Umm Kalthoum

Umm Kalthoum

By Lara Iskander

Umm Kalthoum as a young lady

Editors note: Take Elvis Presley, Frank Sanatra, Buddy Holly and the Beatles and combine them all and they might be as legendary as Umm Kalthoum is in Egypt. Her Museum next to the Nileometer gives one additional reasons to visit Rhoda Island.

Umm Kalthoum occupies an undisputedly unique position in Oriental songs. She was known in Arabic as Kawkab Al-Shark or Star of the East for she was a most powerful symbol in the Middle East. She was also called El-Sett for she was seen as The Lady.

Regarded as the most gifted female voice of the twentieth century, she had a popularity that knew no boundaries and was as phenomenal as was her voice.

Not only was she considered a legend in the Arab countries, but her voice also reached many parts of the world at a time when Arabic music seemed like a mystery to much of the Western world.

She was born into a poor family in a small village, east of the Nile Delta in 1904. Umm Kalthoum was the youngest of three children and lived the normal simple life of the country. As a peasants daughter, she grew up under the influence of religious instructions. Umm Kalthoum was taught religious chants from her father, an imam (Qur'an reader) at a local mosque as a kind of education. With time, he became impressed with her keen memorization and the astonishing strength of her voice.

Umm Kalthoum with her brother at a young ageUmm Kalthoum's Father

Left: Umm Kalthoum with her brother at a young age; Right: Umm Kalthoum's Father

He then began taking her along with her elder brother to events where they would chant to help the family earn money. Her father dressed her in boy's clothing, because it wasnt in the Egyptian peasant tradition to have his women or girls sing and appear in front of strangers.

A Poster in the Umm Kalthoum MuseumEntrance to the Umm Kalthoum Museum with the famous Nilometer in the background

Left: Entrance to the Umm Kalthoum Museum with the famous Nilometer in the background;
Right: A Poster in the Umm Kalthoum Museum

Despite her rural manners, her natural skill was recognized early on and it brought her to the attention of society. In 1923, her family moved to Cairo with high hopes for their young daughter to become a professional singer in the city. There, she began training and her father hired a number of music tutors.

Collage of pictures in her museum spanning Umm Kalthoum's life

Her great ambition, love for knowledge and eagerness to learn was amazing. This was what gave her a chance in that New World she was trying to conquer

Soon she became a woman of great wealth and power. During her later years, she was the confidant of presidents and kings and, above all, President Gamal Abd al-Nassers unofficial ambassador in the region. She traveled the Arabic and western world in support of her government.

When she died in 1975, four million mourners walked the streets of Cairo to honor their beloved singer.

It is of no doubt that she was the greatest singer of her time and till this day her allure and fame have never died away. She truly represented the Egyptian and Arab nation in every way.

Records, record players and radios in the Umm Kalthoum Museum

Despite the fact that her records, tapes and films are still widely listened to all over the Arab world, Umm Kalthoums songs are not always appreciated by some listeners. Her songs and words had an intense severity that isnt always inviting for youngsters.

However, once one finds an ear for her songs, they grow on you and easily becomes an addiction.

It is not necessary to understand Arabic well or to have lived in the Middle East to appreciate the feeling behind her words.

Youll hear El-Sett in the background while walking the streets, drinking your coffee in an oriental or chic caf, in peoples homes and constantly on TV.

Umm Kalthoum lived on Zamalek Island. She owned a beautiful villa overlooking the Nile River. That villa witnessed many great events and gatherings of all sorts of politicians, artists and fans.

Display of performance dresses in Umm Kalthoum MuseumOne of her Musical Instruments

Left: One of her Musical Instruments;
Right: Display of performance dresses in Umm Kalthoum Museum

Sadly, her home was demolished in the early eighties to be replaced with a Residential commercial tower. The tower was named after her.

Exterior view of the Umm Kalthoum MuseumA view of her statue and the tower named for her.

Left: Exterior view of the Umm Kalthoum Museum;
Right: A view of her statue and the tower named for her.

Lately, a statue of Umm Kalthoum was put up in front of the tower in her commemoration. In December 2001, her precious belongings and oldest records and tapes were moved to a museum on the site of the Manasterli Palace. This is a beautiful place to visit for those who know her or even the curious that have only heard of her. There, one can absorb the story of this amazing Egyptian woman holding on to her silk scarf, which she could never do without during performances.

Display of Umm Kalthoum Memorabilia in her Museum