. In this culturally focused episode, John presents the legendary “Star of the East” – Umm Kulthum.
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Episode 32 Transcript
Welcome back everybody to the Egypt Travel Podcast. I have a really special episode for you this time that doesn’t fit neatly into the travel advice category nor into the ancient history category that I’ve been weaving into the show a bit lately. Instead, this one relates to more modern Egyptian history and culture and highlights a figure in Egyptian society whose importance, influence, and legacy simply cannot be overstated.
Her hame is Um Kulthum, and if you’re going to visit Egypt then you absolutely must know who she is and how important she is for Egyptians both young and old.
So here in this 32nd episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast… I give you the singer, the legend, and indeed the icon who truly transcends time in the Arab world – Um Kulthum.
While ranked among the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, and Celine Dion, Umm Kulthum is a name virtually unknown in the West. But in the Arab World, however, she isn’t just a singing superstar more famous than all of the previously named Western icons combined; rather, she was and is seen as the personification of Egypt and the wider Arab region – someone who nostalgically represented local values amid a lingering legacy of colonialism and increasing Westernization and modernization.
In this episode of The Egypt Travel Podcast – the story of Umm Kulthum, whose powerful voice once made waves across Egypt and the Middle East. To this day, she remains a beloved cultural icon, with tens of millions of people frequently continuing to listen to her extraordinary performances nearly five decades after her death.
The Early Years of Umm Kulthum
Known as “Kawkab as-Sharq” or “Star of the East” in Arabic, Umm Kulthum led a dazzlingly colorful life. She was born on May 4, 1904, in the village of Tummāy az-Zahāyrah in Egypt and was the daughter of an imam, who supported his family by singing traditional religious songs at celebrations and festivals.
From a young age, Umm Kulthum had a distinct, powerful singing voice, which caught her father’s attention. He began bringing her along whenever he was working, dressing her as a boy since he would have been criticized for showing off his daughter to the public. This was because, at the time, most Egyptians regarded professional singing as scandalous, especially if the performer was female.
Thanks to her incredible voice, Umm Kulthum quickly became an in-demand talent, performing in towns and villages across northern Egypt’s Nile Delta region. Her family was quick to realize her potential and in 1923, they moved to Cairo, which , even back then, was already the entertainment capital of the entire entire Middle East.
When she first arrived, Umm Kulthum was regarded as old-fashioned and unsophisticated by those in Cairo’s cosmopolitan circles. They were particularly critical of her voice, which didn’t have the melodic subtleties and nuances that Egyptian music of the time called for.
To improve her reputation, she began studying music, poetry, and literature from some of the city’s top performers and scholars. Her teachers included the renowned poet Ahmad Rami, who taught her literary Arabic. She also studied the wealthy women who invited her to their homes to perform, mimicking their behavior and mannerisms.
Before long, she had made a name for herself in the homes and salons of Cairo’s wealthiest residents. In the mid-1920s, she began making commercial recordings that sold by the thousands, with many listeners praising her powerful notes and unique performing style.
In an article for Harvard Magazine, musicologist Virginia Danielson wrote, quote, “In that cosmopolitan city, according to historian Husayn Fawzi, one could hear adaptations of the latest French plays, European operas, Sousa marches, and ‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River.’ Umm Kulthum confronted this international array with a cultivated Egyptian-Arab style of song, informed by new sounds and instruments from the West, but essentially local.” End quote.
This one-of-a-kind approach to music took Cairo by storm and by the end of the decade, Umm Kulthum had become one of the top performers in the city.
The Rise of Umm Kulthum
In 1934, Egyptian Radio was established, which led to Umm Kulthum’s fame skyrocketing as hundreds of thousands of people across the country began blasting her songs, no matter the time of the day. Two years later, she decided to expand her career into film acting and took on the title role in “Wedad,” a romantic musical inspired by the classic “One Thousand and One Nights” – a collection of Arabic folk tales attributed to the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.
The following year, Umm Kulthum negotiated a deal to have all her performances broadcast live on Egyptian Radio. Practically everyone – from the wealthiest families of Cairo to the villagers of the countryside – tuned in to hear her sing.
By this time, Umm Kulthum had transitioned from singing religious songs to more popular ones, often with a small orchestra playing in the background. She became known for her passionate renditions of works created by Egypt’s top composers at the time, such as the poets Ahmad Shawqī and Bayrām al-Tūnisī.
