Um Kalthum (c. 1898–1975)

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Um Kalthum (c. 1898–1975)

Famous Arabic singer, a dominant force in the Arab world for several decades, whose recordings are still widely listened to, and whose political influence in Egypt was critical after the Israeli-Egyptian war in 1967. Name variations: Um Kalthoum; Oum Kalsoum; Umm Kulthum; Umm Thulum; Star of the East. Born Fatma el-Zahraa Ibrahim in the delta village of Tamay al-Zahirah (or Tammay al-Zahayrah) probably in 1898 but possibly in 1900; died of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 3, 1975; daughter of poor peasants; had one brother; other siblings unknown; married Dr. Hassan el-Hifnawi (a prosperous skin specialist), in 1954.

After World War I, went to Cairo and eventually gave public performances; took the stage name Um Kalthum, the name of one of the daughters of Mohammed; toured several Arabic countries (1932); gave the first broadcast for Radio Egypt (1934); awarded the highest decoration an Egyptian woman could receive, the Al-Kamal medal, from King Farouk (1944); gained influence in Gamal Abdel Nasser's government (1950s); married and had surgery for a goiter in U.S., both events of great importance in Egypt (1954); continued to give concerts until her death (1975).

For decades at 10 pm, on the first Thursday of each month, the Arab world came to a halt. Traffic slowed to a crawl; coffee shops emptied; wealthy Arabs left their bridge tables. Throughout the Muslim crescent, millions gathered around their radios to hear a woman sing. Many cried as they listened to the magical voice of the singer, who could hold a single note for 90 seconds. These concerts, which usually consisted of three songs, often lasted five hours, well into the night, but as Friday is the Muslim holy day, everyone could sleep late the next morning before going to the mosque. When the Nightingale of the Nile sang, all Arabs—rich or poor, female or male, religious or agnostic—were united. When she sang, she ruled the Arab world.

Um Kalthum was born in the Egyptian delta village of Tamay al-Zahirah, probably in 1898, the daughter of poor peasants. Her father frequently sang at religious ceremonies and led the local choir in Sebelawin, a small town northeast of Cairo. As he taught Um Kalthum and her brother to sing verses from the Koran, he soon noticed the unusual quality of his daughter's voice. Because women were not supposed to be seen in public, he dressed her in boys' clothes so that she could sing with the choir. Recognizing the girl's great talent, her father continued to coach her. She made her first professional appearance at age seven, earning 30¢ for performing at a village wedding. Within a month, her fee had been increased to $7.50, an enormous sum even in the modern world for Egypt's impoverished fellahin. For some years, she traveled with her father from village to village, on foot, by donkey, or, when they could afford it, on the wooden benches of a third-class train.

It has been said that no Westerner can really understand the Arab mind without understanding the singing of Um Kalthum. Her music seems repetitive and endless to Westerners whose popular songs tend to be three or four minutes long. Arab songs, on the other hand, last for hours. Quarter-tone intervals are important in Arabic music, while the short musical phrase dominates the West. In Arabic music, a melodic line is played by one instrument or several instruments in unison accompanied by percussion instruments, while polyphonic music performed by choruses and symphonies is more typical of the West. Rather than the eight-tone scale used in the West, Arabic music is built on maquamaat, modes or scales divided into seven steps; thus an octave can be divided into 24 quarter tones (though not every maquaam has quarter tones), while in Western music an octave would be divided into 13 semitones. Progression in an Arabic melody does not move, except in rare cases. Unlike Western music, which was first developed for use in the church and thus reflects a certain sanctity, Arabic music and songs often originated in the homes of the wealthy and the palaces of kings, and can be more worldly and diverting.

Um Kalthum's music appealed largely to the poorer classes who refused to assimilate Western culture. Her music was from their world, rather than from the Western world which they did not understand. The upper strata of Egyptian society mimicked the West and enjoyed ballets, symphonies, and operas. The majority of Egyptians, however, never gave up their ancient cultural heritage. They remembered the stories of a glorious time when spices, silks, precious stones, and perfumes were sought by Europeans whose standards of living were vastly inferior to that enjoyed by those in the Arab world—a time when extensive contact with China and India brought luxuries undreamt of in Europe. Arabs had also been intellectually dominant; they invented Arabic numerals which allowed precise solution of

mathematical problems, and their libraries held priceless manuscripts from ancient Greece and Rome, which they used to advance their knowledge of science, medicine, and classical literature. Europeans were culturally inferior in the minds of most Arabs, a view which is still widely held.

