She is divisive, although history—meaning what people say to one another when a subject comes up, wanting to repeat something they’ve heard from or read by someone who presumably knows more about it than they do—tells us that Umm Kulthum was a universally beloved figure, at least during her quarter-century-long heyday when her concerts, broadcast the first Thursday of each month at 9:30 PM Cairo time, brought life to a stop throughout the Arab world. She divided critics, musicians, couples. She divided families, usually along generational lines, but not consistently. Sometimes it was the older people who hated her and the young ones who were intense fans; sometimes it was the young who couldn’t stand her and the elders who adored her. For instance, a father takes his son to one of her concerts at the Diana Palace Cinema. He, the son, is irritated because the concert doesn’t commence until late and keeps going until after midnight, with no intermission. As for the music itself? It’s horrendous, monotonous, interminable, expressing an unbearable melancholy and mournfulness, even though the son can’t understand a word of what she is singing. The orchestra accompanying her doesn’t help: its singsong, monophonic mode is at once painful and tedious, clearly no comparison to his greatest musical experiences as a teenager in Cairo—hearing Furtwängler conduct the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.
Others simply prefer the beautiful, gifted, and glamorous Leila Murad, movie star since age fifteen and captivating singer, because Umm Kulthum, despite being a compelling performer and deeply knowledgeable musician, could come across as a little tiring. Not all her fans like being fed patriotic slogans amid a feast of sublime music. Not all her fans enjoy hearing their diva cry out in the middle of a concert, “Demands are not met by wishing; the world can only be taken by struggle!” Umm Kulthum taught poetry to the masses, it was said, but maybe not all the masses wanted a poetry lesson.
A writer and painter whose nomadic life takes her from Lebanon to France to the us, where the contemplation of a particular Northern California mountain offers her solace for lost Levantine landscapes and memories of civil war, recalls a very different experience when, at the age of twelve, she saw Umm Kulthum perform at the Grand Theater of Beirut. “It was a beneficial trauma,” she remembers, an encounter that changed her life. She came to see that this singer was the only person to escape the fate of Arab women, and she came to feel as every Arab did, that while they may have had nothing, that while the foreigners may have controlled their countries and lives, at least they had her, and she loved them and sang for them. “In the divisions which break a world and make it explode, she was the unity we had.”
A young man excitedly tells his uncle that Umm Kulthum is singing on the radio and his aunt, overhearing the conversation, comments loudly to her husband, “Voilà! That’s all he’s good for. Anything to annoy us.” The young man knows that people like his uncle consider it a sign of commonness to like her. They really do want to listen to her, or music like hers, he believes, but their snobbery prevents them from embracing anything so native and folksy, so they turn to substitutes like Amália Rodrigues, who has the advantage of being Portuguese instead of Egyptian and who resembles her in voice, but feebly.
The teenage boy who preferred Furtwängler’s Beethoven to her interminable songs later specified what had really bothered him about her musical style—it lacked counterpoint. He found this absence disturbing. In his maturity, when he became a literary and political theorist of international repute, he advocated “contrapuntal” reading as “an alternative both to a politics of blame and to the even more destructive politics of confrontation and hostility.” Contrapuntal reading, as he practiced it, involves trying to trace the hidden co-dependencies between literary works and the mechanisms of empire that fuel their societies. Toward the end of his life he expressed some regret at his rejection of her music because it isolated him from a communal experience. “Her secret power has eluded me, but among Arabs I seem to be quite alone in this feeling.”
That wasn’t the case with another Cairene, who met her once at a party held in one of Zamalek’s most ostentatious villas. He was a total fan. He had attended her concerts—never bothered by their lateness or length—listened to her broadcasts, bought her recordings, seen her films. When he is introduced to her, the person making the introduction identifies him not as a businessman nor as a prominent figure in Cairo’s Jewish community, but as a poet. Speaking in Arabic he extolls her singing, the artfulness of her deployment of ghunna, the beauty of those moments when her voice becomes bahha, intentionally breaking at a high pitch to carry her listeners into still more intense delight. He also conveys his appreciation of her reliance on poets for the lyrics to her songs. “It must be a great honor and a great joy for a poet to hear his words in your mouth,” he tells her. She smiles, saying nothing. Feeling a slight unease, he rushes on to other topics, telling her about a discussion he’d recently heard between two musicologists who had disagreed almost to the point of violence about whether Arab ensembles should adopt European instruments like the violoncello and string bass, and whether or not Arab music should abolish quartertones.
“Abolish quarter tones!” she repeats, swelling with disbelief.
Many years later he tries to describe to his translator how her songs bring up ancient lamentations.
