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.
 


French Tunisian actress Sonia Ben Ammar to star in ‘The Equalizer 3’ 

French Tunisian actress Sonia Ben Ammar to star in ‘The Equalizer 3’ 
Updated 1 min 35 sec ago

French Tunisian actress Sonia Ben Ammar to star in ‘The Equalizer 3’ 

French Tunisian actress Sonia Ben Ammar to star in ‘The Equalizer 3’ 

DUBAI: French Tunisian actress Sonia Ben Ammar is set to star in “The Equalizer 3” alongside lead stars Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning. 

The film’s plot is being kept under wraps, but it is the third in an action series centered on Washington’s vigilante character Robert McCall. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the first film in the series was released in 2014 and earned more than $194 million worldwide, spurring a 2018 sequel that grossed over $190 million worldwide. 

On Saturday, Deadline reported that Ben Ammar was among six new stars set to join the ensemble cast, including Eugenio Mastrandrea (“From Scratch”), Remo Girone (“Ford v. Ferrari”), Daniele Perrone (“Baaria”), Andrea Scarduzio (“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One”) and Andrea Dodero (“Blocco 181”). Italian actress Gaia Scodellaro will also star in the film, as previously announced.  

Ben Ammar has joined the ever-growing list of rising Arab stars working their way up the ladder in Hollywood. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Sonia Ammar (@itsnotsonia)

The 23-year-old recently made her Hollywood debut in the fifth instalment of the “Scream” franchise, which hit theaters on Jan. 14 this year. 

With French Tunisian heritage, Ben Ammar was the first Arab main character in a “Scream” film. 

“I’m just really happy to be a part of it and represent my roots and I’m excited for people to watch it,” Ben Ammar previously told Arab News. 

“I’m really looking forward to films representing more of real life and the people and the places we live in so I am really stoked (about) that,” she added. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Sonia Ammar (@itsnotsonia)

She said that “Scream” was a new experience for her because, unlike the film’s loyal fanbase, she does not like scary movies. 

“Doing something that scares me and being a part of that was interesting,” she said, adding “But I think being part of the behind-the-scenes process of being in it really takes a lot of the scary elements out of it. When I saw the movie (at) the screening for the first time, I was jumping up from my seat.” 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Sonia Ammar (@itsnotsonia)

Although “Scream” marked Ben Ammar’s first high-profile Hollywood gig as an actress, it is not the Paris-born actress’s first foray into the film industry. 

Ben Ammar, who is the daughter of Tunisian film director Tarek Ben Ammar and Polish-born actress Beata, previously starred in Guillaume Canet’s French-language film “Jappeloup,” as well as the stage musical “1789: Les Amants de la Bastille.” 

Before following in the footsteps of her parents, the multi-hyphenate made headway in the fashion world as a model, fronting campaigns for the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, Miu Miu and Chanel. 


Mathew Knowles keen to explore Arab music at Riyadh’s XP Music Futures  

Mathew Knowles keen to explore Arab music at Riyadh’s XP Music Futures  
Updated 27 November 2022

Mathew Knowles keen to explore Arab music at Riyadh’s XP Music Futures  

Mathew Knowles keen to explore Arab music at Riyadh’s XP Music Futures  

DUBAI: Mathew Knowles, the architect of Destiny’s Child and his daughters Beyonce and Solange Knowles’ early solo careers, is more than ready to give his keynote speech at the second edition of Saudi Arabia's XP Music Futures music conference. 

“I’m like a sponge ready to embrace and take in the local culture, food, the streets, art and the people. I want to listen to their music, I want to talk to the talent, I want to understand what moves the community and what impact music has on their lives and their economy,” said Knowles in an interview with Arab News.   

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by SceneNoise (@scenenoise)

This will be Knowles’ first visit to Saudi Arabia and he says he has been hard at work researching the country. “It seems like there’s a lot of growth and inspiration currently taking place which I’m really looking forward to experiencing. I want to be able to walk to different places – whether live events or restaurants – and understand the role that music plays within the Saudi community,” said Knowles.   

“I’m also looking forward to the music conference to be able to meet and engage with policymakers and government representatives and understand the strategy for Saudi Arabia from a cultural and entertainment standpoint,” he added.   

Titled “Reinvention & Relevance: Building Longevity in Your Career with Mathew Knowles,” Knowles keynote speech will feature tips for Saudi and regional talent on how to breathe life into their music and entertainment career. 

“The music industry worldwide is a very tough one. It’s not easy to be an artist and stand out amongst a pool of talent, but with passion, artists are able to fuel their love for building a successful music career. It helps develop those essential traits needed to put in the hard work required for success and reflects in the work ethic and level of patience,” said Knowles when asking what musicians need to do in order to stand out.     

“In Saudi Arabia, there’s a huge opportunity to tear down walls and build bridges to establish those foundations required for a successful music industry so talent can excel and shine on stages, which is what I’m most excited about being part of,” he added. 

Knowles is also keen to understand the scope of Arab music when he visits Riyadh. “I’ve been researching and listening to all types of Arabic music but to me, I couldn’t really define what it meant. I hear a lot of traditional tunes, but is that the direction Arabic music is going in, or is that considered for an older audience? I’ve learnt that half of the population is of 25 years and younger so I’m eager to understand what appeals to them,” he said.   

“I also wonder would (Arab) music be defined by the beats, or the sounds of the instruments, the lyrics or overall melody? For instance, African music has approached the marketplace with new sounds that have excited crowds worldwide: Afro beats or afro pop. From everything I’ve read and seen, I believe there’s huge potential to unlock those unique Arab sounds, if not done so already, which would help local artists connect with global audiences,” he added. 

XP Music Futures is set to take place in Riyadh from Nov. 28-30. 


Dutch Moroccan model Imaan Hammam stars in charitable zine

Dutch Moroccan model Imaan Hammam stars in charitable zine
Updated 27 November 2022

Dutch Moroccan model Imaan Hammam stars in charitable zine

Dutch Moroccan model Imaan Hammam stars in charitable zine

DUBAI: Dutch Moroccan Egyptian model Imaan Hammam was photographed for a 36-page zine by Australian photographer Max Papendieck, with all proceeds from the sale of the self-published work going to the She’s The First (STF) organization.  

Hammam is an ambassador for the grassroots organization that helps empower young women through education around the world. 

She was photographed by New York-based Papendieck for an image-based zine that comes with a displayable plexiglass case. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Imaan Hammam (@imaanhammam)

 

Hammam first teamed up with STF in 2019, when she brought her Instagram followers along on a learning trip to visit young girls in The Gambia.  

“The girls and boys were getting ready for the talent show that was taking place that day. I was so excited to see what they were working on, from dancing to poetry to singing. My role for the day was to accompany them and offer any advice that I might have,” she later explained of the “life changing trip” on Instagram. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Imaan Hammam (@imaanhammam)

 

The 26-year-old model previously opened up about her involvement with the non-profit organization and how she hopes to champion young women in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar US. 

“Being a woman and having this type of career and this job, I just felt like at some point I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to help women like me, or girls like me, to tell them and show them that you’re able to dream big and be able to pursue any kind of dream you have,’ she said of her partnership with She’s the First.  

 

 

During the conversation, the model also revealed that her mother, who immigrated to the Netherlands aged 19, is a huge source of inspiration for her.  

“I just have so much respect for her and for her journey that she had,” she said. “My mom didn't always have it very easy, and I feel like I did. And that's why I think I'm so strong about helping women like my mom, or some girls like me that have always had a dream.” 

Hammam is one of the most in-demand models in the industry. She was scouted in Amsterdam’s Centraal Station before making her catwalk debut in 2013 by walking in Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture show. 

Since then, she has appeared on the runway for major fashion houses, such as Burberry, Fendi, Prada, Marc Jacobs, Moschino, Balenciaga and Carolina Herrera, to name a few. 

Hammam, who has been featured in leading fashion publications, such as Vogue and V Magazine, also starred in international campaigns for DKNY, Celine, Chanel, Versace, Givenchy, Giorgio Armani and many more. 


