DHAHRAN: This month, the lush Ithra Theater in Dhahran has been transporting guests to Egypt’s glamorous 1960s. Elegantly-draped guests end each night with a standing ovation for “Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era,” an artfully created show that pays homage to the unforgettable and melodious Egyptian singing legend.
For Mona Khashoggi, inviting the audience in is just like welcoming people into her own home. The art show is a passion project born out of her nostalgic love for the iconic singer.
Having worked as a theater producer, playwright and prominent patron of the arts for the last two decades, Khashoggi’s attention to detail is superb. Her specialization has been in reviving the various intricate cultural narratives from the Middle East and North Africa region and exporting them to a refined global audience.
Exactly three years ago in 2020, she premiered the unique musical and theatrical “Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” production at the London Palladium. In 2022, the show was brought to the Dubai Opera.
Now, for the very first time, “Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” graces the Saudi stage at Ithra.
For Khashoggi, bringing this story to her home country is a momentous occasion. “I’m from Saudi Arabia but I grew up in England and Beirut and was brought up watching many musicals in the West End. My father was the first doctor and physician to King Abdulaziz,” she said.
Because of her father’s keen interest in the arts, Umm Kulthum’s songs would play at home and became the soundtrack of her childhood. The melodious voice has been etched in Khashoggi’s memory and she listens to Umm Kulthum songs of love, longing and loss whenever she feels the need to reconnect with the past.
“Umm Kulthum sang, as everybody knows, the same sentence 100 times with different emotions,” Khashoggi told Arab News.
To Khashoggi, the singer symbolizes the essence that all women should aspire to be — confident, stylish, true to herself and brimming with the drive to improve herself and perfect her voice.
She recalls that Thursdays were reserved for listening to Umm Kulthum, and that even military men listened to her as she commanded their attention.
A young girl’s journey
The “Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” show captures the rise of the Egyptian national treasure from her modest beginnings. Khashoggi explained: “The play is about the great lady who came from humble beginnings and became the most important woman in the Arab world. It’s also about the era of other powerful women. It is all about women’s empowerment and all of us who looked up to Umm Kulthum from a very young age. Her music is timeless.”
The play is about the great lady who came from humble beginnings and became the most important woman in the Arab world. It’s also about the era of other powerful women. It is all about women’s empowerment and all of us who looked up to Umm Kulthum from a very young age. Her music is timeless.
Mona Khashoggi, Theater and film producer
The sold-out show at Ithra welcomes visitors from various generations. Some re-live the glory days of their youth and some are introduced to the story of the Kawkab Al-Sharq, or Star of the East, for the first time.
The show begins in Paris, with an established Umm Kulthum casually requesting that her pay be doubled, as her voice will fill the room and three songs in three hours is perfectly reasonable.
Then the play goes back in time to prove her point.
This original production follows the earlier journey of the iconic figure in Arab pop culture who we have come to know by merely “Umm Kulthum.” Everything about her reflects her status as a style icon; from her darkened sunglasses and hair fastened in a retro beehive, to the floor-length modest dress, shiny chandelier earrings and elegant handkerchief dangling from the side.
At the turn of the 20th century, a young girl born into humble beginnings transforms herself into the Kawkab Al-Sharq, shining her talent over the entire Arab-speaking world. Born into relative poverty, her father, a sheikh, recognized her musical ability at a young age and disguised her as a young boy so they could use her talent to feed the family. The village listened to the songs and paid her back in coins and sometimes sweets. Her father was able to also partially bribe her by saying she could have blancmange or mohalabiya, a milky sweet dessert, as a reward.
Umm Kulthum’s passion and talent was so immense that she broke all convention. Although she was a reluctant performer at first, she soon blossomed with the help of some friends. She received mentorship from some of the best composers, poets and writers of the era and transformed herself into the legend with a unique style and voice.
Fondly known as the “fourth pyramid of Egypt,” she is beloved by Arabic and non-Arabic speakers alike.
During her life, she was scorned by the upper classes and had to work hard to constantly prove her greatness to the world. Umm Kulthum was subjected to the horrors of war, false rumors, and bouts of jealousy from powerful people who wished her ill — but without ever relenting or sacrificing her integrity and voice. She prevailed.
Her workaholic tendencies were fed by her need to nourish the people of Egypt by providing them with an escape with her musical melodies. Her admirers stretch far and wide and across generations.
Khashoggi’s vision for “Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” elegantly depicts the plight of the young Umm Kulthum and how she overcomes her plight.
The cast consists of the phenomenal voices of Agfan Afifi and Maha Khlifi as the singers of Umm Kulthum’s songs. Young Umm Kulthum is played by Sara Masry, a Saudi actress. The orchestra maestro Mostafa Fahmy leads the violin by Tamer Ismail, oud by Islam Tasha and cello by Amr Ahmed.
Nostalgia hits hard as some of the older generations in the audiences have been seen mouthing the words from their seats mid-performance. Moved audience members of all ages clap along to the songs as they sway their necks in unison.
Just like in its earlier iterations, the bilingual show is meant to attract all audiences. The singing is all in Arabic, while the dialogue includes simple English and a sprinkling of French.
Although Umm Kulthum died 50 years ago, her music still brings people from different parts of society together. Khashoggi hopes this revival of classical Arabic music will go beyond Umm Kulthum and ignite the desire in other creatives to pay homage and to craft other tributes to the great musicians, composers, and poets of the past.
Even in death, Umm Kulthum rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Her songs are still sampled by some of the most accomplished musicians of our time. US singers Beyonce, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and others consider her as among their top influences.
“When she died, there were 4 million mourning her in Egypt,” Khashoggi adds.
Even today, when Khashoggi goes to Cairo, she finds young taxi drivers listening to Umm Kulthum while driving.
“I always ask them, ‘why do you listen to her music?’ and they say ‘because we’re always stuck here for hours in the car and she makes us forget time’ … her music is still alive,” shares
“Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” will run until March 17 at the lush Ithra Theater in Dhahran.