Adonis Diaries

“Planet of the Orient”: Who is Um Kulthum?

Posted on: August 30, 2011

“Planet of the Orient”: Who is Um Kulthum?

Is she the fourth modern Pyramid?

Is her silk handkerchief, tightly held in her left hand, the symbol of her singing genius?

It is November 1967:  Five months earlier, Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser suffered a crushing defeat by Israel.  Um Kulthum is in Paris for two concerts at the music-hall Olympia:  She is to receive 100,000 Francs for each night of performance, the highest in the history of this music-hall, and to be disbursed to Egypt’s funds of reconstruction.  Air bridges of countless charter planes and private planes are flocking from the Gulf Arab Emirates States.

Um Kulthum writes to President Charles de Gaulle: “I salute in you your action in favor of justice and peace”.  De Gaulle had suspended delivery of Mirage jet fighters to Israel after its preemptive war in June 1967 against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

For an hour, Um Kulthum has been sitting among the 18-member orchestra, waiting for the start of the concert.  King Hussein of Jordan, the painter Carzou, Marie Laforet, ambassadors, personalities, and journalists are among the audience.

Um Kulthum is sitting on a chair and begins with “Love of the nation” then stand up in her green jellaba and sings “Restore my liberty, free my hands…” and resume with “The ruins”.

Three songs that stretched for six hours. The audience is described in dailies as “fanatics” of tarab, chanting “Allah” and “Ya salam”

Um Kulthum (Thuma) Ibrahim el-Sayyed el Baltagui, nicknamed “Al Sitt” or “Kawkab al Shark” was born in 1900 in the rural town of Tamay el Zahayra in the Delta of the Nile, the district of Dakhalia. Her father spends his time taking care of the mosque, and interpret religious folkloric songs during wedding ceremonies (mawalid). Her mother Fatima encourages Thuma to learn to read and write and at the age of 7, Thuma is dispatched to her uncle in El Sinbillawayn (Mansoura district) to resume her schooling.

Around 1914, Egypt in under British colonialism, and Thuma’s father discovers that she has an angelic voice, psalmoding Koranic verses and joined her to his small ambulatory group.  Um Kulthum is decked in a Jelabiya as boys and her voice is spreading in the Delta as captivating and the singing group is solicited extensively.

At 16 of age, the famous oud player Zakaria Ahmed and the famous singer cheikh Aboul 3ela heard Thuma singing in the Eid el Fitr in El Sinbillawayn and ask Thuma’s father to encourage her to go to Cairo so that they train her and expand her horizon.

In 1921, Um Kulthum sees Cairo for the first time: She is to sing to a noble and rich house for a wedding. At first, the host would not accept this poor girl dressed as a peasant (felaha) to sing in his house.  The wife beg to differ.  As Um Kulthum sang, an angel hovered over the audience.

For another year, her protectors Zakaria Ahmed and cheikh Aboul 3ela write to Um Kulthum. Thuma had to wait till 1923 to be taken in charge by her music professional protectors.

Thuma learns the dawr, profane songs, and sings poems of Hafez, Abu Nawas, el Mutanabbe, Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam…  Her voice emits 14,000 vibrations (frequency) while a normal voice is about 4,000.

Sadek Ahmad becomes her impresario and advertises Thuma, to the ire of her conservative father.

In 1925, Ahmed Rami, famous song writer, listened to Um Kulthum and fell in love: He wrote over 100 songs just for Thuma.

Um Kulthum is practically a lesbian and in love of Fatima Abdel Razek.  Thuma recorded her first album in 1925 “The lover is betrayed by his eyes” and sells over 15,000 copies.

Thuma is demanded everywhere in the Arab World and she obliges. The Turkish musical style is abandoned and replaced by popular Egyptian taktoukas.  Um Kulthum is heard on radio Masr and she acted in a few movies.

Um Kulthum built a villa of two stories in the street Abou Feda in Zamalek.  Her family declined leaving the village to living in Cairo.  Only her relative Sayyeda accept to join Thuma and becomes her confident and helper.

Thuma’s mother died in 1937.  In 1948, Thuma is suffering from her eyes and needs surgery of the neck (goitre).  She is sent to the USA for professional surgery.

July 23, 1952, a military coup brings Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. The new leader calls Thuma and tells her: “I wish you resume your career: You are the link that unite all Egyptians.  Millions have need of your voice…”

Um Kulthum is being treated by surgeon professor Hafnaoui and ends up marrying him. As she said: “When we bare our body to the physician, we are nude in front of man…”

In 1960, Nasser bestowed medal of honors to Um Kulthum and Mohammad Abdel Wahhab.  The Rais Nasser says: “Abdel Wahhad, I celebrate your art, but I cannot forgive you for not associating with Um Kulthum…” Abdel Wahhab replies: “It is my greatest honor to compose songs for Um Kulthum…” and Abdel Wahhab would compose three songs to Thuma such as “You are my life” (Enta oumri).

Um Kulthum died on February 3, 1975 from renal deficiency. Million of Egyptians carried her gasket to Midan El Tahriri and on to Tuma’s mausoleum in Al Bassatine.

Note 1: Article extracted from a chapter of the French book by Gilbert Sinoue “12 women who changed the history of the Orient”

Note 2: It is reported that Jihan, wife of president Anwar Sadat, was terribly jealous of Um Kulthum as the leading women in Egypt and the Arab World.  Jihan did her best to castrate Thuma into seclusion at the end of her life.

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adonis49

adonis49

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