Friday October 17, 1997
Michal Goldman's "Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt" is an engrossing documentary on the legendary singer whose name was well-known in the West, especially for singing songs that lasted as long as two hours. When she died in 1975, her Cairo funeral procession attracted a crowd of 4 million mourners.
Umm Kulthum was born poor at the turn of the century in a rural village, but luckily her father had some learning and held the title of sheik. She also had a mother who insisted that she be educated along with her brothers even if the family could ill-afford it.
Education essentially meant long hours learning and reciting the Koran, which contributed to the perfect diction for which she was celebrated.
But she was praised and cherished for much more than that. The lovely young woman with bold, sensual features who was still wearing braids when she and her family arrived in Cairo in 1922 became a regal figure in elegant gowns and jewelry. Until nearly the end of her life, Kulthum had a strong, rich voice and incredible stamina that allowed her to chant mesmerizing tales of love and freedom for hours on end.
One of Goldman's interviewees compares Kulthum's singing style to a plane taking off, gathering speed, soaring high and then decelerating for a perfect landing. She also points out that Kulthum, who could be humorous on stage, was never the heroine of her songs, which invited her audiences to identify with the stories they told.
Significantly, the first time she performed--disguised as a boy--was in 1919, the year that her country staged a bloody but unsuccessful revolution against British colonial rule. Goldman deftly places Kulthum's career within the context of the emerging public status of women in Egypt and with Egypt's growing determination to acquire independence.
As the decades passed, Kulthum came to embody the very spirit and soul of Egypt; in the wake of its defeat in the 1967 war, she rallied the entire Arab world with her stirring concerts, replenishing Egypt's coffers and encouraging the view that a fight lost does not mean that the battle will not eventually be won.
Even in death, Kulthum remains a beloved and influential figure, but as a celebrity verging on a deity, she seems to have been exceptionally successful in her determination to keep her private life private.
Throughout her career, great composers wrote for her, beginning with a poet in the '20s whose work she cherished but whom she rejected as a lover and husband. She did not marry until her 50s, to a doctor, though some said this was a marriage of convenience. (Goldman apparently could find no justification or explanation for such a rumor.)
But if Goldman was unable--unwilling?--to get us an idea of what Kulthum's personal life was all about, she discovers plenty of evidence of the singer's love for her country and selfless dedication to it and for her respect for her audience; Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz suggests that Kulthum was like "a preacher inspired by his congregation."
Devastated by the death of her hero and comrade, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1970, she began to withdraw from performing. She suffered serious illness and gave two final performances that brought her to tears because her voice had begun to falter. (Nasser increased the signal power of the radio station on which Kulthum gave her monthly concerts so that it could reach the entire Arab world.) By the time of her death on Feb. 4, 1975, however, Umm Kulthum was as much an Egyptian monument as the pyramids.
Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, 1997. Unrated. A Filmmakers Collaborative presentation. Writer-producer-editor-director Michal Goldman. Narrator Omar Sharif. Umm Kulthum voice-over by Mona Zakaria. In English and Egyptian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.