I was shopping in the Gaza Strip when I first encountered Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Walking through a market in Gaza City at the end of the last millennium, I was struck by numerous stalls selling what appeared to be pirated CDs with an arresting, almost unvarying image: a woman d’un certain âge, raven hair piled high, with dark glasses and long gown, holding a scarf.
Heading home with a couple of those discs was the start of an enduring fascination with the mythology and artistry of the woman who remains by some distance the most famous and most beloved singer in the Arab world. When she died on this day in 1975, it unleashed an unprecedented wave of mourning; her Cairo funeral was one of the biggest public gatherings in recorded history.
The word “iconic” is applied to much that is merely distinctive, but for Umm Kulthum the description is barely sufficient. Her likeness, particularly as she appeared in her later years, is instantly recognisable and like any true icon, it can be rendered in just a few strokes. Endlessly adaptable, it appears thousand-fold in high art, kitsch (ironic and otherwise), on stamps, in murals, as graffiti and adorning the millions of cassettes and CDs which relay her art throughout the world. Her unchallenged dominance of Egypt’s recent cultural history and association with Egyptian nationalism means that successive waves of rulers and activists have claimed her for themselves. Most recently, her statue in Cairo was adopted as an icon of revolution, with one symbolically bandaged eye representing protesters blinded by security forces.
Of course it is not her image alone, but above all her transcendent gifts that ensured Umm Kulthum’s fame. Her concert appearances generally lasted several hours, each piece a journey circumscribed only by the singer’s huge range and unparalleled mastery of improvisation.
That talent was evident from a very early age, but the stage was considered no environment for a girl so Umm Kulthum’s father dressed her as a boy for concert appearances. When this ruse was no longer sustainable her performance persona — jejune, even gauche — reflected her rural background. But rather than make simplicity her trademark, à la Piaf, she instead amped up the glamour, cribbing her style from the wealthy women in whose houses she sometimes performed.
At her height, ‘The Lady’, as she was frequently referred to in Egypt, was a regal stage presence, sophisticated yet conservative. She would appear in a bejewelled floor-length gown, the silk scarf clutched in her hand a constant presence, rising and falling on euphoric waves of song. The signature dark glasses were a shield against intense and prolonged exposure to stage and studio lighting. This is a woman who was actually blinded by her own fame.
Umm Kulthum retains near-total recognition in the Arab world. My neighbourhood in Berlin is known for a highly visible Turkish community, but there is an enclave of Middle Eastern and North African businesses near me where the majority of shops are adorned with Arabic script; in just one block there are two separate businesses trading under her name.
When pieces from her jewelry collection were auctioned in 2009, they achieved extravagant multiples of their reserve prices, the Umm Kulthum provenance representing a gold standard of renown. A museum dedicated to her memory in Cairo displays her gowns and accessories like the relics of a Sufi saint.
For more on Umm Kulthum, listen to this NPR radio documentary, watch this documentary narrated by Omar Sharif or read this interview with Virginia Danielson, author of The Voice of Egypt. There are also many hours’ worth of Umm Kulthum’s video and audio recordings online (though a word of warning: her name is transliterated in multiple different ways; “Umm Kulthum”, “Om Kalsoum” and “Oum Kalthoum” are among the most common variants). If you listen to nothing else, at least take in this electrifying clip which shows how audiences encouraged Umm Kulthum to ecstatic improvisational heights.
And finally, the imperishable, imperial glamour of Umm Kulthum: