I have tried to steer away from artists in this series for two reasons. First, the series focuses on the thought that has contributed to the making of modern Egyptian culture, and it revolves round that culture’s mind more than its heart. Second, modern Egyptian art is itself oceanic and deserves its own dedicated journey.
However, it is impossible to escape the gravitational pull of Egyptian singer Umm Kolthoum. By far the most famous, most successful, and almost certainly most admired singer in Arab history, Umm Kolthoum became the most-prominent single figure of modern Egyptian culture in the 20th century.
No other cultural figure in modern Egyptian history has received the sort of status or garnered the same love from people across the social strata as Umm Kolthoum. Her monthly concerts were hallmarks of Egypt’s social and artistic calendar. Her place, not only in literary and artistic circles, but also in Egyptian society as a whole, was incomparable. Her funeral in 1975 was possibly the largest in Egypt’s history.
Many have talked about the uniqueness of her voice and her vast singing abilities. Perhaps equally important was the fact that her voice, style of singing, and the lyrics and music she chose – in fact her entire being on stage – reflected traits and characteristics from the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt.
In her singing, from her lowest tones, rarely soft but consistently rich, to her famous loud crescendos, Umm Kolthoum embodied the warmth as well as the grief inherent in the Delta and Upper Egyptian traditions. For decades, her voice formed a background for the vast majority of cafes all over Egypt. By the 1950s, she was the preeminent artist in the country. But before and after that she was also an icon of the people’s taste in music and poetry and represented how they wanted to express their emotions.
For many, when she sang poet Hafez Ibrahim’s poem “Egypt speaks about herself” she was indeed Egypt’s voice emanating from the depths and breadth of the country’s ancient land.
Umm Kolthoum was a product of the culture of the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt at a moment of transition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the narrowness of old traditions and religious conservatism to the openness to modernity and exposure to westernisation. She took the journey slowly, with her own steps and decisions perhaps reflecting the Delta and Upper Egypt’s slow combining of the old with the new.
Umm Kolthoum started her career as a girl going with her father from village festivals to family celebrations reciting the Quran. As she gained exposure to Cairo’s artistic and cultural scene in the first quarter of the 20th century, she gradually transformed herself into a modern singer, briefly an actress, and, with time, a selective adopter of innovations in music.
Her journey from singing classic tawasheeh compositions in praise of the Prophet Mohamed in her early youth to her later work in the 1960s written by composer Baligh Hamdi reflected the breadth of her oeuvre over her long career.
Perhaps because of Umm Kolthoum’s immense popularity, her journey also reflected the widening of mainstream Egyptian taste in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. At first, she followed popular styles in Egyptian music, excelling rather than innovating in them. But in the 1940s and 1950s, arguably at the height of her career when she was already established as the doyenne of Arab singers, she introduced Western instruments and styles to her music and singing.
Perhaps she was following the openness of Egyptian culture to European art at the time, leading in her own domain to experimentation that resonated with what was happening in the rest of Egyptian culture. But she did not stray far from her artistic core and remained solidly anchored in Egyptian musical traditions. Her forays beyond what was familiar were intended to enrich that domain, perhaps in some instances to push its limitations slightly farther, but never to remove the boundaries altogether.
Umm Kolthoum also became a symbol of Egypt for large groups of Arabic speakers. Travel was not easy or affordable for the vast majority of people in the Arab world during her career, and it was during the core of that career from the 1920s to the late 1960s that Cairo and Alexandria were the unrivalled cultural capitals of the Arab world.
Egyptian cinema offered Arabic speakers many images of Egypt, but owing to her colossal popularity and unique positioning in Arab music Umm Kolthoum became a, if not the, window through which those who had never visited Egypt felt that they knew the country. Her songs carried an expression of modern Egypt into the psyches of her listeners.
Many Egyptian people like to invoke their country’s culture as the basis of the soft power that Egypt enjoyed across the Arabic-speaking world from the late 19th to late 20th centuries. Umm Kolthoum was the strongest generator of such power.
For many, she remains a symbol of a bygone era, perhaps of a beautiful time that has now been lost. At a deeper level, however, she has seeped into Egyptian consciousness as the most popular manifestation of modern Egyptian culture.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly