Bringing Umm Kulthum to London is my gift to her, says Saudi musical producer

Syrian opera singer Lubana Al-Quntar sings during rehearsals in London on Feb.21, 2020. (AN photo/Zaynab Khojji)
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Updated 24 February 2020

Bringing Umm Kulthum to London is my gift to her, says Saudi musical producer

  • The musical is the first big production in English about an Arab legend and the singing is in Arabic
  • Songs will be performed in Arabic, while the dialogue will be in English

LONDON: A musical inspired by the life of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum is being staged in London’s West End as a “gift” to the “Star of the East,” who died before she could fulfil her dream of performing in the city.
Saudi-born theater producer Mona Khashoggi said that Umm Kulthum told an interviewer in Paris before her death in 1975 that she had been invited to sing in the UK capital.
“But, sadly, she fell ill and died before she could realize her dream. So this is my gift to her,” Khashoggi told Arab News during rehearsals in London.
“Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” has been produced and written by Khashoggi, one of Saudi Arabia’s first female theater producers.
The lead role in the musical tribute will be played by acclaimed Syrian opera singer Lubana Al-Quntar. Umm Kulthum’s great grand-niece Sanaa Nabil will also feature in the show.


Khashoggi, who is passionate about reviving and preserving Arabic culture and heritage in the West, said the musical is not based on the star’s life but, rather, inspired by it. The show focuses more on the younger Umm Kulthum, her private life and early career.
In a quest to discover more about the “Nightingale of the Nile,” Khashoggi traveled to Egypt, where she spoke to Umm Kulthum’s family and friends, and to the families of Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Baligh Hamdi, who both composed songs for the future star.
“So I have created a story and I hope the audience will like it. It’s also an opportunity to showcase different music and instruments. Preserving and reviving our culture is my aim. This is entertainment, and there is dancing and acting — it is fun.”
The musical will include Umm Kulthum’s most popular works from a career spanning five decades. Songs will be performed in Arabic, while the dialogue will be in English, providing a rare insight into the life of the woman who overcame the odds to become Egypt’s biggest star during the “Golden Era” of Arabic classical music between the 1940s and 1970s.
“As a woman, Umm Kulthum inspires women to excel,” Khashoggi said. “You are talking about someone who, a hundred years ago, came from a simple village and became a legend. Her songs mean a lot to us, and her words and way of singing are full of emotion.
“To me, she represents the Arab world and also home. I think we are very nostalgic about her and that’s why I brought her to London. There are many different Arab nationalities here, so she reminds us of home.”

“Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” will debut at the London Palladium on Mar. 2, for one night only, but Khashoggi hopes that the show will go on to tour “the Middle East, Europe, America, Canada and Australia.”
“It is the first big production in English about an Arab legend and the singing is in Arabic, so I’m hoping the audience will enjoy it.”
Khashoggi said that she is confident the musical will raise awareness of Umm Kulthum and classical Arabic music among a Western audience as well as young people of Arab origin who have had little exposure to the legend.
“I wrote the story and put the music together, and I selected lyrics that sound easy on the Western ear. The show is sold out. I don’t know who bought tickets, but I hope it’s not just Umm Kulthum lovers, I hope Westerners will come and see something different,” Khashoggi added.
The producer compared “The Lady,” as the singer is also known, to Maria Callas. “People in Egypt gathered around the radio to listen to Umm Kulthum when her concerts were broadcast live on the first Thursday of every month,” she said.
“Umm Kulthum sings to everyone, she’s in every home and in every head in the Middle East. She is the only artist whose music is still alive in such a big capacity. People stop their work and everything else to listen to her; she reminds us of home.
“She is not just the voice of Egypt, she is the voice of the Arabs and our queen. I’m honored to bring her to London.”

 


South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

Updated 12 July 2020

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

DHAHRAN: An online backlash has forced the matrimonial website Shaadi.com to take down an ‘skin color’ filter which asked users to specify their skin color using descriptors such as fair, wheatish or dark. The filter on the popular site, which caters to the South Asian diaspora, was one of the parameters for matching prospective partners.

Meghan Nagpal, a Toronto-based graduate student, logged on to the website and was appalled to see the skin-color filter. “Why should I support such archaic view [in 2020]?” she told Arab News.

Nagpal cited further examples of implicit biases against skin color in the diaspora communities – women who are dark-skinned are never acknowledged as “beautiful” or how light-skinned South Asian women who are mistaken as Caucasian consider it a compliment.

“Such biases stem from a history of colonization and the mentality that ‘white is superior’,” she said.

When Nagpal emailed the website’s customer service team, she received the response that “this is what most parents require.” She shared her experience on a Facebook group, attracting the attention of Florida-based Roshni Patel and Dallas-based Hetal Lakhani. The former took to online activism by tweeting the company and the latter started an online petition.

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. Colorism has significant consequences in our community, especially for women. People with darker skin experience greater prejudice, violence, bullying and social sanctions,” the petition reads. “The idea that fairer skin is ‘good’ and darker skin is ‘bad’ is completely irrational. Not only is it untrue, but it is an entirely socially constructed perception based in neo-colonialism and casteism, which has no place in the 21st century.”

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“When a user highlighted this, we were thankful and had the remnants removed immediately. We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world,” a spokesperson said.

“If one company starts a movement like this, it can change minds and perceptions. This is a step in the right direction,” said Nagpal. Soon after, Shaadi.com’s competitor Jeevansathi.com also took down the skin filter from its website.

Colorism and bias in matrimony is only one issue; prejudices are deeply ingrained and widespread across society. Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist, highlights research and observations on how light skin is an advantage in society.

The website took down the skin filter following backlash.

“Dark skin tends to have lower socio-economic status and, in the US justice system, has been found to get harsher and more punitive sentences.

“These biases for fair as opposed to dark skin comes from colonial prejudices and the idea that historically, light skin has been associated with privilege, power and superiority,” she said.

However, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests, change is underway.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin whitening creams in Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and earlier this month Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unilever’s Indian subsidiary) announced that it will remove the words ‘fair, white and light’ from its products and marketing. To promote an inclusive standard of beauty, it has also renamed its flagship Fair & Lovely product line to Glow & Lovely.

“Brands have to move away from these standards of beauty and be more inclusive so that people – regardless of their color, size, shape or gender – can find a role model that looks like them in the mass media,” said Dr. Rasmi.