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Fawwaz Haddad

A genius and a muse

Umm Kulthum continues to inspire the next generation of Arab artists [AFP]

Date of publication: 5 February, 2015

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Comment: Oum Kulthoum has a song to match any emotion. Her music became the soundtrack to some of Egypt's deepest trials and tribulations. On the 40th commemoration of her passing we remember.

Egyptian singer Oum Kulthoum has long since acquired legendary status. Granted the title, 'The Star of the East', she is unique. Many have imitated her style, none have been able to reach her heights of greatness.

Oum Kulthoum appealed to people of all ages. Her career spanned the British occupation of Egypt, the monarchy, the July revolution, and the rule of President Gamal Adber Nasser.

Royal favourite

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Hailing from the small southern Egyptian village of Tamay al-Zahayra, Oum Kulthoum climbed the ladder to become the palace's favourite singer.

She was so loved at court that she very nearly almost married the king's uncle until fierce objection from members of the royal family. These rumours would dog her throughout her life.

During the 1948 war in Palestine, Oum Kulthoum responded to a request by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his army officers to sing Gholobt asaleh fi rohi (I'm tired of trying not to forgive you).

Nasser was trapped along with 4,000 other Egyptian soldiers in Palestine, completely encircled by the Israeli army. During that Fallujah Siege, named after the village the soldiers were confined to, the troops heard her sing the request via their radios.

Revolutionary period

When the 1952 revolution overthrew the royal family, the singer was in her prime and closely linked to the Egyptian palace. The Free Officers who started the revolution also attempted to topple her from her throne.

Abdel Nasser, however, recognised her talent and refused to allow the singer to fall from grace.

Oum Kulthoum soon played her part in the revolution, singing for its leaders. She became one of the revolution’s most diehard supporters and advocated that a new Egypt to be built by the hands of workers and farmers.

When Egyptian forces were routed in the 1967 war, their setback was a personal blow to her. She broke the shackles of defeat by singing the anthem of the age, "Give me my freedom, set me free".

Joy of music

People listened to her during times of despair, joy, and in the deepest torment of love. She transcended the limits of passion, misery and longing for love.

It was her art that elevated her to the heights of greatness - not the royal court or the revolution - and through her voice and performances we saw the work of genius. She was a gift to the Arab world.

But genius is never enough; a talent can wither and die if the person does not support it with hard work and exposure to culture.

Oum Kulthoum only reached the top because she stood on the shoulders of giants. She brought out the talents in them, and their love for her voice made them produce their greatest work. She was a muse and an artist.

Sound of the soul

Riyadh al-Sunbati, a songwriter who wrote music for Umm Kulthum said, "The layers of her voice made us exceed our abilities and outperform ourselves."

Oum Kulthoum sang about personal relationships ("I almost doubt myself, because I almost doubt you"), and her lover ("walking confidently like a king"), and of course about her country ("Egypt is on my mind and in my blood").

So beautiful was her voice that it made one long to experience the torment of love, which she frequently sang about.

Lucky are those who lived at the time of Oum Kulthoum, Abdel Nasser and the Arabs.

This article is edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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