Umm Kulthum

Voice of the Arab World 

Despite the disappointments and frustrations of its recent history, Egyptian society had by no means descended into gloom. Indeed, Cairo had blossomed into a vibrant cosmopolitan cultural center for artists, writers, and thinkers from all over the Arab world. Egypt itself produced its most enduring stars, such as the legendary singer Umm Kulthum.

Umm Kulthum
Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum
Even today the songs of Umm Kulthum are
extremely popular all over the Middle East

She was born to a poor rural family in 1904. She grew up in an extremely religious and musicial environment. Her father, Sheikh Ibrahim, was the imam of the village mosque and earned money from reciting from the Quran and singing spiritual songs at wedding ceremonies, funerals and other important occasions. While she was still a child, Umm Kulthum began to sing with her father, and before long it became apparent that she had a fine voice. Quick to recognize his daughter's talents, her father took her with him on his travels around the Delta region. Her father was not altogether comfortable singing with his daughter in public, however, and to ease his embarassment he even had her dress in boy's clothes.

Encouraged by those around her, Umm Kulthum made the bold decision to move to Cairo at the age of twenty-two. There she underwent rigorous training to sing on stage, setting aside the simple style she had developed over the course of years with her father and embracing the popular romantic and modern songs that were performed with a backing group of accomplished musicians.

This was a time when Egypt was still reeling from the anti-British revolts that had exploded in 1919 and still coming to grips with its new-found independence. In Cairo, Umm Kulthum began to mix in exciting social circles, meeting important people who would shape her future career and the way she perceived herself and her country. It was here, that she met the poet Ahmad Rami, who was to write many of the songs she sang. By the end of 1920s Umm Kulthum had risen to the top of her profession, and from the 1930s onwards no other singer in Egypt rivaled her.

With the creation of the Egyptian National Radio station in 1934, Umm Kulthum's career took on a new dimension. For the first time, she was able to bring her music into the people around the country who would never have had the opportunity to go to a theatre. It was a far cry from the days when she had traveled from village to village in order to perform her songs. The new relationship was to prove enduring and she would continue to woo radio, and later television, audiences for the rest of her career.

During the 1940s, Umm Kulthum began increasingly to turn towards a more indigenous style of music, which endeared her immensely to the rural population of which she was once a part. When in her forties, Umm Kulthum began to suffer from the recurring bouts of ill health that would trouble her for the rest of her life. It was also a time in which she suffered one of the great disappointments of her life. Umm Kulthum was no stranger to the royal court, where she had sung for King Faruq, and there one of his uncles, Sharif Sabri Pasha, had asked her to marry him. Yet, despite the respect with which she was held in the country, her humble background was deemed by the royal family to be unsuitable and the matter was closed.

Perhaps not born of royalty, Umm Kulthum was nevertheless accorded the status of a queen by the Egyptians. But her fame was not restricted to her native country. During the 1960s, long after the unpopular royal family had been toppled, she was welcomed as an Egyptian stateswoman whenever she went abroad to give concerts and promote her country. She continued to sing up until 1973, when her ill-health finally got the better of her and forced her to stop. Two years, later, on February 3, 1975, she died in a hospital in Cairo. Outside, the media from around the Arab world had been camped out to keep their viewers and listeners with upto-the-minute news on the condition of the beloved singer.

Her funeral was a momentous occasion. Millions of mourners packed the streets of Cairo to say farewell. In the charged emotional atmosphere, things did not go quite according to plan. The huge crowd seized her body and carried it off to her favorite mosque. After prayers of mourning were said, the imam of the mosque eventually persuaded them to take it to where she was to be buried.

Umm Kulthum's popularity did not end with her death-she continues to to hold a special place in the hearts of many and to this day is considered by many to be the Voice of the Arab world.

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