Mention of the "Star of the East" or the "Diva of Arab Song" can only bring to mind the beloved Um Kulthoum. She is gilded in Arab memory as the voice of the 20th century, yet remains timeless, continuing to strike emotional chords in the hearts of the millions who adore her, even 30 years after her death. Her image, voice, and symbolism are inscribed in the collective consciousness of the Arab world and passionately fused with nationalist and Arab cultural identities. When she died in 1975, public attendance at her funeral was second only to that of President Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1970 – the largest in Egyptian history.
A goddess to her admirers, it is rare that she or her legend is ever treated with anything other than a quasi-religious reverence. Her biographies, both literary and in television or film, have not generally allotted space for criticism but rather offered a rose-colored perspective of her life. A recent example is the Egyptian television series which, although aired to popular and critical acclaim, tended to focus exclusively on the positive aspects of her biography, while ignoring others that would perhaps enrich the public's understanding of who she was. Arab readers and cable audiences have grown unaccustomed to criticism, and the discourse has operated within these limits. Indeed, there continues to be a trend among historians, journalists and authors who elevate Um Kulthoum from the level of an artist - a human being, with strengths and faults - to that of a divine presence, beyond reproach, and symbolic to the point of being static.
Ratiba el-Hifni, is breaking with this trend, and her book, "Um Kulthoum" has been raising eyebrows. In late February 2005, the author – who is also a music historian and scholar, magazine editor, popular television host and opera singer – participated in a symposium in conjunction with the book in Alexandria, Egypt. The event, which focused on seldom-visited aspects of the legendary singer's life, has attracted a fair amount of media attention.
Known to be a credible academic, Hifni is unappreciated by some for her well-researched criticisms of Egypt 's most treasured singer. Though Hifni has no contentions with Um Kulthoum's legend, her exposition of certain biographical details is making some people uncomfortable. These details are hardly so salacious (or unfounded) as to warrant such reaction, though. In fact, and somewhat ironically, the most controversial contentions that came out of the symposium - Hifni's indictment of widespread corruption in the Egyptian television and radio industries, namely that certain officials received kickbacks for broadcasting low quality music – have gone largely unnoticed, eclipsed by concern with the news about Um Kulthoum.
An assured distaste for Hifni's work may have more to do with intolerance of Um Kulthoum's critics than with the quality of Hifni's scholarship, and signals the persistence of a popular, semi-mythical, and sometimes myopic view of the star.
According to a report in Al Hayat, written by Abd al-Ghani Tlias, Hifni tackled Um Kulthoum's personal life, focusing largely on her relationship with the composer Muhammed al-Qasabji. Historians maintain that Um Kulthoum abandoned Qasabji as her composer in an effort to develop and renew her orchestra. Citing correspondence between Qasabji and the late musician Mahmoud Kamel, Hifni maintains that Um Kulthoum's demotion of Qasabji from Maestro to oud player led to a deterioration of his health, causing him to suffer "a deep state of depression." Qasabji, who is famous as both oud player in the front row of Um Kulthoum's concerts, and for his own body of work, recovered from his depression and the two maintained a strong friendship, perhaps in part because she kept him as a primary musician in her orchestra. Though Qasabji (who was married four times) was never romantically involved with Um Kulthoum, Hifni suggested that he "wanted to possess her." The Qasabji "scoop" is probably the most important to come out of the new book.
However, tabloid devotees will delight in Hifni's coverage of Um Kulthoum's love life, including her secret marriage to noted Egyptian journalist, Mustafa Amin. According to Hifni, Um Kulthoum married him in secret because "she wanted to remain a possession of everyone." Amin, who founded the influential daily, Akhbar Al Youm, was known to be among the singer's inner circle, and as a journalist with an obvious inside advantage, covered her life in the news. The clandestine union lasted 11 years. Also included among the singer's admirers was the late poet Ahmad Rami, who Hifni claimed was in "real" love with her, writing songs for her that reflected the "emotional condition he was living."
As for Um Kulthoum's professional life, Hifni maintained that she was known to interfere in the work of the musicians who composed for her. According to Hifni's research, the late musician Muhammad al-Mouji admitted as much, adding that the only musician who wouldn't write for her was Farid al-Atrash, who wouldn't tolerate intervention in his music. This account fills out the generally accepted story that it is Um Kulthoum who refused to sing for al-Atrash.
It could be argued that as a scholar, Hifni is attempting to research and construct a "clear" picture of the singer's life, in contrast to the imaginary account that many rely upon. That even serious attempts at understanding Um Kulthoum's biography are viewed as irreverent suggest that room could be made in the discourse for dissenting or at least innovative voices.
Hifni's word is certainly not the last on the life of Um Kulthoum. Hopefully, future scholarship will fill in any gaps in her research and contribute to an already rich biographical sketch. Meanwhile, Hifni deserves the courtesy of listening. This means considering the reality that Um Kulthoum was indeed a human being – a detail that might make her voice more powerful yet.
This essay appeared in Vol. 10, No. 49 (Fall 2004).
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid