Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum: An eternal star who won hearts from East to West

Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum: An eternal star who won hearts from East to West
Iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performing at a concert in Cairo in 1975. (AFP)
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Updated 17 September 2022

Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum: An eternal star who won hearts from East to West

Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum: An eternal star who won hearts from East to West
  • In the first of our new series focusing on Arabic cultural icons, we profile the incomparable vocalist known as The Star of the East 

DUBAI: With her voluminous hairstyle and diamond-studded sunglasses, the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum has one of the most instantly recognizable silhouettes in modern pop culture.

The singer’s storied career saw her pack out venues for 50 years until just before her death in 1975. Such was her status that she is often referred to as “The fourth pyramid” by Arabs, as well as “The star of the East,” “Mother of the Arabs” and “Lady of Arabic song.”

Umm Kulthum was born Fatima Ibrahim as-Sayed El-Beltagi in the village of Tamay e-Zahayra in the Nile Delta in 1898. The daughter of an imam, she learned to recite the Qur’an at a young age and regularly sang with her father at village weddings.

Because of her father’s religious upbringing — and cultural norms — Umm Kulthum often had to dress as a boy when she performed in her youth. She did this at numerous festivals, weddings and other events in order to provide for her family.

The singer’s storied career saw her pack out venues for 50 years. (AFP)

A star is born 

After moving to Cairo in 1923, Umm Kulthum was fortunate to land the well-known singer and composer Shaykh Abu Al-Aila Muhammad as her teacher and mentor.

She signed her first recording contract in 1926 and began to put together her own ensemble of musicians. As she started to mingle in Cairo’s cultural scene, she met several poets — most notably Ahmad Rami, who wrote the lyrics for 137 of her songs.

In 1932, she embarked on her first major tour of the Middle East which took in Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, Tunis and Tripoli, and, in 1934, she sang at the inaugural broadcast of Radio Cairo.

Umm Kulthum recorded an estimated 300 songs over her career — tracks that covered universal themes of love, loss and desire.

She thrilled audiences with marathon performances (often a single song would last for an hour or more), which would include songs such as “Enta Omri,” “Alf Leila w Leila,” “Seret El Hob” and “Al Atlal,” packed with such raw emotional power that they continue to hold sway over great swathes of the Arab world.

Saudi playwright and arts patron Mona Khashoggi, who created a West End musical dedicated to Umm Kulthum. (Supplied)

“Her music is so empowering and nostalgic. She reminds us of home,” Saudi playwright and arts patron Mona Khashoggi, who created a West End musical dedicated to the star — “Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era” — that premiered in London in 2020, told Arab News. “I left Saudi Arabia when I was young... Every time I’m sad, I listen to Umm Kulthum, and I think everybody else does that. She is in every home for every age. She is timeless.”

Global impact

The star had close connections to political leaders including King Farouk of Egypt and former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. She also met Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba during one of her concerts in Tunis and to Charles de Gaulle, the former president of France, she was simply “the Lady.”

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (C) and his successor Anwar Al-Sadat (R) pose with Umm Kulthum and Egyptian composer Mohamed Al-Mogi in Cairo in the late 60s. (AFP)

A number of influential Western singers, including Bob Dylan and Maria Callas have proclaimed themselves admirers. The latter described her voice as “incomparable.” Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest rock singers, told the Independent in 2010 that he was visiting Marrakech in 1970 when he first heard Umm Kulthum’s voice and that the experience had “blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.”

“When I first heard the way she would dance down through a scale to land on a beautiful note that I couldn’t even imagine singing, it was huge,” Plant said.

Egyptian composer and conductor Hisham Gabr. (AFP)

“Everything about Umm Kulthum stands out,” Egyptian composer and conductor Hisham Gabr told Arab News in 2018. “Her voice, her mastery, her ability to improvise, and the way that she uses this incredible array of nuances in her voice to express the tiniest and slightest details of the words that she’s singing. She reincarnates melody, reinvents it in so many ways that are quite stunning and amazing. And yet she never loses track of what those words mean and how she can convey and augment those meanings to her listeners.”

Khashoggi, whose father was a friend of the singer’s family, said: “She inspires me as an artist. She is an idol for me and I think for every woman. She stands for the empowerment of women, for working hard and perseverance. I’m a big fan.” 

A unique talent

Apart from the astonishing power of her voice, one thing that set the singer apart from her peers was her renowned diction. Arabic language experts have said that Umm Kulthum’s pronunciation of lyrics was unlike any other artist.

