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‘Star of the East’ may have been the Arab World’s Greatest Songstresses

posted on: Feb 7, 2018

By: John Mason/Contributing Writer

Anthropologist John Mason and his family lived in Cairo for four years. They resided in the city rather than the suburbs, where most Americans lived. This was so that John and his wife, Nancy, and their children could experience Egyptian culture and society more directly. It was in Cairo that they became more fully aware of ‘The Star of the East,’ Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (Umm Kulthum).

Our family had first lived in the quarter of downtown Cairo known as ‘Garden  City.’ That neighborhood was a stone’s throw from Cairo’s now-famous/infamous Tahrir Square. This is where Egypt’s so-called ‘Arab Spring’ had given birth in 2011 and then, soon after, expired.

Later we moved to the Nile island of Zamalak, where our ground-floor apartment was a mere walk across the street from the great river itself. Once we moved there, we were happy to know that Zamalak was the home of the ever-popular Egyptian songstress, Umm al-Kulthum. She wasn’t an immediate neighbor, but just being in the vicinity of this great interpreter of Egyptian love, longing and loss were enough to remind us of her nostalgia-filled voice.


Photo: Tahrir Square, where Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring” unfolded in 2011

We’d known Umm Kulthum’s songs for years—she was and is still loved across the Arab world. Umm Kulthum was well into her seventies at the time we moved to Zamalak, but her reputation was as strong as ever. To me personally, her vocal breadth reminded me of American jazz crooner Ella Fitzgerald. They both had had modest upbringings and their voices shared at least two of the same traits—a crystalline soprano quality delivered in a strong melodic line that had an emotional impact that grabbed at the heartstrings. Like Ella, Umm Kulthum was known to create a lasting bond with her audiences. That bond, long after her death, is as strong as ever today in the Arab World.

Photo: Umm Kulthum, the ‘Star of the East’

Umm Kulthum’s voice and message were intertwined with Egypt’s social fabric, including its politics. Some said her popularity helped Nasser’s political agenda, her monthly radio concerts arranged to precede his speeches and other government messages. Her performances went on for hours, listeners never tiring of her messages of life, love, and lore. Unlike western singing performances, Umm Kulhum’s were marathons. They were improvisations on a theme, almost endless repetitions of certain phrases, namely because that’s what her fervent audiences wanted to hear over and over. They could never have enough of her.

Photo: Gamal Abdel Nasser (center left) with ‘The Star of the East’—He knew he could build on her popularity

The ‘Star of the East’ died February 3, 1975. We were privileged to witness her funeral cortege, where millions of her fans thronged, waiting to honor this singer who captured in lyrics all of their life aspirations. For Umm Kulthum, her audience was the entire Arab World, who not only couldn’t wait to hear her voice but who never tired of her singing. Her songs were not three-minute pop hits, but rather, expansive messages about Arab peoples’ hopes, trials, and tribulations that lasted for hours. In the end, at her death, her followers had far fewer words than their heroine to express their mourning over her loss. The best they could do was to sob and moan in their grief.

Photo: Zamalak Island, home of Umm al-Kulthum and the Author and his Family

From high atop an apartment in Zamalak, we watched as Umm Kulthum’s cortege wended its way along the Nile. Seemingly as endless as the River, lines of her mourners could only stare as the cortege of their songstress, who alone had captured the spirit of Egypt and the Arab world like none other, moved slowly past them. No less than four decades after her death, this ‘Star of the East’ is still believed to be the greatest singer in Arab history. Every time I return to the Arab World, I inevitably hear her singing, usually as soon as I grab a taxi at the airport. Her songs continue to hold all of the emotion she’d communicated during her lifetime. Umm Kulthum’s funeral was so well-attended that some Egyptians were heard to whisper, as if blaspheming, “She drew, even more, mourners than the recent funeral of Gamal Abdel Nasser.” Official Egyptian history, of course, doesn’t dare record it that way.

Photo: Umm al-Kulthum’s funeral cortege, 1975, observed by the Author in Zamalak, Cairo

John Mason is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017.