Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 July 2019

Late Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum remains a star on stage, film and the written word

On the anniversary of her death, we take a look at how the singer’s life has been portrayed over the years

Umm Kulthum, Egyptian singer and performer, remains an Arab cultural icon 44 years since her death. Courtesy of Al Ittihad. 
Umm Kulthum, Egyptian singer and performer, remains an Arab cultural icon 44 years since her death. Courtesy of Al Ittihad. 

Forty-four years on since her death, on February 3, 1975, Umm Kulthum remains deeply woven into Arabic popular culture.

The Egyptian singer continues to be an icon and held as the exemplar for artistic excellence, creative expression and all round of poise in the public eye.

Born in December 1898 the village of Tamay e-Zaharya, near the Nile Delta, Umm Kulthum's burgeoning talent led to an extraordinary life that not only challenged societal norms – as a child, she once entered a talent quest dressed up as a boy to avoid controversy – but also inspired the likes of former Egyptian King Farouk and his pan-Arabist successor Gamal Abdel Nasser.

With such a life, it is understandable that her story has been shared through various mediums across the years.

In hologram

In one of the many “firsts” of her career, Umm Kulthum became the star of the first public concert by a hologram in the Arab world this year. The late diva was painstaking recreated for a greatest hits concert that was part of Winter at Tantora festival in the Saudi Arabian desert city of Al Ula in January. The show is expected to come to the UAE later in the year.

Online

Thankfully, the music has been preserved with dozens of songs available for streaming on YouTube, via the record label Mazzika. Online music platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify also have plenty of playlists dedicated to the singer.

On Screen

Arab viewers were riveted by the 1999 television drama series Umm Kulthum. A major reason why was the career-defining portrayal of the diva by the Egyptian actress Sabrine. Such was the accuracy of her performance that she provided technical assistance to the team creating the Umm Kulthum hologram to ensure they nailed all her stage movements and mannerisms. When it comes to the big screen, last year saw the Iranian film Looking for Oum Kulthum premiered in Toronto Film Festival. Directed by Shirin Neshat, the film examines the emotional strain and sacrifice that came with Umm Kulthum’s trail blazing career.

In print

The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century by musicologist Virginia Danielson. Courtesy of University of Chicago Press
'The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century' by musicologist Virginia Danielson. Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

Unsurprisingly, Arabic biographies of Umm Kulthum are too numerous to count. While English options are limited, there has been quality essays, articles and books written about her. Your best choice is The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Written by historian Virginia Danielson, the accessible text examines Umm Kulthum’s art and its impacts on all strata of Egyptian society. A fascinating passage in the book details the creative process behind Umm Kulthum’s song writing process. The various revisions she undertook with her team of composers and lyricists meant that some songs took up to a year to complete.

Updated: February 3, 2019 05:21 PM

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