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Book Review: Egypt commemorates Oum Kolthoum – On the resolve of one of Egypt’s most powerful women

 

Oum Kolthoum is wonderfully portrayed in Karim Gamal's new book “Oum Kolthoum Walmaghoud Al-Harbi" (Oum Kolthoum’s Support for the Army).

To mark the occasion, Oum Kolthoum’s songs, which have long survived her death on 3 February 1975, were performed in several functions that were held throughout February in recollection of the extraordinary selection of lyrics and music that was topped by a unique and powerful voice, which simply remains “unparalleled” in the eyes of most people across the Arab world.

However, according to the over-600-page volume impressive book of Karim Gamal, “Oum Kolthoum Walmaghoud Al-Harbi,” this uncontested diva was not just endowed with a powerful voice, but for sure with a very strong character that made her one of the most important Egyptian personas at the time of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was the uncontested persona of the nation during his rule of Egypt from 1954 until his death in the autumn of 1970.

The focus of Gamal’s book, which was first published by Tanmia in 2022 before the production of several other editions, is quite limited. It starts on the eve of the June 1967 war that marked a humiliating defeat, not just for the Egyptian army but also for Abdel-Nasser’s magnanimously ambitious political vision, and ends upon her death.

This volume, specifically, was dedicated to Oum Kolthoum’s performances in Egypt and overseas, mostly in the Arab world, whose revenues were all dedicated to supporting the army as it was going through a relaunch.

With the very diligent research of Gamal, who studied music and political science, this volume is certainly a testimony to how Oum Kolthoum put her art at the service of the ultimate national cause of the time – to reverse the military defeat. However, the very detailed accounts of this book reveal so much more than the mere commitment of this exceptional singer.

The portrait of Oum Kolthoum as presented by Gamal is one of a powerful woman, who found her way to the top echelon in a way that goes beyond that of any other singer before or after her. She was called upon by the Abdel-Nasser regime to sing for the soldiers and record short statements for them in the last days of May as it became increasingly clear that a war with Israel was around the corner. Oum Kolthoum had the power and the status to call up Mohamed Hassanein Heikal to express disappointment over one of his articles that forecasted a tough war with Israel, on the basis that this article would project frustration among the people. For sure, Oum Kolthoum was a close friend of Heikal and a much-welcomed guest at the hospitality of Abdel-Nasser and his spouse Tahia.

Abdel-Nasser, as the book recalls, always perceived Oum Kolthoum as the epitome of his political call. This is certainly an impressive situation for a woman who was close to the palace of King Farouk, who was deposited by Abdel-Nasser and the other Free Officers in July 1952. Gamal’s book does not reflect on this shift nor does it get into the details of how this most powerful woman of Egypt, during Abdel-Nasser’s years, tried to relaunch her status as an effective “first lady” during the rule of Anwar El-Sadat, who delivered the reverse of the military defeat. Perhaps out of a commitment to the specific topic of the book or out of a fascination with Oum Kolthoum, Gamal briefly mentions a certain retreat in the level of Oum Kolthoum’s public persona that he mostly attributes to her ageing and her declining health – and also to “a rumoured lack of sympathy between her and El-Sadat’s spouse.”

Moreover, while portraying Oum Kolthoum as a unique singer who harnessed her art to serve a national cause, Gamal does not make any reference to the very unique status that this particular artist had during an era that was associated with an unmasked abrasive abuse of women artists to serve illicit political purposes under the eyes and ears of the regime.

Gamal talks about a brief and warm encounter between Oum Kolthoum and Faten Hamama in Europe, where Hamama is known to have taken refuge away from the pressure that forced her as an actress into some compromising services. “Faten Hamama hugged Oum Kolthoum warmly and told her that her voice took her back to Cairo. Oum Kolthoum told Faten that she needed to come back. Faten utters a brief and heavy Inshallah.” This was all that Gamal wrote.

Gamal was very thorough in quoting the many articles that were published to praise Oum Kolthoum during her tours in and out of Egypt, in favour of the military budget.

Gamal portrays Oum Kolthoum’s exceptional status due to her close association with Abdel-Nasser, which seemed to privilege both of them: Oum Kolthoum was of a status to be invited to the launch of industrial projects, and Abdel-Nasser had the Arab world’s most iconic voice singing for him “Ebqah Fanta Al-Amal” (Stay, You’re the Hope) when he announced a plan to step down upon the 1967 defeat.

Gamal also reflected effectively on her press archives in Egypt and all the Arab countries that she visited during her performances to support the military budget. He mentions that Oum Kolthoum had received invitations to sing in countries that were at political odds with Abdel-Nasser himself, like Al-Maghreb Al-Arabi, Al-Mashreq, and the Gulf.

The book reveals that she had also received royal and presidential banquets everywhere she went during her tours. She also talked about women’s role before Arab monarchs and received extravagant jewellery from the Gulf rulers in appreciation of her unique voice, which was truly the thing that almost all Arabs agreed on.

The book shows a woman who was very accurate about the choice of the lyrics of her songs and the effective “assignment” of the lyrics to Egypt’s top composers. It also talks about the lengthy, no matter how exhausting, rehearsals she went through before each performance.

Above all, the book shows her reign over the hearts and minds of the audiences, including Arab Jews, who disobeyed all orders to attend her performance in Paris despite knowing that the price of their tickets would go to the coffers of the Egyptian army.

Gamal’s book starts with June's defeat and ends with her death at the age of 75. However, it focused on the months between August 1967, when she started her performances to support the army, and September 1970, upon the death of Abdel-Nasser which stopped a performance she was supposed to have in Moscow per an invitation from the Soviet Union. Although these months witnessed the beginning of her career’s long end, they are among the most remarkable months in her entire path.

The book displays an impressive selection of photos in every chapter, reminding us of the great work of renowned photographer Farouk Ibrahim during those tours. In every trip, she was accompanied by a press delegation and a delegation from the Egyptian radio and television. However, it is not clear from the book where the recordings of these tours have ended.

Although the book was criticized by some as being “somehow too archival in style,” it is certainly a fascinating and easy-to-read book that tells a lot about Oum Kolthoum, as an artist and a woman, Egypt, and the Arab world in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

Certainly, the book shows Egypt as a leading Arab nation that commanded power and respect even at the moment of its most shocking military defeat.