Saudi icon Mohammed Abdu — ‘The Artist of the Arabs’

Saudi icon Mohammed Abdu — ‘The Artist of the Arabs’
Updated 26 November 2022

Saudi icon Mohammed Abdu — ‘The Artist of the Arabs’

Saudi icon Mohammed Abdu — ‘The Artist of the Arabs’
  • In our latest Arab Icons feature, we profile the Saudi singer, oud player and composer who remains one of Khaleeji music’s biggest draws 

DUBAI: With a career spanning 60 years, Saudi singer and oudist Mohammed Abdu, dubbed ‘The Artist of the Arabs,’ has been an inspiration to many — and not just for his music.  

Abdu was born in Asir province, Saudi Arabia, on June 12, 1949. His father, a fisherman, died when Abdu was just three years old, leaving behind his wife and five other children.  

Mohammed Abdu performing in Kuwait in 2001. (Supplied)

Unable to provide for her children, Abdu’s mother surrendered her children to Ribat Abu-Zinadah — a local Yemenite hospital for orphaned families. She then petitioned King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud to find her children places at an orphanage, which he did. Abdu spent the remainder of his childhood in an orphanage in Jeddah. 

“This was really the actual struggle,” Abdu once said in an interview on Rotana’s “Ya Hala” show. “I remember every moment and every detail in my life. God gave me a memory that helps me remember things from when I was one. My struggles were of a child who wanted to be like the rest of the children in his neighborhood. They were all rich. I would see this and dream of reaching this level one day.”  

Saudi singer and oudist Mohammed Abdu, dubbed ‘The Artist of the Arabs,’ has been an inspiration to many. (Getty Images)

This was Abdu’s motive to work hard and build a name for himself. His got his first job when he was only seven, as an assistant to a mailman. He also raised money by helping housewives with their shopping and selling fruit and vegetables on the street.   

While he was interested in music as a kid, Abdu’s dream was to be involved with sailing or seamanship, like his father. He even joined a shipbuilding institute. But eventually, he abandoned the idea of becoming a sailor and turned to his true calling: music.  

Abdu began his music career in the 1960s when Saudi presenter Abbas Faiq Ghazzawi invited him to sing on the radio show “Baba Abbas.” Two songs in particular — “Al-Rasayel” and “Ab’ad” — became extremely popular. Both remain part of his live sets today. 

“Ab’ad” was a hit around the world, with Iranian and Indian translations both garnering airplay, and even European bands performing covers of the track.  

With his strong voice and distinctive style of oud playing — reminiscent of the Syrian-Egyptian virtuoso Farid Al-Atrash, Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, and fellow Saudi Talal Maddah — Abdu toured the world. It was at a concert in Tunisia in the 1980s that he first received the soubriquet “The Artist of the Arabs,” from then-Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba. 

At the end of the Eighties, Abdu took an abrupt sabbatical from music after the death of his beloved mother. It would be eight years before he performed or released another track.  

Egyptian singer Carmen Soliman, who partnered with Abdu after winning the first season of “Arab Idol,” releasing the 2014 Khaleeji track “Akhbari.”  (Getty Omages)

Aside from being an acclaimed performer, Abdu is also a talented composer in his own right. He wrote several of his own tracks, including “Al Remsh Al Taweel,” “Ya Shoog” and “Ya Sherouq Al Shams,” but has also written for other stars, including the Egyptian singer Carmen Soliman, who partnered with Abdu after winning the first season of “Arab Idol,” releasing the 2014 Khaleeji track “Akhbari.”  

Soliman told Arab News that composer Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh was the driving force behind this perhaps unexpected partnership. “He wished for a collaboration like that to happen, and he worked a lot until he made it happen,” she said. “I would like to thank him for choosing me. I could not believe it at the time. I felt like I would have a song in my history that would never be forgotten. And everyone would know that this song was composed by Mohammed Abdu. 

“He was my favorite singer to listen to,” she continued. “To me, Mohammed Abdu is a legend (whose like we will not see again). I love his voice. He has an amazing, strong voice. Through it, he can reach the hearts of the audience. I love his music.”  

Soliman cited “Ma’ad Badri,” “Ala El-Bal” and “Shebeeh El-Reeh” as some of her favorite Abdu songs. “His performance in these songs is non-replicable,” she said.  

Soliman also praised Abdu’s humility, which she said is not common among artists these days. “That, and his humor,” she said. “You feel like you are sitting with someone from your family. He is very down-to-earth and close to the heart.”  

Soliman is not the only singer who hails Abdu as an icon. Saudi artist Hassan Eskandarani, who is also a researcher of Saudi songs, told Arab News: “Mohammed Abdu is an independent school. He sang to all categories. 

“I can’t give my opinion on an artist who has (such a long) career,” he added. “Mohammed Abdu lives through three generations from the beginning of the Sixties. He played a pivotal role in expanding Khaleeji music outside of the Kingdom. I hope he keeps singing until he decides to stop.” 

Eskandarani says Abdu is “a stage master,” who has had a major influence on his own live performances.  

“Not everyone who sings a song on stage is a (real) singer,” he said. “Mohammed knows how to choose (songs) the fans like, so they engage with him.” 

Mohammed Abdu signs his record-breaking deal with Rotana on Nov. 8, 2022. (Supplied)

Abdu remains a vital and relevant musician. Only this month, he reportedly broke the record for the biggest acquisition of an artist’s back catalog (which includes an astonishing 122 albums) in the Middle East when Rotana announced on Nov. 8 that it had bought the rights to his works.  

“Rotana signed the largest deal of its kind in the Middle East – the agreement to purchase the full artistic content of Arab artist Mohammed Abdu,” the label announced on Instagram.  

Chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority Turki Al-Sheikh said at the event: “It is a courageous move from Mohammed Abdu to give up (these precious) works that he worked hard on for 60 years. It is similar to someone giving away one of his children. 

“We at the General Entertainment Authority support the archiving of the artistic history of Saudi artists,” he added. “However, Mohamed Abdu remains ahead of the rest of the artists.”  


Fans opt for Dubai’s relaxed atmosphere over Qatar during World Cup

Fans opt for Dubai’s relaxed atmosphere over Qatar during World Cup
Updated 25 November 2022

Fans opt for Dubai’s relaxed atmosphere over Qatar during World Cup

Fans opt for Dubai’s relaxed atmosphere over Qatar during World Cup
  • Daily round trip to Qatar allows supporters to attend matches while enjoying city’s nightlife

LONDON: Dubai has enjoyed a huge boost in tourism as thousands of football fans have decided to base themselves in the UAE during the World Cup after being lured by the city’s relaxed atmosphere, the Financial Times has reported.

Supporters have reportedly preferred the vibrant UAE, making daily trips to Qatar on the shuttle flights that connect the countries during the tournament.

Fans from participating countries have opted for Dubai’s more relaxed vibes and lively nightlife over Doha’s more straitlaced atmosphere.

“If you cannot stay in Qatar, Dubai is the place you would most like to go as a foreign tourist,” said James Swanston, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Capital Economics.

“It is somewhere safe, somewhere more liberal in terms of Western norms. It is the most attractive destination.”

Concerns were raised in the weeks before the tournament about available hotel room space in Qatar, while a controversial 11th-hour U-turn to ban alcohol in and around the stadiums resulted in many fans looking for an alternative place to stay.

Dubai has been buzzing with supporters from all over the world in recent days, and they have added to the many tourists in the city in search of winter sun.

Passenger numbers have surpassed 6 million a month in the latest quarter, topping pre-pandemic levels, according to figures released by airport operators.

“Dubai has extremely strong demand at this time of year and I’m sure there will be people traveling through Dubai to the World Cup,” said Issam Kazim, chief executive of Dubai Tourism. “This tournament will be a boost for the entire region.”

Although exact figures have yet to be disclosed, the Dubai Sports Council said the city was expecting an estimated additional 1 million visitors during the course of the tournament.

Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, previously described the city as “the major gateway” to the World Cup and predicted it would see more tourists than Qatar itself.

However, officials say the number of fans visiting the emirate with the sole purpose of catching games in Qatar is likely to be in the low tens of thousands, or the equivalent of a three percentage point increase in hotel occupancy.

Many match tickets have been sold to expatriates living in the city, which constitute up to 90 percent of Dubai’s 3.5 million population.

Although it is still too early to evaluate the impact of the World Cup across the region, the demand for hotel rooms has seen a massive surge compared to last year.

Many of the fans who chose Dubai as their base to travel to Qatar, or as the main hub to immerse themselves in the tournament atmosphere, have had the opportunity not only to enjoy the city’s lavish lifestyle, but to explore its world-class attractions.