After World War I, Um Kalthum moved to Cairo. One evening during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, she and her troup performed before Sheik Abdul Ala Mohammed, the greatest singer of the time. At the end of the performance, the sheik offered to find her work in Cairo. Greatly excited by the prospect, she waited a year before a performance for a rich merchant was arranged. The experience was a disaster. The merchant treated her like a peasant, the money she earned was stolen, and she returned home. It was not until 1923 that supporters convinced her to sing in a Cairo theater. Still, she faced many barriers. Her father, who worried about her reputation, once placed a notice on the stage, "Do not touch." He also insisted that she be addressed as Mrs. Um Kalthum, in order to protect her good name.

Not before or since has there been a more popular singer in the Arab world. Um Kalthum sang of love and sorrow with such emotion that many people … cried. Her voice was magical, her prowess extraordinary.

Jehan Sadat

By the mid-1920s, she was no longer afraid of Cairo, which at the time was embracing the nationalistic ideas of the new prime minister Saad Zaglul and his Wafd party. After meeting the poet Ahmed Rami, who considered her a muse for his art, Um Kalthum sang his poems about absolute love that hovers between the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the flesh. She often used the word habid or beloved, which is also one of Allah's many names. When Um Kalthum became a star still in her early 20s, she made many changes in her performances. She added an orchestra, unbound her hair, exchanged her men's clothes for feminine Western dress, and clutched a silk scarf in her hand that became a trademark. As she sang, she would hypnotically tear the scarf into pieces. By the time Sheik Abdul died in 1927, she was choosing her own texts and having them set to music. In 1932, she toured Libya, Lebanon, Syria, and Paris. She then began performing on the radio, launching the station the "Voice of Cairo" with one of her songs. Radio Egypt began broadcasting her concerts in 1934.

"Egypt is a country overburdened with history and geography," writes one historian, "a history overwhelming yet inspiring, a geography restricting yet lifegiving." Um Kalthum's professional life reflected that rich heritage. Throughout her career, her influence was political as well as musical. Although nominally a part of the Turkish Empire until 1914, Egypt had been a British protectorate from the late 1870s until 1922, when (despite Britain's continued power in the country) it officially became a kingdom under the rule of King Farouk. Um Kalthum's singing had an enormous influence on the king and members of government. One premier, for example, dropped plans to arrest a powerful political enemy when she warned, "Don't do it; he's too popular." Like everyone else, King Farouk was besotted with her, and she was frequently a guest at the royal palaces. One day in 1944, apparently acting on impulse, he had himself driven to the National Sporting Club where Um Kalthum was singing and awarded her the highest decoration an Egyptian woman could receive—the Al-Kamal medal. Though the Egyptian upper crust took this as an affront (she was, after all, the daughter of poor peasants), the king's action was a hit with the general populace. It was "the most popular thing Farouk ever did," said one knowledgeable leader.

Um Kalthum could not separate herself from politics even if she wished; she personified the spirit of Egypt. Farouk's close association with the British and his free-spending ways made him increasingly unpopular throughout Egypt, and he was overthrown in 1952. Because the king had long supported Um Kalthum, some Egyptian revolutionaries felt it was time to oust her as well. She was forbidden to sing, and the new government's newspaper wrote that "only hashish-eaters listen to her." Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revolutionary leader whose government now ruled Egypt, was well aware that the singer had been one of his ardent supporters despite her long association with the former king. He immediately called the newspaper's editor to his office and growled, "Do you say I am a hashish-eater?" Like most Egyptians, Nasser listened regularly to Um Kalthum, and the ban on her singing was immediately rescinded. When Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal, his radio speech was preceded by one of her songs.

