Um Kulthum

Mai Ghoussoub

She stood straight and tilted her head slightly towards her public; I have to bend the aluminum rod harder towards her neck. I stop. I look at her. I have the feeling that she is staring at me. I pull harder and bang heavily on the material but I still can't reduce her to her own figurative self. Here she is again, triumphant in her myth. A winner. A goddess that we can hear, imagine, long for, scream with, cry for. A goddess that can be worshiped but never touched. I will make you touchable again, I say to her while I am unrolling the black woollen threads that will stand severely combed around her face: An austere perfect chignon. I stretch the wool but I can't get to her. She is absolutely unreachable. She is definitely looking at me now. She can see me, I would swear to it. And I, with the millions who worshiped her, cannot see but her aura.


Ah! Ah! she sings: You keep me Waiting, My Oppressor, Your Devastating Eyes, If Only and millions of Arab women and men sigh listening, late at night, to her complaint, becoming increasingly and desperately addicted to her voice.

No, I cannot carve her mouth. It would not be right, it would be blasphemous. The melodies and the tunes of Um Kulthum, her longing belong to an ancestral memory, they do not seem to emanate from her lips, her throat or her tongue.

The songs that have marked her fans in their millions will erupt from an abstracted, elliptic and suggested space. Only narrow realism cares about 'truth' in art.

The more I work on her shoulders, the closer I am getting to her secrets. Her shoulders are as stiff as authority! It is not easy to be a Goddess and an entertainer.

Once, on a rare occasion she gave us a little clue: Early this century, she had left her village for Cairo "the mother of the Universe" to witness 'the great disdain in which Egyptian society held all entertainers and particularly female entertainers.' Not anymore she told herself stubbornly. I want respect and I will obtain it. I can only impose myself if I give them the best of me. And the best of me will always be the Best.

I will elongate the iron rod that holds her body. She will appear in her full imposing self. Her glamor will be intimidating. Is it because her father dressed her as a boy in front of village audiences that she never flirted with her fans the way other Egyptian stars did so lovingly? Had she been terrified by the snobbery of cosmopolitan Cairo and defied it by making herself above anybody's reach, above gender limitation?

I will widen her waist and tighten her lips. I will pull the iron in opposite directions.

That's it, I am happy now, I can go away, come back to her later, look at her with 'new eyes' as they say in her country, and perfect her image.

I think I understand her better now. She is hiding an oppressive vulnerability behind her carefully composed persona! A cold image of unreachable power. Oh how I wish I can make her reveal her vulnerability. I know it is there, hidden by the stiffness of her posture. I want to see through her. I will make her big, imposing, I will hide her behind her dark glasses as she wished, yes! But I will make her transparent, I will unable us to see through her persona, I will make us love her more than worship her.

I look at her and all I see is her severe chignon, her dark glasses and her scarf. My efforts are hopeless. The scarf never left her during her performances. Billy Holiday would never appear on stage without her gardenia. Carving the scarf is relaxing, its drapes have a therapeutic effect on me, it softens her expression.

But Billy, the other great Diva, allowed us to witness her distress. She went to jail loved with passion and paid dearly for her emotions. Her pain was exposed for all of us to see.

Um Kulthum's pain was told in her songs; it was never shown on her face. She never allowed us into her joyous moments, she never had 'fun' with us. Or maybe once, just once, when she asked her lover with a charming flirtatious voice to sing for her. 'Sing for me, sing and I would give my eyes for you.' But can you remember her eyes? They were so often hidden behind her glasses.

I cannot block her glasses. I will keep the wire, the plaster and the resin away from their center. It is because of her begging him for singing that her glasses will not be terribly blocked and impermeable. I will do it for her. I will do it out of solidarity.

I am almost there.

All I succeeded in doing is to turn her into her own symbols. She is still resisting, long after many women singers imposed themselves and were called 'ladies' in Egypt, long after the lady she became acquired unequal power, long after she was mourned by millions who cried as if the gods had heartlessly abandoned them when they took her. She is resisting, she can watch me better than I can make her visible.

This article appeared in Vol. 7, no. 34 (Winter 2001).
Copyright © 2001 by Al Jadid