Remembering one of the most influential female Arab performers, whose inescapable presence shaped generations.

A woman deeply etched in every Arab’s – and even the world’s – mind, Umm Kulthum remains Egypt’s symbol of unification and strength. It was no mean feat for a woman to get by in a man’s world, especially in the Middle East during the early twentieth century. As emotional beings, we often romanticize bygone eras and personalities beyond belief. Umm Kulthum, however, transcends time and space. It was her nuanced vocal range, trance-like performances, and otherworldly stage presence that earned her nicknames such as “Kawkab Al Sharq”, meaning “Planet of the East” and “Egypt’s Fourth Pyramid.” Her legacy is deeply enmeshed in Arab society, and no amount of words can ever do justice to the eternal zeitgeist that is Umm Kulthum.

Early Days

In an Egyptian village, Tammay al Zahariyya, Fatima Ibrahim was raised in a humble Muslim family with a religious leader for a father. Her first vocal experience was learning to recite the Qur’an with her older brother. Having realized how vocally gifted she was, her father dressed her as a boy to sing religious songs at social gatherings. At 16, Mohamed Abo Al-Ela noticed her and started teaching her classical Arabic compositions. A few years later, she went to Cairo, where she met the famous composer and oudist Zakariyya Ahmad, and the rest is history.

Umm Kulthum © Pantheon World

Performances

Performing strictly Tarab music (best defined as “enchantment”), Umm Kulthum encapsulates the unique quality of Arabic music. Part of Tarab is that singers and their audience exchange a shared essence of raw emotions. During the 1930s and early 1970s, Umm Kulthum’s legendary concerts were broadcast live from Cairo on the first Thursday of every month. From Marrakech to Jerusalem, it has been said that shops closed and no one would be walking the streets. During this time, the Arab world stopped for four to six hours (as one song would last an hour) to listen to her serenading. With over 80 million records sold worldwide, Umm Kulthum was also adored by international audiences and musicians like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.

Umm Kulthom © Archives Al Bawaba

A Distinctive Look

During her early career, Umm Kulthum sweated on stage from anxiety. In response, her mother gave her a humble handkerchief that was eventually updated with luxurious ones that matched her outfits. Throughout her singing career, her handkerchief became a distinctive part of her look. Another iconic fashion choice was the diamond-encrusted black Dior sunglasses she wore in the 1930s due to thyroid gland problems. Umm Kulthum’s sunglasses are so revered that Moroccan-Egyptian model Imaan Hammam designed a pair of sunglasses inspired by hers for the brand Port Tanger. A museum in Cairo dedicated to the singer currently houses the original sunglasses.

Umm Kulthum © Archives El Mundo

Her Final Days

Umm Kulthum was diagnosed with nephritis the same year as her Paris performance leading to a decrease in her concert schedule. Despite being ill, she remained in her glory and the public’s hearts, even after her final concert at the Nile Palace in 1973. On February 3rd 1975, the Middle East lost its national treasure to her illness. And while four million people were saying goodbye at Tahrir Square, Umm Kulthum’s voice lives on forever.

Rand Al-Hadethi is an art, culture, and fashion writer who approaches all her creative endeavours with a penchant for storytelling. She explores the intersection of fashion, culture, and society and sheds light on talent and cultural movements across the Middle East and the world. Rand also publishes a bi-monthly themed substack newsletter called WebWeaver™. To reach Rand, email her at rand@khamsa5.com or follow her on social media @rundoozz.
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