In Photos: Star of the Orient, a musical fairytale celebrating Egypt's Umm Kalthoum

Nourhan Tewfik , Tuesday 18 Oct 2016

The musical by Re:Orient, a Sweden-based culture and music event organiser, was staged at Cairo's El-Genaina Theatre on Friday 14 October

Star of the Orient
Friday’s performance at El-Genaina Theatre was part of the musical's Egypt tour which took place between 10 and 16 October. (Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)

“Your eyes reunited me with the days that had gone by
They taught me to regret the past and its wounds
That which I experienced before my eyes saw you
What is this wasted life to me?
You are my life whose morning began with your light"

We are at Cairo’s El-Genaina Theatre, and tens of ardent audience members have taken their seats to observe Star of the Orient, a musical fairytale celebrating the late iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum.

On stage stands Tunisian singer Abir Nasraoui, in the role of Umm Kalthoum, singing the aforementioned lines from Umm Kalthoum's chef d’oeuvre ‘Inta ‘Omri (You are my Life), penned by Ahmed Shafik Kamel and set to music by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in 1964. 

Also on stage are Sweden-based Syrian singer, oud player and composer Mousa Elias who plays two roles simultaneously—those of Umm Kalthoum's parents; and Sweden-based Iraqi musician Firat Fadhel Hussein who also plays a double role, that of Umm Kalthoum’s brother as well as King Farouk of Egypt.

For the duration of 45 minutes, the three artists present a fictionalized account of Umm Kalthoum's vocation. The musical opens with a young Umm Kalthoum who comes to the realization that she's been blessed with a stunning voice. While at first her practice is limited to the confines of her home, as time passes she begins to perform in public by dressing up as a boy. 

We see how Umm Kalthoum eventually circumvents patriarchal traditions and garners success. The musical traces her eventual relocation to the capital city of Cairo where she embarks on collaborations with some of the city’s finest musicians, presenting one musical masterpiece after another.

Star of the Orient
(Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)

The performance, its title a translation of Umm Kalthoum's famous moniker “Kawkab al-Sharq”, is produced by Re:Orient, a Sweden-based cultural and musical event organiser.

The musical mainly targets children, especially refugees, and employs an amalgam of theatre, music and lots of humor.

As all three artists proceed to present scenes inspired by Umm Kalthoum's life, they deliver a performance steeped in comicality, garnering constant giggles from the young audience members.

Between one scene and the next, Nasraoui delivers snippets from Umm Kalthoum's vast repertoire, her powerful yet tender voice paying proper homage to the late singer.

She is accompanied by Elias on the oud and Hussein, who’s been touring with Iraqi musicians Naseer Shamma and Ilham Al-Madfai, on percussion. She also sings original songs composed by Elias himself.

Directed and scripted by Johanna Huss, the performance is delivered in fusha (standard Arabic) and is infused with a bit of colloquial Egyptian Arabic. 

Star of the Orient
(Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)

Friday’s performance at El-Genaina Theatre was part of the production’s Egypt tour which took place between 10 and 16 October.

Over a one-week period, the musical’s crew delivered the performance to Egyptians and Syrian refugees in a number of Egypt-based cultural centres, including Darb 1718, Makani Centre and Nwafez Centre in Obour City, Abwab Club Centre in Haram, and DARB Centre in Ain Shams area. 

Besides staging public performances, the musical's crew also delivered an array of social activities targeting Syrian refugees.

Egypt’s tour came as part of the musical's Autumn tour which kicked off in August with a premiere show at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, followed by a tour in Alexandria with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Next, the crew flew to Jordan where they staged the musical in the capital Amman as well as in refugee camps across the country. They are due to perform for refugee children in Greece, Turkey and Morocco over the next months.

Star of the Orient
(Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)

Katrin Ambertsson, a senior producer at Re:Orient who’s been touring with the crew, says that the choice to produce a musical focused on Umm Kalthoum came because “she is well-known by everyone," especially in Egypt where Katrin says everyone is familiar with the icon's repertoire, including Syrian refugees.

"We've noticed how everyone here sings along and claps to the music. They react to the performance and exhibit a close relationship with [the repertoire] of Umm Kalthoum.”

Founded in 1993, Re:Orient “put(s) on concerts, performances, lectures and seminars where we plunge into contemporary issues and the relations between East and West, tradition and modernity,” according to their website.

Star of the Orient
(Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)

 Star of the Orient was part of El-Genaina’s October programme which also featured a music concert by the three-member band Orange Blossom on 15 October and will culminate with Circ’us, a series of sketches blending circus, street theatre and music today, 18 October. 

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