In 1954, Um Kalthum developed a goiter due to a hyperthyroid condition, a large growth in her throat that threatened to stop the Nightingale of the Nile from singing forever. Her illness created an international crisis; no Egyptian doctor would operate for fear of harming her vocal chords. Doctors in Europe were also reluctant to touch her throat. Egyptian newspapers reporting the dreadful news were framed in black, as they are after the death of someone important. Finally recognizing the value of a diplomatic gesture, the American ambassador to Egypt arranged for Um Kalthum to be treated at the U.S. Naval Hospital near Washington. One of the largest crowds in the history of Cairo saw her off at the airport. The Egyptian ambassador was a daily visitor at the hospital; the government issued communiqués about her medical progress. Fortunately, the operation was a success. In gratitude, Um Kalthum made a number of broadcasts on the Voice of America's Arab-language service.

That same year, at age 49, Um Kalthum married in the greatest secrecy. This was her second attempt at marriage. Six years later, she had announced her engagement to Mahmoud el-Sherif, a little-known musician, but the revelation had raised a storm of protest. Letters poured into newspapers, complaints were shouted at concerts, and strangers stopped her on the street. When King Farouk had forbidden the match, she bowed to public pressure. This time, however, she did not involve the public in her private life, and only two months after the ceremony had taken place was her marriage to Dr. Hassan el-Hifnawi, a prosperous skin specialist, announced. The Egyptian government carefully timed the disclosure so that as little tension as possible would be aroused among her many fans. Unlike the earlier liaison, this marriage caused no outcry whatsoever despite the fact that Dr. el-Hifnawi was a divorced father with two children.

When Egypt was defeated by Israel in 1967, Um Kalthum was around 70, not in good health, and rarely appeared outside Cairo. But she rallied to help her country. In the financial crisis which followed the war, she undertook a European tour to raise money for Egypt. In Paris, she sang for five hours, two evenings in a row, raising hundreds of thousands of francs. After returning to Egypt, she continued to tour Arab nations. Many at the time called her "Nasser's Bomb" and the "Nun of Islam," but as always her singing seemed to soothe millions and gradually the crisis waned.

When Um Kalthum died of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 3, 1975, millions mourned her passing. Even now her voice continues to dominate the Arab world. The Egyptian-born actor Omar Sharif noted that each morning she is reborn in the hearts of over 100 million Arabs. It is perhaps indicative of Western ignorance that so little is known about this woman whose cultural and political influence were so great. Wise in the use of power, she was a force for good in her lifetime and remains so today. "The legendary Um Kalthum was no mere singer," wrote a historian, "and her art, to millions of devotees throughout the Arab world, was no mere entertainment but an all-encompassing spiritual experience."


"Egypt's Golden Voice," in Newsweek. Vol. 48, no. 4. July 23, 1956, p. 71.

"Egyptians Throng Funeral of Um Kalthoum, the Arabs' Acclaimed Singer," in The New York Times. February 6, 1975, p. 3.

El Araby, Kadri M.G. "Arabesque: The Legacy of Islamic Artistry in Europe," in The Arab World. Vol. 18, nos. 3–4. March–April 1972, pp. 10–17.

Gaskill, Gordon. "Mighty Voice of Um Kalthum," in Life. Vol. 52, no. 22. June 1, 1962, pp. 15–16.

Hopwood, Derek. Egypt: Politics and Society 1945–1981. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982.

McErvin, Sabrina, and Carol Prumhuber. Women: Around the World and Through the Ages. Wilmington, DE: Atomium Books, 1991.

"The Middle East: Personalities of the Arab World," in The Illustrated London News. Vol. 247, no. 6587. October 30, 1965, p. 31.

Sadat, Jehan. A Woman of Egypt. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

"Singer's death mourned by Arab world," in The Times (London). February 4, 1975, p. 8.

"Um Kalthoum, Egyptian Singer, A Favorite of Millions Is Dead," in The New York Times. February 4, 1975.

suggested reading:

Danielson, Virginia Louise. "The Voice of Egypt": Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

related media:

Umm Thulum: A Voice Like Egypt, documentary by Michal Goldman, Vanguard video, 1996 (English and Arabic with English subtitles).

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia