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In Cairo's Café Umm Kalthoum

A cafe in the heart of downtown Cairo takes Egyptians away from the hubbub of everyday life back to the heady days when the voice of legendary singer Umm Kalthoum lifted the nation

Al-Sayyed Hossein, Tuesday 3 Jul 2012
Om Kalthoum
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There is more than one coffeehouse in Cairo named after the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum, but none can match the history of the four-floor establishment on Orabi Street, not far from Tawfiqia Square in downtown.

As I step inside, I am instantly greeted with the serenity of times past. I hear the diva's voice serenading us with Ya Mesahharni (O, You Who Deprives Me Of Sleep), a song by Ahmad Rami and Sayyed Makkawi, and I feel reassured.

What a treat to be in the company of a truly discriminating clientele, for each and every person here appreciates the music of fifty years ago.

On a table near the window, a man has closed his eyes, as if reminiscing, then he emits the familiar words, "Allah, ya sett," (Oh God, my lady), the refrain of admiration her true fans would shout to her in her live performances.

Samir Awad, the owner, says the establishment used to have only two floors, but two more were added later.

"The older clients prefer to sit on the ground floor, the younger ones on the first floor," Awad notes. "The Arabesque-style third floor attracts foreigners and Arab tourists, while the rooftop is shared by all."

According to Awad, the coffeehouse was opened by Haj Abdel-Aziz in 1936, who called it Café Tawfiq, after the name of the street at the time.

In 1948 Umm Kalthoum was passing by. She had just finished rehearsals in a nearby theatre when she decided to stop by for a coffee. Abdel-Aziz, beside himself with joy, asked Umm Kalthoum for permission to name the coffeehouse after her and she consented.

This wasn't the diva's only visit to the place. She used to stop by on her way to Mohammad Abdel-Wahab's office on what is now Orabi Street.

Other artists also used to hang out there, mainly because the cafe is so close to theatres and production companies. Among the regulars were actor Tawfiq El-Dikin and filmmaker Hesham Abul-Nasr.

On every floor, the walls are decorated with pictures of Umm Kalthoum, young and old, singing and posing, almost like a museum, or even a chapel.

The cafe's full name is rather perplexing now. Instead of being Cafe Umm Kalthoum, as it had been for two generations, it is The Cafe of the Diva of Arabic Singing and Her Successor Amal Maher. A picture of Maher is now displayed on the front sign, along with that of Umm Kalthoum.

Mohammad Zaki, who works in the café, says the Amal Maher addition was the idea of the son of the owner, who wanted to modernise the place a little. A few years ago, Maher was billed as the next diva, but her luck didn't match her incredible talent. As her name faded from memory, the customers of the place began asking for the old name back. They never stopped using it anyway. For them, it was always Café Umm Kalthoum.

Walking around the place is like walking into history. In one photo, we see Umm Kalthoum and the playwright Tawfiq El-Hakim. In another, we see her with the Lebanese diva Fayrouz, the latter kissing her hand. Photos of the musicians, who worked closely with her, Mohammad Abdel-Wahab, Baligh Hamdi, and many others, are on display. And there is also a picture of Umm Kalthoum with one of her great admirers, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

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