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Om Kolthoum: An Outline of her Life

Taken from Almashriq Website


Om Kolthoum was born in a small rural village to a poor family. Her background typified that of the mashayikh and did not differ substantially from that of many of her contemporaries. Her father, al-Shaykh Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Baltaji (d. 1932), was the imam of the local mosque, and her mother, Fatmah al-Maliji (d. 1947), was a housewife. (1) Her date of birth is not known for certain, but the most reliable suggestion is May 4, 1904, given on a page from the Daqahliyah provincial birth records for Tammay al-Zahayrah. (2)

Om Kolthoum's father augmented his meager income from the mosque by singing religious songs for weddings and other celebrations in his own and neighboring villages. Upon meeting him in 1917, Zakariya Ahmad remarked that he was "an extremely devout and pious man" and so he seemed to many others who saw him later in Cairo. (3) Om Kolthoum's mother cared for the children: Om Kolthoum, her sister, Sayyidah, about ten years older than Om Kolthoum, and her brother, Khalid, who was one year older. Om Kolthoum was her last child. She described her mother as a good woman who lived simply and taught her children the importance of truth, humility and trust in God. (4)

The family lived in the village of Tammay al-Zahayrah near the city of al-Sinbillawayn in the Delta province of Daqahliyah (See Map 1). The village consisted of 278 dwellings that housed 1,665 people, or about 6 people per hearth. As Om Kolthoum later described it,

"It was a humble village. The highest building in it did not exceed two stories. The greatest display of wealth was the @umdah's carriage pulled by one horse! . . And there was only one street in the whole village wide enough for the @umdah's carriage . . . I sang in the neighboring villages, all of which were small. I thought that the city of al-Sinbillawayn was the biggest city in the world and I used to listen to news about it the same way one would listen now to news about New York or London or Paris." (5)


The family house was a small one made of mud brick; they owned no other property.

When she was about five years old, Om Kolthoum entered the kuttab, or Qur'an school, in her village that her older brother Khalid attended. Upon the death of the shaykh their teacher, the children were sent to the school in the neighboring village of @izbat al-Hawwal, several kilometers away. Om Kolthoum remained a student there for three years. (6) In the rural school, Om Kolthoum memorized sections of the Qur'an and also may have acquired rudimentary skills in reading and writing.

Om Kolthoum learned to sing from her father. She overheard him teachings songs to her brother, who was supposed to accompany his father at the celebrations for which al-Shaykh Ibrahim sang. Om Kolthoum learned the songs by rote. When al-Shaykh Ibrahim discovered what she had learned and heard the unusual strength of her voice, he asked her to join the lessons. Om Kolthoum began performing in her own village at the house of the @umdah on an occasion when Khalid felt ill.

Because of her youth and exceptionally strong voice, the child became an attraction for the group and eventually its premiere singer. As their opportunities increased, the family traveled farther and farther afield, often on foot. Om Kolthoum later reflected that it seemed to her they walked the entire Delta before they ever set foot in Cairo. (7) They were able to charge increasingly large fees, rising to 10ŁE ($50) per evening by 1920.

A number of people encouraged Om Kolthoum and her father to consider going to Cairo to further her career in the center of the entertainment business. Her family was reluctant to do this, saying they did not know the city and had no close relatives nor any assurance of work there. The subject of Cairo remained under discussion for several years.

The Move to Cairo

The move was finally accomplished in about 1923 with the aid of musical mashayaikh from the city with whom Om Kolthoum and her father had established contact. They helped the young girl find performing opportunities and meet the theatrical agents who were essential to sustaining a career in the entertainment world at the time. Om Kolthoum's chief mentor in this endeavor was al-Shaykh Abu al-@ila Muhammad, a composer and singer who also became her principal teacher.

Om Kolthoum's voice was quickly identified as exceptionally strong and vibrant and garnered immediate notice in the press. However her talent was viewed as unschooled: she lacked command of the vocal subtlety and melodic nuance expected of a first-rank singer as well as the requisite stage presence of the established singers of the day.

She set out to improve her skills in all areas. Her father hired numerous music teachers: al-Shaykh Abu al-@ila introduced her to poet Ahmad Rami who taught her poetry and improved her command of literary Arabic. She emulated the dress and manners of the elite ladies in whose homes she sang and even became personal friends with a few of them.

When Om Kolthoum began singing in Cairo, her repertory consisted in large part of that sung by her father in the Delta, augmented by a few popular songs that she had learned along the way. Her father's repertory was customarily sung by a solo vocalist with accompaniment by a chorus of two to four men. I the Cairo of the 1920s, this style of performance was viewed as old-fashioned; new songs, and even the older repertory of singers such as Abu al-@ila, were accompanied by an instrumental takht.

Following hints in the spring of 1926 that she should not succeed in the long run accompanied by her family, she hired accomplished and prestigious instrumentalists in their place. Her repertory of religious qasa'id and tawashih gave way to new and modern love songs composed especially for her. This change, accompanied by Om Kolthoum's increasingly elegant personal style, thrust her into direct competition with the city's leading singers. Her trained voice, her new repertory and takht, and her more cosmopolitan demeanor enabled her to rise to the top of the ranks of Cairo's professional singers by 1928.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Om Kolthoum began to make commercial recordings and launched her life-long involvement with mass media, essential to her long and extensive popularity. Her commitments later expanded to include radio, from the inception of Egyptian National Radio in 1934, films, which she began in 1935, and television in 1960.

Her financial success in commercial recording stabilized her income and enabled her to choose her performing opportunities with greater care than was possible for less fortunate entertainers. Radio broadcasting allowed her to count among her most devoted listeners hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and Arabs who had never seen her and would not dream of attending a public concert. While valuing the live audience as integral to her artistry, Om Kolthoum cultivated as her audience all listeners, including the vast numbers sitting in homes and coffee shops near a radio. She used broadcast interviews as well to establish rapport with the radio audience and to identify herself as a familiar figure to them.

Her command of the art of the interview, and hence the projection of a particular persona, was hard-won during the 1920s and 1930s. A number unfortunate blunders with journalists left her wary of uncontrolled contact with representatives of the media. She began to court selected journalists to whom she would grant interviews and who would, in turn, support her in print. She guarded her private life carefully, cultivated friends who did the same, and would speak to reporters only on topics of her own choosing, promulgating carefully expressed opinions and views of herself.

Her increasing musical skill and financial stability in the 1930s allowed her to assume great control over all aspects of her performances. As sis most entertainers who were able, Om Kolthoum eliminated the theatrical agent from her professional life as soon as possible. She used her circle of carefully chosen friends as advisors and sometimes representatives and, by 1938, became the producer of her own concerts and negotiator of her own contracts. She was able to obtain extraordinary contracts that called for her approval of virtually every aspect of a performance, including selection of accompanists, and actors and technicians for her films.

During the 1930s, her repertory took the first of several specific stylistic directions. Her songs were virtuosic, as befit her newly trained and very capable voice, and romantic and modern in musical style, feeding the prevailing currents in Egyptian popular culture of the time. She worked extensively with texts by romantic poet Ahmad Rami and composer Muhammad al-Qsabji, who's songs incorporated European instruments such as the violoncello and double bass as well as harmony.

The "Golden Age" of Umm Kulthum

Om Kolthoum's musical directions in the 1940s and early 1950s and her mature performing style caused this period to be popularly called the "golden age" of Om Kolthoum. In keeping with changing popular taste as well as her own artistic inclinations, in the early 1940s she requested songs from composer Zakariya Ahmad and colloquial poet Bayram al-Tunisi cast in styes considered to be indigenously Egyptian. This represented a dramatic departure from the modernist romantic songs of the 1930s. The result was a populist repertory that had lasting appeal for the Egyptian audience. Later in the decade, Om Kolthoum engaged the young composer Riyad al-Sunbati to set a number of qasa'id by Ahmad Shawqi. The result was stylistically different from Zakariya and Bayram's songs but, as neo-classical works based on historically Arab poetic and musical practices, they were also viewed as indigenously Arab and were very well-received. These songs established al-Sunbati as the foremost composer of qasa'id of his generation and returned Om Kolthoum to her genre of choice.

In addition to her various artistic endeavors, Om Kolthoum consolidated her authority in the entertainment business during the 1940s by joining the Listening Committee, which selected the music appropriate for radio broadcasting, and by assuming presidency of the Musician's Union. At this point Om Kolthoum was at the height of her artistic accomplishment, in control of virtually all of her endeavors, and highly influential in the criitcal medium of radio broadcasting. She became known for the strength of her personality which was manifest in many ways. She was determined that her views be taken seriously and that her business proceed in a way that was satisfactory to her. She was known for her sharp wit and barbed humor.(8) It was also often said that she was extremely cutting when irritated or taxed. Pointing to her persistent quality of unvanquished pride, Medhat Assem recalled a conversation with her during which he reminded her that he had been present at one of her early performances for an elite family. He remembered how terrified she had been that night, to which she retorted, "No. They were afraid of me."(9)

Health problems plagued Om Kolthoum every few years for much of her life beginning in the 1930s. She became ill resulting from some sort of problem with the liver and gall bladder in the late summer of 1937 at which time doctors recommended treatment in one of the countries having mineral waters. The following summer Om Kolthoum spent a month at Vichy and returned to Egypt feeling better, "although," she said, "I am bound by the limitations of a strict diet prohibiting most kinds of food." Related problems afflicted her throughout her life. (10)

In 1946, personal problems thrust themselves on Om Kolthoum in such a way as to disrupt her professional activities for the first time in her career. She worked sporadically and contemplated retiring altogether. During the summer of 1946, she became afflicted with an upper respiratory inflammation that led to the diagnosis of a thyroid problem later that year. The physical symptoms of this ailment, combined with her fear for her voice and of the ramifications of treatment, caused serious depression. One of few people privy to Om Kolthoum's personal life later said that at no other time before or since did she see Om Kolthoum in such a state of despair. "It was the only time she lost her courage."(11)

In 1947, Om Kolthoum's mother died. the two women had lived in the same house for all of Om Kolthoum's life and Om Kolthoum took her mother's death as a severe blow. Later, during one of her trips to the United States for treatment, Om Kolthoum's brother Khalid died. (12)At roughly the same time Om Kolthoum suffered the termination of a romantic involvement and a subsequent failed marriage.

Her recovery was a prolonged process. She was treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital, ostensibly at the suggestion of the American ambassador to Egypt in 1949. Om Kolthoum also sought treatment for chronic inflammation of the eyes, said to be aggravated by the bright lights of the stage and film. the thyroid problem persisted and required repeated visits to hospitals in Egypt and abroad. (13)

Questions about Om Kolthoum's personal life, especially that of why she had never married, followed Om Kolthoum from the time she began her career in Cairo until she married Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi in 1954. In the 1920s she was linked with a number of men, including poet Ahmad Rami. Her apparent strong will, sharp tongue and absence of any lasting close personal involvements prompted the assessment that "she has no heart." Another that, "like Greta Garbo" she had been disappointed in love early in life and could not love another. (14)

By dint of fame and her efforts to improve her manners and general education, Om Kolthoum had risen in Egyptian society to the point of socializing with members of the Egyptian elite. (15) In about 1946, Sharif Sabri Pasha, one of King Faruq's uncles, proposed to marry her. The union was immediately barred by the royal family, causing much grief to Om Kolthoum. That such a marriage could have been contemplated seriously at all was a source of amazement to may observers. However, having succeeded in attaining the position she had, Om Kolthoum seems to have believed that the marriage would be possible and was gravely disappointed when it was not.(16)

Feeling the disappointment of the broken engagement and the burdens of medical problems, Om Kolthoum agreed to marry a fellow musician, the @ud player, composer and them vice-president of the Musician's Union, Mahmud Sharif. The marriage was dissolved within days, regarded by both parties as a mistake, amid a tremendous outcry of protest from Om Kolthoum's fans who attacked the character, personal status, and abilities of Mahmud Sharif. "as if the man had not a single good quality." (17)

Finally Om Kolthoum married one of her doctors and a long-time audience member, Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi, in 1954. Born in Asyut in 1915, Dr. al-Hifnawi was raised in a conservative atmosphere similar to Om Kolthoum's. Both were familiar with rural Egypt and the values and behaviors common to it. Both were ambitious. Both were successful. al-Hifnawi finished medical school in 1940 and became on of the most noted skin specialists in the Arab world. However, in addition to the learning and elegance that both of them had acquired, they retained a sense of identity with most Egyptians. Dr. al-Hifnawi was less a public figure; however, he was described by his son, with a certain pride, as "a 'baladi' sort of man" in his personal life. Like so many others, al-Hifnawi nad been brought to Om Kolthoum's concerts and introduced to her by Ahmad Rami. (18) This union met with the acceptance of her audience apparently because, during the time of her illness, people came to see Om Kolthoum as a human being with a personal life and human needs similar to their own rather than an immutable star. Her husband remained in the shadows when Om Kolthoum appeared in public. However, according to family members and close friends and close friends, he maintained the status of head of the household. She appreciated his accomplishments and strength of character for, as all observers agreed, "Om Kolthoum hated weak men."

Later years

Like many of her compatriots, Om Kolthoum welcomed the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 with enthusiasm. Her connections to the previous regime were not close enough to place her career in jeopardy, and the Revolutionary Government demonstrated eagerness to continue public entertainments, especially radio broadcasting, in an uninterrupted manner. Her improved health enabled her to resume her normal schedule of appearances in about 1955. At the same time, Om Kolthoum sought new modern love songs from the younger generation of composers. Her cultivation of this new modernity culminated in collaboration with premier composer Muhammad Abd al-Wahab (b. 1910). In 1964, they produced the very popular song, "Inta Omri," which was the first of ten by Abd al-Wahab for Om Kolthoum .