“She was like a professor of Arabic pronunciation,” the late Egyptian radio commentator Amal Fahmy previously said in an interview.

Kassem Wahba, an associate professor of Arabic at the American University in Dubai. (AUD)

Kassem Wahba, an associate professor of Arabic at the American University in Dubai, told Arab News: “Because she learned the Qur’an, her pronunciation was perfect. Most of her songs were poems in fusha (classical Arabic).”

Khashoggi echoed Wahba’s words. “She spoke Arabic perfectly because of (reciting the Quran). Her Arabic was excellent,” she said. “I don’t think there is anybody like her.”

Iraqi men gather and socialise at Umm Kulthum Cafe on Rasheed street, the oldest street in Baghdad in 2019. (AFP)

The playwright also noted the onstage charisma that Umm Kulthum radiated with seemingly little effort. “I don’t know what she did, but she was amazing,” Khashoggi said. “She sang with such confidence — it’s 100 emotions in a second. And she basically stood still. But even with a gesture… if she just moved her hand, everyone would get excited.”

If reports are to be believed, after Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 aged 77, four million people attended her funeral — around 10.5 percent of Egypt’s population at the time, which was around 38.55 million.

If reports are to be believed, after Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 aged 77, four million people attended her funeral. (AFP)

Enduring legacy 

Umm Kulthum’s legacy lives on. In recent years, events companies have staged concerts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE in which the singer “appears” as a hologram.

The Arab World Institute (IMA) in Paris hosted an exhibition last year titled “Arab Divas: From Umm Kulthum to Dalida” to honor the “Star of the East” and other renowned singers, and the show will next appear in Amsterdam in March 2023.

An area is dedicated to the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum as part of the 'Divas' exhibition at the Arab World Institute (IMA) in Paris in 2021. (AFP)

The exhibition’s curator Elodie Bouffard said this week that the exhibition in France was “an exceptional moment for the IMA.” 

“We received an impressive number of guests — we were fully booked every day,” she said. “And compared to other exhibitions this one had a very young age range — mothers with their kids.”

Forty-seven years after her death, Umm Kulthum continues to inspire new generations with her unique and timeless talent.

REVIEW: ‘Sidney’ on Apple TV+ is a gripping biopic on a black actor’s rise during the civil rights movement

REVIEW: ‘Sidney’ on Apple TV+ is a gripping biopic on a black actor’s rise during the civil rights movement
Updated 29 September 2022

REVIEW: ‘Sidney’ on Apple TV+ is a gripping biopic on a black actor’s rise during the civil rights movement

REVIEW: ‘Sidney’ on Apple TV+ is a gripping biopic on a black actor’s rise during the civil rights movement

CHENNAI: Many years ago, when I interviewed Sidney Poitier at the Montreal International Film Festival, what struck me most was his humility, graciousness and empathy. He addressed those traits in a new documentary “Sidney,” out now on Apple TV+.

Produced by Oprah Winfrey and directed by Reginald Hudlin, the nearly two-hour film delves deep into the Hollywood icon’s psyche and is an endearing biopic that tells us so much about his struggles to get to where he did.

Poitier died in early 2022, but the film features a telling interview with the star, who speaks about learning humility and empathy from his parents, and also shares the traumatic story of his birth.

He was in his 90s when he died, but he was not supposed to live so long. Born two months premature to tomato farming parents on Cat Island in the Bahamas in the 1920s, his father had brought a shoebox to serve as a makeshift coffin. But his mother would have none of it — she walked around the island weeping when she chanced upon a soothsayer, who predicted that the child would go places and reach the pinnacle of glory.

“I achieved most of it,” Poitier tells us in the documentary, which has been narrated in the form of a lilting story. 


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Although much of the biography comes from the man himself, there are invaluable inputs from Winfrey, Halle Berry and Morgan Freeman, who says at one point that Sidney never played a subservient part – something so common in Hollywood before race relations became a huge debate in the 1960s. Earlier, Black actors could only be janitors or dishwashers or nannies on the silver screen, but Poitier changed all this. His 1963 film “Lilies of Field” earned him an Oscar and he became the first Black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.

What caused even more of a stir was 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night” in which Poitier’s Detective Virgil Tibbs slapped an actor playing a white plantation owner on screen. It was electrifying, especially given the ongoing civil rights movement.

