Tribute to one of the greatest legends of Arabic music on its maiden voyage in the Middle East
Melissa van Maasdyk
If you’re from the region, you’ll know her well. If you’re not, but have lived here for a while, then you’ve probably heard her sing – whether or not you’re aware of it. Because Um Kalthum is the undisputed ‘mother’ of all Arabic singers, a legend in her lifetime, whose annual CD sales reach around 300,000 in Egypt alone over 30 years after her death. And if there was ever any question as to why she is such an icon, then this enlightening multimedia exhibition celebrating her life clears that up.
Created by the Arab World Institute Paris, 'Um Kalthum: The Fourth Pyramid' has already had a successful run in the French capital and was brought to Bahrain’s Moda Mall by the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research. This is its first stop on a Middle Eastern tour, and we highly recommend that you get to it before it moves on at the end of the month. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll be left in no doubt that the Middle East had its own Edith Piaf or, arguably, the West, its own Um Kalthum.
An Egyptian visitor to the exhibition explained that Um Kalthum is called The Fourth Pyramid, because after Egypt’s three main pyramids in Cairo, she is the next most important symbol of the country. He told us that he remembers, in his youth, regularly gathering around the radio with the rest of his family to hear her sing. As the exhibition makes clear, the whole of Egypt came to a standstill on the first Thursday of every month, when she sang live on Egypt’s first radio station, and her fan base extended throughout the Arab world.
At the entrance, a timeline tells the story of Um Kalthum’s life, from her birth in 1898, in the village of Tamay-al Zahaira in the Nile Delta, to her death in 1975, via numerous successes on stage, screen, and in public life, all vividly brought to life by photographs, film, documents and personal possessions spread across two moodily lit floors. Newspaper clippings chart her rise to fame from her first concert in Cairo in 1920 to world tours and television appearances; footage from six musical films is screened on one wall; black and white photographs provide insights into her persona, both on stage and off, socialising with pashas and presidents; and glamorous bejewelled dresses testify to her reputation as a style maven.
But there are also reminders that this was not only a woman of style and musical talent, but one of substance too. Her songs were as famous for their rendition (in a perfect diction attributed to early training in reciting the Koran) as they were for their thought-provoking lyrics, and you’ll find a couple of transcripts here, along with original handwritten notebooks belonging to some of the celebrated thinkers and poets with whom she collaborated. There are also newspaper clippings and documentary footage testifying to her active political life. She was an avid Arab nationalist and a personal friend of President Nasser, loved by the people of Egypt for making numerous contributions to her country, both of her time and money, earning many awards and a diplomatic passport.
Finally, there’s a mini cinema showing footage of some of her performances that provides a glimpse of just what kept fans enraptured at marathon sessions that famously went on until 5am. If this has whet your appetite, settle in with a coffee in the mall’s atrium, where Um Kalthum’s songs will be played throughout the exhibition’s run. Then you’ll probably want to head to the nearest music store to pick up a CD.
‘Um Kalthum: The Fourth Pyramid’ runs until March 31 at Moda Mall, World Trade Centre, Diplomatic Area. Entrance free. The exhibition is in French and Arabic, but the catalogue (BD10) also includes English.