The careers of the two artists ran parallel to each other for most of their lives. Abd al-Wahab began his career in musical theater ca. 1917 and became a highly regarded singer and composer. His principal mentor was poet Ahmad Shawqi who wrote numerous elegant lyrics for Abd al-Wahab. Om Kolthoum became acquainted with him during the 1920s. Both remember the first meeting as being at one of the salons of Cairo., the home of Mahmud Khayrat al-Nuhami, where they entertained the other guests with a spontaneous rendition of Sayyid Darwish's popular song "Ala qadd al-Layl". (19) Abd al-Wahab starred in a number of successful films during the 1930s and 1940s and thereafter was viewed as a prestigious and innovative composer. A self-proclaimed modernist, @abd al-Wahab evinced extensive interest in new instruments and commanded a wide variety of styles, Arab and Western.

During the 1950s and 1960s Om Kolthoum expanded her role in Egyptian public life. She granted more interviews during which she spoke about her life, repeatedly identifying herself as a villager, a fallahah or peasant, who shared a cultural background and essential values with the majority of the Egyptian populace. Her interviews were full of stories of her family, her neighbors, and the familial qualities of village life. (20)

She cultivated the position of spokeswoman for various causes. She advocated governmental support of Arabic music and musicians, she endowed a charitable foundation and, most importantly, after the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war, she began a series of domestic and international concerts for Egypt. She travelled throughout Egypt and the Arab world, collecting contributions and donating the proceeds of her performances to the government of Egypt. These concerts were much publicized and took on the character of state visits. Om Kolthoum was entertained by heads of state, she toured cultural monuments, and, in interviews, repeated her views concerning the importance of support for indigenous Arab culture. More than a musician, she became "the voice and face of Egypt". (21)

The health problems that plagued Om Kolthoum throughout much of her adult life worsened as she aged. her eyes remained hypersensitive to light and in her later years, she wore dark glasses almost all the time. Beginning in 1971, Om Kolthoum's health deteriorated dramatically. In March of that year, she suffered a gall bladder attack which resulted in the postponement of her March and April concerts. The following winter, she was struck with a serious kidney infection that forced the cancellation of two more concerts in February and March of 1972. (22)

During the first concert of the following season, in December of 1972, Om Kolthoum felt faint during the program. She sang the entire concert, but it was her last. Failing health caused her to cancel the remainder of the season and, although she constantly planned to perform again, she never did so. She spent her time from the winter of 1973 through the summer of 1974 traveling to Europe and the United States to kidney specialists and suffering continually from weak health. (23)

The song "Hakam @alayna al-hawa'" was scheduled for premiere in the spring of 1973. As was her custom, Om Kolthoum planned to record it before its first performance. She did so with great difficulty on March 13, 1973. The recording occupied twelve hours. For the first time, she sang while sitting in a chair, quietly brought to her by a recording engineer who saw that she was too weak to remain standing. the concert at which the song was to have been premiered was cancelled and the recording was released, never having been performed for a live audience. (24) On January 21, 1975, she suffered the final kidney attack that led to her death on February 3. Despite years of medical treatment, she resisted hospitalization at this time, saying that "If I go to the hospital, I'll die there." (25) Her last illness was accompanied by a vigil of watchful Egyptians outside her home in Zamalik and later, by a phalanx of reporters from all over the Arab world at the hospital. The Syrian national radio station installed an open telephone line to the hospital to provide its listeners with an up-to-the-minute reports of her health. Egypt's principal newspaper, al-ahram, published daily bulletins on her health. (26)

She died of heart failure on February 3, 1975. Her funeral was to be held at the Omar Makram mosque in central Cairo, the site of most funerals for well-known Muslims in the city. From there, the body was to be carried by pall-bearers for a short distance to a vehicle that would take it to its final resting place. (27)When the responsible parties realized the number of mourners who planned to come from outside Egypt, the postponed the funeral for two days, contrary to Muslim preferences but not unusual for famous people.

The crowds of ordinary Egyptians far exceeded the number anticipated. literally filling the streets of Cairo, and the funeral did not proceed as planned. (28) The millions of Egyptian mourners took the body from the shoulders of its official bearers and bore it themselves by turns, carrying it for three hours through the streets of Cairo, eventually to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn, believed to be one of Om Kolthoum's favorites. There the shaykh of the mosque repeated the funerary prayers over the body and urged its bearers to take it directly to its burial place, saying that Om Kolthoum was a religious woman who would have wanted to be buried quickly in accordance with Muslim practices, and this was finally done.