The biopic dives into all this and more, but does not shy away from the actor’s failings in his personal life — his long affair with actress Diahann Carroll triggered a divorce which split his family, for example.

What viewers will undoubtedly take away is a picture of a man who paved the way for actors of color to shine on the big screen and emerge from the shadows of their white contemporaries.

Adel Emam: The biggest star in Arab cinema

Adel Emam: The biggest star in Arab cinema
Updated 29 September 2022

Adel Emam: The biggest star in Arab cinema

Adel Emam: The biggest star in Arab cinema
  • For this week’s edition of our series on Arab icons, we profile one of the Arab world’s most popular stars
  • The Egyptian actor’s remarkable longevity is down to his talent and integrity

DUBAI: There are not many lives as full as Adel Emam’s. Put it this way: The Dubai International Film Festival has given him a Lifetime Achievement Award twice. A legend of stage and screen — both big and small — Emam is the crown prince of Egyptian pop-culture, a comic and dramatic actor who has appeared in 103 movies and more than a dozen TV series over an astounding career that has lasted more than 60 years. 

At 82, Emam may have taken a slight step back from the public eye, but the love the Arab world continues to show for him, and his influence on the generations of talent who grew up idolizing him, is as immense as it has ever been. 

“Everything in the world changes. The rhythm of speech changes. Life becomes fast too. And believe me, you can fool some people all the time, and you can fool all the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” Emam told Kuwait’s Zaman TV in the 1970s. “It is honesty that determines career longevity, and an actor’s esteem from his fans determines his continuation or his end.”

Adel Emam with Hend Sabry in Marwan Hamed's 'The Yacoubian Building'. (Supplied)

While Emam was waxing philosophical about another actor at the time, by his own metric it is his sincerity that has helped earn his following — both from those that watch his work, and those that have worked with him directly. 

His straightforward nature and honesty have long been the key to his comedic voice, too, allowing him to tackle hot-button issues such as gender roles in society (1966’s “My Wife, The Director General”); terrorism and religious extremism (1979’s “We are the Bus People,” 1992’s “Terrorism and Kebab,” 2006’s “Hassan and Marcus”); political corruption (2006’s “The Yacoubian Building”) and more, only come out the other side (mostly) unscathed. (Like many Egyptian celebrities, he has stirred controversy with his indelible satire, but no charges against him have ever stuck.)

For Marwan Hamed, Egypt’s top modern director and the man behind Egypt’s current all-time box-office champion “Kira & El Gin,” there’s simply no competition — there has been no bigger moment for him than collaborating on “The Yacoubian Building” with the man known as “Al Zaeem” (The Big Boss).

“Working with the Egyptian legend Adel Emam has been the greatest privilege I’ve had in my career,” Hamed tells Arab News. “Adel Emam is my childhood, teenage, and all-time, hero. Working with him was a great moment, and to work with such a great man and artist in my first film was an exceptional honor for me.

“His humanity, generosity and love were the highlight of this experience, and personally I learned a lot from him, whether from observing him or from the words of advice that he gave me,” he continues. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that the whole experience is the most memorable I’ve had, and every shooting day was full of value and true art.

Egyptian film star and comedian Adel Imam (L) applauds with his wife Hala al-Sharakani (R) the beginning of the first screening of his new film "Hello America" at the opening night 04 January 2000 in Cairo. (AFP)

In “The Yacoubian Building,” which became the most popular film in Egyptian history up to that point (a theme throughout Hamed’s career) and the best-received performance of Emam’s dramatic career, Emam cemented himself as Egypt’s biggest star, regardless of genre. He also helped launch the career of his own son, Mohamed Emam, his co-star in the film and now one of the biggest stars in Egypt in his own right. 

“I love him so much. I admire him so much. He's my idol,” Mohamed told Arab News earlier this year, while admitting that it hadn’t always been easy trying to build his own career. “It’s very difficult to become an actor when your father is the biggest actor in the world,” he said. “It was a big, big struggle at first. Slowly people grew to understand that I love cinema, that I don’t do this just because my father is a big actor.”

As a public figure, Emam has long been humble in nature, rarely pointing to himself as a leader.

“I am not a superstar, or a leader of any kind. There are no leaders in art. All I want is to use my talents to make people's lives better, if only in a small way,” he once said.

Adel Imam and Omar Sharif in 2008 at a press conference announcing their film 'Hassan and Marcus.' (Getty) 

That, of course, is likely why people trust his opinions. Interviewers have often found themselves asking for his thoughts on political or social issues, looking to him for guidance in the debates of the day. And he invariably answers candidly — and often bravely. 

In those conversations, however, he does not see himself as anything more than a voice in the crowd.

“The masses are the ones who move politics, and the problems of the masses are the things that move politics. It is not an individual who moves politics,” he told Zaman TV.

Born in 1940 in the city of Mansoura in Egypt, Emam studied agriculture at Cairo University, where he lost interest in his studies and became intrigued by the art, literature and theater that his friends were introducing him to. 

“I feel (acting is) in my blood,” he said to Kuwait’s Zaman TV. “I love it, and my connection is always with people in the audience. In film, the camera enters the heart through the eyes. The more heart you see, the more honest the artist.”

Emam studied agriculture at Cairo University. (Getty)

As popular as Emam is, there are many sides to him that are not common public knowledge. Compared to his contemporaries and co-stars such as Omar Sharif and Soad Hosny, his private life has remained relatively private. But those are the sides that his own son hopes to portray on screen someday, Mohamed told Arab News.

“There’s another side to him that people don’t see: The father. The man that I know best,” he said. “I would love to be able to tell that story myself someday.”

While Emam may have slowed down, his career is still going strong. He last starred in the 2021 film “Bodyguard,” and is set to star once again with his son in “El Wad W Aboh” in the near future.

As for persistent rumors of his ill health or retirement, The Big Boss himself is here to put them to rest. 

“Honestly, it’s a great feeling for a man to read his own obituary while he is well,” Eman joked to ET Bil Arabi last month.

London Halal Food Festival opens its gates to 18,000 visitors

London Halal Food Festival opens its gates to 18,000 visitors
Updated 28 September 2022

London Halal Food Festival opens its gates to 18,000 visitors

London Halal Food Festival opens its gates to 18,000 visitors
  • With 150 vendors, festival showcases 25 cuisines from around the world
  • Festival’s mission is to help support halal SMES

LONDON: The Halal Food Festival returned to the UK capital this year for its sixth edition with 25 cuisines on offer at more than 150 stalls.

At least 18,000 people attended the two-day event, which ran from Sept. 24-25 at London Stadium in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The scale and scope of the festival mean London now hosts one of the largest specifically halal food gatherings in the world, according to organizers. 

Kevin Jackson, director of Algebra Festivals, launched the festival with his partner Waleed Jahangia seven years ago. 

“We created an event that would put food at the heart of the community. There’s no better way of sharing culture than through food,” he said.

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers have invested heavily in infrastructure, transforming the festival into an experience that goes beyond food.

The event featured a VIP lounge, shopping stalls, live entertainment, cookery theater, picnic area, kids play area, mechanical bull and fun competitions. 

One of the highlights was a live demonstration by NHS doctor and former “MasterChef” winner Dr. Saliha Mahmood Ahmed. 

Using bread dough to teach women how to examine themselves for early signs of breast cancer, Ahmed aimed to overcome cultural taboos that contribute to low cancer awareness among the Muslim community in the UK. 

The new additions reflect the growing view that halal is more than just about food but is a lifestyle, too. 

Jackson recalled that when he and Jahangia launched the festival, most Muslim events in London were held in community centers or school halls. 

But the London Stadium event shows the Muslim community now has access to some of the most renowned venues in the capital. 

The festival has also evolved into a cultural melting pot, with both its cuisine and its foodies coming from around the globe. 

“We’ve got people from Manchester, Birmingham, people who came on a day trip from Paris yesterday. We’ve got people from Spain. We’ve got people from Scotland. This is such a big event for the Muslim community that they travel for miles to come to it,”  Jackson said.  

Chef Fatima El-Rify of Mama Hayam reported positive feedback from visitors tasting her Egyptian cuisine. 

“They didn’t know what it was completely. They knew a little about kosheri, but now they have a really strong idea. They’re coming back for more. They’re bringing their friends. They really love kosheri and mahshi, so that’s really good.” 

She added: “I think there is nowhere else in London that you can try all these different cuisines and just have this ease of it all being halal.” 

The festival also features the timeless and the contemporary, from Jordan’s traditional Anabtawi Sweets to London’s Lola’s Cupcakes.

Apart from catering to Muslim visitors, it aims to provide an international platform for the halal economy, while helping to nurture halal small and medium enterprises. 

“We’re building business relationships. The traders all trade with one another. The suppliers, our partners here, Tariq Halal, are providing products for our exhibitors,” Jackson said. 

Founder Shahin Bharwani of Mocktail Company, which sells non-alcoholic beverages,  said that she was fortunate to have been able to exhibit at the Halal Food Festival in 2016 within months of launching her business. 

“It was brilliant in terms of being a startup to get the brand exposure needed at this type of event.” 

Festival vendors reflected on the halal industry’s growth in the past decade. 

Bharwani said: “There’s so many variations of businesses here, particularly the food. Years ago you could never imagine halal tacos hell or gourmet burgers, that type of thing, so to have those kinds of halal options now is amazing.” 

Co-partner Abid Haider of Proper Burgers said that the event “just keeps getting bigger and bigger.” 

With the industry now worth billions, the London festival is part of a growing movement placing halal on high street.


Christie’s Dubai to exhibit rare Islamic and Mughal finds

Christie’s Dubai to exhibit rare Islamic and Mughal finds
Updated 28 September 2022

Christie’s Dubai to exhibit rare Islamic and Mughal finds

Christie’s Dubai to exhibit rare Islamic and Mughal finds

DUBAI: Set to take place from Sept. 28 to Oct.3, Christie’s Middle East and North Africa has announced a new exhibition open to the public of a selection of important works of art from across a number of forthcoming auctions taking place at Christie’s Dubai.

The exhibition, taking place in DIFC, will showcase a selection of top lots, including paintings, works of art and carpets.

One of the highlights at the exhibition includes works from "Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Oriental Rugs and Carpets" auction.  The first item is an exceptionally rare 17th century Royal Mughal Pashmina carpet, from 1650's Northern India. Another piece of interest is a work from a group of Iznik pottery from The Victor Adda Collection – a collector based in Alexandria in the early 20th century.

Also included in the collection are a number of important Old Master and European paintings. These include Sir Anthony van Dyck's "Portrait of Henrietta Maria." In 1632, van Dyck was appointed as ‘Principal Painter’ to King Charles I of Britain.  

A number of equestrian paintings, including a work by French artist Theodore Gericault and a racing scene by British master Sir Alfred James Munnings, are being showcased, reflecting the region’s considerable passion for horsemanship in all forms.

“This carefully curated selection of important works on exhibition at Christie’s Dubai reflects the discerning taste of collectors across the MENA region, who appreciate the very best quality, artistry, and extraordinary craftsmanship represented by these works across categories.  It is a great honor to be able to showcase these works in Dubai for the first time,: said Arne Everwijn, Director of Business Development Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.

Singer Kylie Minogue to headline a New Year’s Eve gala dinner in Dubai  

Singer Kylie Minogue to headline a New Year’s Eve gala dinner in Dubai  
Updated 28 September 2022

Singer Kylie Minogue to headline a New Year’s Eve gala dinner in Dubai  

Singer Kylie Minogue to headline a New Year’s Eve gala dinner in Dubai  

DUBAI: Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue is set to headline a New Year’s Eve Gala Dinner at Dubai’s Atlantis, The Palm. 

Minogue will take to the stage in the lead-up to hotel’s 2023 countdown, entertaining guests with anthems such as “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” “All The Lovers” and “The Loco-Motion.” 

Her performance will be followed by fireworks and pyrotechnic displays. 

This year’s gala dinner theme is titled “A Night With The Stars.” 

Minogue first performed in the Middle East at the resort’s grand opening back in 2008.

The music sensation has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide and in 2020, made UK chart history becoming the first female solo artist to claim number one albums in five consecutive decades.  

Minogue has multiple awards and accolades to her name, including three BRIT Awards, two MTV Music Awards and a Grammy Award. 

Timothy Kelly, the executive vice president and managing director of Atlantis, said in a statement: “We are incredibly excited to welcome the return of Kylie Minogue to Atlantis, The Palm for a spectacular New Year’s Eve performance.”

“As the leading entertainment destination in the region, our New Year’s Eve Gala Dinners have become legendary, with Kylie joining the likes of rock band KISS in 2020, and Robbie Williams in 2021. We no doubt that 2023 will be another exceptional moment and can’t wait to give our guests one of the most memorable New Year’s Eve of their lives,” added Kelly.