While the last month of the year is often associated with the birth of Naguib Mahfouz, novelist and Nobel laureate, it is also the month of the birth of Oum Kalthoum, the ultimate diva of Egyptian singing.
Mahfouz was born on 11 December 1911. Oum Kalthoum was born on 31 December 1898, according to most accounts, although there is uncertainty about the exact date.
Earlier this month, literature essayist Sayyed Mahmoud gave a talk on both Mahfouz and Thouma (as Oum Kalthoum was fondly called by many fans in Egypt).
The talk was titled “Mahfouz and Oum Kalthoum – two narratives from Egypt’s years of resurgence,” and looked at what the two had in common.
Addressing an audience at the International Art Center, Mahmoud argued that what actually brings these two icons together goes beyond their incredible popularity, which has lasted well beyond their own lives.
It is also more significant than the fact that Mahfouz had a great admiration for music and singing and a greater admiration for Oum Kalthoum, whose voice he thought was unparalleled. And in fact, several of the protagonists of many of Mahfouz’s works had an association with Thouma.
According to Mahmoud, the Mahouz-Thouma association is essentially about the quality of their art and the endurance and longevity of the impact of their work. Each, Mahmoud argued, was an art “institution” in themselves: serious labour combined with amazing talent.
It is also a matter of history, Mahmoud argued. Both Thouma and Mahfouz were born a few years before the 1919 revolution, which is arguably a key moment in the history of modern Egypt.
“An almost new Egypt was in the making at the years when both Mahfouz and Thouma began offering their art, and they both subscribed to and benefited from this moment,” Mahmoud said.
For example, he said, both Mahfouz and Thouma were greatly encouraged by Moustafa AbdelRazik, a prominent intellectual in the early 20th century who was a professor of Islamic philosophy and later minister of awqaf (religious endowments) and imam of Al-Azhar.
AbdelRazik had great faith in Mahfouz, and he was also one of the intellectuals to praise the talent of Oum Kalthoum early on, Mahmoud reminded the audience.
Moreover, Mahmoud suggested that the growing role of art in Egypt, first in the wake of 1919 and later after the 1952 revolution, was in fact a function of the growing role and influence of the middle class. This, he said, helped providing a wider audience for the novels of Mahfouz and the songs of Thouma.
“It was a moment where more people were finding access to education and thus of more people willing to read and consume art,” Mahmoud said.
Thouma started establishing her career in the mid to late 1920s and Mahfouz began his literary production in the 1930s.
Oum Kalthoum passed away in 1975, about 30 years before the death of Mahfouz in 2006. They only met once, in 1961, as Mahmoud mentioned, when then-editor of Al-Ahram Mohamed Hassanein Heikal invited Oum Kalthoum to a birthday gathering he had organised for Mahfouz.
However, as Mahmoud said, Thouma and Mahfouz have so often intertwined in the collective cultural memory of the country.