Book Review: 'Miss Umm Kalthoum memoirs'

Mahmoud El-Wardani , Sunday 18 Feb 2018

Written between 1937 and 1938, Umm Kalthoum memoirs — never before collected in book form — offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Arab's world's most iconic singer in the 20th century

Umm Kalthoum

Muzkarat Al-Anessa Umm Kalthoum (Miss Umm Kalthoum’s Memoirs), by: Mohamed Shoair, (Cairo: Dar-Akhbar El-Yom) - Kitab Al-Yom series, Cairo, 2018. pp.119  

It is astonishing that all those years passed without anyone noticing that Umm Kalthoum’s memoirs were published in Akher Sa'a magazine but not in book form.

Finally, journalist Mohamed Shoeir remedied this oversight after going through the pages of Akher Sa'a issues and stumbling across a treasure trove.

Umm Kalthoum’s memoirs were published in serial form across eight issues, from November 1937 to January 1938.

According to Shoeir, the first two installments were published under the title, “Miss Umm Kalthoum’s memoirs” and starting with the third installment the title was changed to “Memories Not Memoirs."

All the installments were signed by Umm Kalthoum except the last one, which was signed by the most famous entertainment journalist at the time, Mohamed Ali Hammad. Thus, it can be construed that Hammad was the one who wrote and edited it, after Umm Kalthoum narrated it to him.

Of course, when the memoirs were published Umm Kalthoum was in the prime of her youth, for she was born in 1908 according to many sources. She was at the peak of her glory and artistic brilliance having started her career as a singer in childhood.

Perhaps the first thing that comes to the mind when reading the memoirs is her candour as she gave accurate details about her poor village in the heart of the Nile Delta and about her family of poor peasants — what they ate, what they drank, their home, and even the sheikh whom she used to frequent in order to learn the Holy Quran by heart.

She was forced to stop going to the sheikh because her father wasn’t able to pay the required one piaster a week. He was able to pay for the education of her brother only.

Umm Kalthoum then began to learn religious chants which her brother and father were singing in the houses of the wealthy. She used to sing along with her father and brother on a stage which was just a number of wooden planks and without any musical accompaniment whatsoever.

Eventually, she came to Cairo to sing those religious chants in the houses of notables and pashas in the 1920s, accompanied with a qanun player and oud player, as well as her father and brother forming the chorus.

Unlike many artists of the time who were keen to give their fans an embellished version of their origins and artistic beginnings, Umm Kalthoum was adamant to present her real life story, including the first payment she received and the hardships she went through, all in a very humorous tone. For sure, the reader would be left in laughter at the anecdotes and pranks she recounts in a simple manner and without pretence.

By 1938, Umm Kalthoum had sung on stage, made records, sung on the radio, and acted in films, though not in plays or operettas that were popular at the time. She ended her memoirs with the wish to pursue singing in one of those performances. She never did.

As well as publishing Miss Umm Kalthoum’s memoirs, Shoeir was keen to reprint a number of newspaper articles written by the most famous Arab singer in the last century, such as her article about Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, chief of the Royal Diwan, another about the telephone in Akher Saa magazine, published in 1948, and a third about her relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser, published immediately after his death in 1970.

Perhaps the most enjoyable piece was when she spoke in interview with Mohamed Hassanein Heikal in Akher Sa'a in 1967.  

Finally, the discovery of the memoirs also revealed documents of the legal battle between Umm Kalthoum and her most famous composer, Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmad, due to disputes over payments he received from her.

In the last court session, the judge insisted upon their presence and asked them both to reconcile their differences because the great loser of their confict was music and singing.

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