But it was in the 1940s when Umm Kulthum’s career really took off. According to Virginia Danielson, quote, “…she sang songs for which she would be remembered for the rest of the century, especially colloquial love songs echoing the language and music of working-class people. She also sang elegant and sophisticated poetry in literary Arabic, laden with historic and religious images.” End quote.
Many of Umm Kulthum’s renditions – particularly those composed for her by the neoclassicist Riyad al-Sunbati – had political overtones, such as subtle messages that hinted at social justice and support for Egyptian self-rule.
Umm Kulthum insisted on being more in control of her career as it skyrocketed. Not only did she produce her own concerts but she also chose which orchestras would accompany her performances, as well as which actors and technicians would work with her on her films. She became a member of the Listening Committee – which was responsible for deciding what songs would be broadcast on radio – and was also elected president of the musicians’ union.
Apart from being one of the country’s top performers, Umm Kulthum also became known for her political activism, which she ramped up after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. She began singing songs that called for Egyptian independence, such as “Nashīd al-Gāmi’ah” or “The University Anthem” and “Sa’alu Qalbī” or “Ask My Heart,” as well as those that supported President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had helped overthrow the monarchy.
Given that she herself had come from humble beginnings, Umm Kulthum used her fame and fortune to help her impoverished countrymen. After Egypt was defeated in the 1967 Six-Day War, she set off on a tour of the Arab World and donated its proceeds – which came to about two million dollars – to the government. She also spoke passionately about her own rise from poverty and helped raise awareness for the country’s less-fortunate populations.
For many, Umm Kulthum was authentically Egyptian – which was a challenging feat in those times due to increasing Westernization. She was also praised for her evocative renditions, with admirers saying that she didn’t just sing songs, but she infused them with meaning.
According to Havard Magazine, quote, “Standing before her audiences, [Umm Kulthum] repeated phrases and sections at their behest; people said she never sang a line the same way twice. With virtuosic command of the historic Arabic melodic system and hundreds of vocal colors and ornaments, she stretched twenty-minute compositions into two-hour performances. Crowds roared their approval; listeners at home shouted acclamations to each other.” End quote.
Before long, Umm Kulthum became regarded as a cultural symbol of Egypt – someone who represented distinctly local values despite the powerful forces of foreign influences. She skillfully navigated the political turmoil of her time, coming out stronger, better, and even more famous and beloved.
The Legacy of Umm Kulthum
Unfortunately for Umm Kulthum and her loyal fan base across Egypt and the Middle East, she was plagued by a wide variety of ailments later in life, and her declining health soon forced her to limit her performances. She even traveled to Europe and the United States multiple times to receive medical treatments for an undisclosed kidney condition.
In her later years, Umm Kulthum wore dark, heavy sunglasses to shield her eyes after they reportedly became weak from over-exposure to stage lights. This was just one of the many health issues that she had to put up with for most of her life.
On February 3, 1975, Umm Kulthum suffered from a kidney attack, which ultimately killed her. By then, she had become such a beloved cultural icon that her funeral was declared a national event, with the three-hour-long procession attended by four million mourners in the streets of Cairo.
Today, Umm Kulthum remains enormously popular in Egypt and the Middle East. Several monuments have also been erected in her honor, as well as a museum dedicated to her life and career on the grounds of Monasterly Palace in Cairo that was opened in 2001. Among the many exhibits that can be found there are many of the elaborate and elegant dresses in which she performed, national commendations from leaders all over the Arab world, photographs of her throughout her life, pages from her personal diary, and of course recordings of her most famous performances.
It’s difficult to put into words the legacy that Umm Kulthum left behind. While there are superstars in Western culture who we say defined generations, Um Kulthum defined a century and transcends generations. To this day, you can still hear her voice playing softly in the background as you ride in a taxi through the streets of Cairo or on a small television or radio in the back of a shop. You see her iconic image hanging in cafes and coffee shops, and her silhouette adorns t-shirts sold by urban artists and ornaments in the Khan el Khalili.
Whether in Egypt, other countries throughout the Middle East, or in the Arab diaspora around the world, she is still known and loved by people young and old, rich and poor, progressive and conservative, modern and traditional.
Whether in the past or today, there is simply no single person to which she compares in the entire Western world. Perhaps Virginia Danielson put it best when she wrote, quote, “Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the audience of Elvis, and you have Umm Kulthum – the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab World.”