Remembering Umm Kulthum

Posted by Tess Waggoner on February 04, 2020 at 3:04 PM

“Why do we feel so connected to her? Perhaps we each hear our own story in her songs.”- Omar Sharrif

Today marks forty-five years since the passing of Umm Kulthum, one of the greatest Arab singers of the twentieth century. Umm Kulthum is beloved because of recognition of individual stories within her story, and within the larger narrative of Egyptian history. Her voice and concerts inspire people across the world to this day.  

Umm Kulthum was born at the turn of the 20th century in a small village called Tammay al-Zahayrah in Egypt. She attended a kuttab, or Qur’anic school, where she learned to read and write in Classical Arabic and memorized the Qur’an. This knowledge of tajwid (the art and application of rules of recitation of the Qur’an,) is sometimes cited in discussion of her excellent diction when singing, something for which she was highly praised. Her father, a sheik, and her brothers sang religious songs at weddings and other events to provide supplemental income for their poor family. She began memorizing the songs, and her father started bringing her along to perform at gatherings as her talent became apparent. As word of her ability spread, she began traveling more extensively and performed for increasingly wealthy audiences and patrons.

In 1923 her family moved to Cairo, where Umm Kulthum began receiving lessons and assimilating to Cairo’s cosmopolitan culture. Her initial repertory was composed of the religious songs she had performed as a young girl across the Delta. As her notoriety grew, she shifted to performing more popular love songs composed specifically for her by Ahmed Rami and others. By 1928 she was among the upper echelons of professional singers in Cairo.She started performing on the radio when Egyptian National Radio began broadcasting in 1934, the year that also marked the beginning of her brief film career, (she made six films in total) a practice common for singers of the day. She broadcasted a concert via radio the first Thursday of every month; a huge event each time, with the streets emptying and parties gathering around radios to hear her perform. This practice was eulogized by Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in his novel Miramar. When Nasser came to power in 1952, he utilized the popularity of her broadcasts by broadcasting his own speeches and other political messages following her monthly radio concerts. Her songs continue to be broadcast across the Arab World to this day. 

The abstract nature of the high poetry that composed much of her lyrics also allowed for multivalent understandings of lyrical intention and artistic meaning. The concept of tarab, which can be translated as ecstasy or enchantment plays an interesting role in the relationship between Umm Kulthum and her audience. Traditional Arabic song is call and response in nature: the performer sings a line straight through, and then repetitions are requested by the audience. The artist obliges, improvising and adding ornamentation to evoke meaning. This, coupled with the poetic ambiguity of the lyrics, allowed the text of her songs to come alive and resonate in the lives of her audience members, individually, as well as reflect broad social and political movements of the day. Kulthum’s pride in her cultural heritage on this topic was explicit, saying, 

“Music must express our oriental spirit.….Music and song draw the audience from all the people of various classes and levels of education….Those who study European music learn it as one would learn a foreign language. Of course it is useful. But it would be silly to expect that this European language becomes our language.”

This iconic picture, originally published in Al Ahram newspaper, is a testament to the reverence felt for Umm Kulthum among Egyptians: here they are portrayed as equivalent symbols of national pride. Kulthum’s legacy is that of a peasant girl who ascended to great fame—early publicity photos of Umm Kulthum in peasant dress are commonly found because, as she remarked “The fallahin [peasants] are myself.” Umm Kulthum was beloved and respected in Egypt because, as was written in 1930 by a journalist,

"No singer or actress in Egypt talks to you about her past without mentioning the majestic and prestigious house in which she was raised…except one…One only boasts today saying frankly that she was born poor, from a good family, yes, but poor and that she knew poverty and deprivation…then thanks God for the blessings she has today and praises God for all of it, and that is Umm Kulthum."

Umm Kulthum is often seen as a symbol, as the voice of generations. In an excellent documentary made on her life, the great Omar Sharrif muses, “Why do we feel so connected to her? Perhaps we each hear our own story in her songs.” I know this to be true.

When I hear her voice I remember my Gueddo Ramzy, whose father would attend her concerts, and who so loved her music that he played her albums in his final days. Her voice echoes. In his memory, I see her voice as a simile to the Egypt he loved: rich, vibrant, flexible, beautiful and strong. This vision of Umm Kulthum as symbol and simile is one that continues to resound in the hearts of people across the world, an Egyptian for the Egyptians; a remarkable, powerful Arab woman.

Selected Sources

All quotations are drawn from: Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the 20th Century. University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Baron, Beth. Egypt As A Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics. University of California Press, 2005.

Ed. Fernea and Bezirgan. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. University of Texas Press: Austin/ London, 1977.

Lohman, Laura. "Preservation and Politicization: Umm Kulthum’s National and International Legacy." Popular Music and Society 33, no. 1 (February 2010): 45-60.

Mahfouz, Naguib, trans. Mahmoud, Fatma Moussa. Miramar. The American University in Cairo Press, 1978.  

Mikhail, Mona. Seen and Heard: A Century of Arab Women in Literature and Culture. Interlink, 2004.

Ulaby, Neda. “Umm Kulthum: ‘The Lady’ of Cairo” National Public Radio. 15 March 2010.

Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt. DVD. Directed by Michal Goldman. Arab Film Distribution, 1996.