“She has tarab,” he explains. They are speaking in French.
“What’s tarab?” she asks.
“It’s untranslatable,” he explains, then nonetheless tries, “It’s ecstasy. Intoxication of the senses. But more so.”
He doesn’t tell his translator and friend about that meeting in Zamalek, nor about the messenger who showed up at his door a few days later with a request from the singer for a poem, nor how he spent hours paging through his books and manuscripts for something that he could imagine her singing, nor how, having finally found a text that might plausibly be turned into an hour-long composition, he translated it himself into Arabic.
A phone call summoned the messenger back to pick up the poem. Would she like it, he wondered. He knew that she was no longer so close to poets as she had been, that she was now more likely to request words from lyricists, whose lines were easier to manipulate. So maybe his poem wouldn’t do, if only because it was a poem. And yet, she had asked him for something, knowing he was a poet, knowing that he was a Jew, and also knowing that he was an Egyptian—a true Egyptian—at least he hoped she knew this.
Being a Jew and an Egyptian had become a lot more difficult since the founding of Israel. Look at what happened to Leila Murad, née Lillian Mordechai but since 1948 a convert to Islam, who had been chosen—over her!—as the official singer of the Revolution until her ex-husband began spreading rumors that she had visited Israel, donated money to the idf, and worked as a Zionist spy. The great star ended up retiring at age thirty-eight. And now that Umm Kulthum had become a strident nationalist and grown so close to Nasser, the poet’s own Egyptian identity, or lack thereof, would matter to her.
Kulthum has strong ideas about music and identity. Hers must express what she has no hesitation in calling “our oriental spirit.” It’s different in painting, she sagely observes, where it’s possible for an Egyptian artist to follow European models because the audience for visual art is so limited to, in her words, “narrow circles of intellectuals.” But “music and song draw the audience from all the people of various classes and levels of education.” This audience will not accept anything based on “foreign taste.”
He was a poet. She was notoriously demanding and imperious with poets, just as she was with lyricists, dropping lines and insisting on changes to make the words ready for translation into something else, something that no poet could accomplish, something that could simultaneously seize the hearts of a thousand people, or ten thousand, a million. Rumors circulated that Bayram al-Tu¯nisı¯ had spent one day writing a poem for her and ten arguing about it with her.
Sometimes authors bristled at her editing, but in the end they didn’t mind; they accepted every change, too thrilled to have been chosen by her. Occasionally another poet would come to their defense, unasked, pointing out that a poem is not a mere song lyric in which you can change the order of lines or drop lines just because it makes the words easier to sing.
Once finished, the poem would be passed to one of the composers she worked with. Often these composers would come to her with two or three different beginnings, all of which she might reject. Even after she had approved a composition, she would spend weeks or months developing and revising it. Would that be the fate of his poem? How would he feel if she performed such radical surgery on his creation? He’d have to wait and see.
There is another thing. His name. He’s fine with receiving public credit as the author of one of her songs, no matter how many times it is rewritten, but he doesn’t think that her audience is ready for a non-Arab lyricist, much less a Jewish one. This is why he suggests to her in a note sent along with the poem that, if she does decide to use his text, she should attribute it to a pseudonym. He offers an Arabic name, one with an oblique allusion to his real identity that no one except his closest relatives and friends will notice.
All this happened in 1956, a few months before Suez. By the end of the following year he had left Egypt forever. Reeling from the daily demands of having to start a new life, from the shock of having lost his wealth and homeland, and the quieter but no less insistent demands of fashioning a new way of writing that would be true to the sense of deep strangeness, of homelessness, he nearly forgot about the incident. Her music disappeared from his life: the Thursday radio broadcasts didn’t reach to Paris; he had left his record collection, along with nearly everything else he possessed, behind in Cairo; she never performed outside the Arab world and wouldn’t until some ten years later when her first-ever world tour brought her to Paris’s Olympia Theater for several nights. But by then, only five months after the Six-Day War, he wasn’t comfortable attending the concert of a figure so closely identified with the Egyptian government, even though he knew other Egyptian and North African Jews went to hear her. What really kept him away, however, was a kind of anger at what had been taken away from him—the music he loved and the freedom to love it without complications.
If this was a movie, he thinks, a sentimental romance like the kind that used to fill Cairo cinemas, she would have turned his poem into a song, made a recording of it that became a sensation from Cairo to Baghdad, and he would have gone to the Olympia, and she would have sung it, not knowing that he was there, and he would have sat silently listening to it, shedding tears for the Egyptian he had always been but never could be, shedding Egyptian and Jewish tears, poet tears, exile tears.