More than 30 years after her death, Om Kalthoum (1904-1974) is still an icon throughout the Arab world. This photograph by Alban is a rare portrait of the singer without her signature dark glasses.
Even at an early age Om Kalthoum’s exceptional talent became evident. By the age of 12 her father got her into a small performing troupe, but disguised as a young boy. At 16 she was noticed by Abu El-Ala Mohamed, a modestly famous singer, and by the famous lutist, Zakaria Ahmed, who asked her to accompany them to Cairo. But she waited until 1923 to take up the invitation.
In Cairo, she was introduced to the famous poet Ahmed Rami, who would eventually write 137 songs for Um Kulthum. She also made the acquaintance of lute virtuoso and composer, Mohamed El-Kasabji, who introduced her to the Arabian Theater Palace, where she would experience her first real public success. Eleven years later, she became famous enough to begin a large tour of the Middle East, visiting such cities as Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, and Tripoli.
The singer was known for her patriotism and nationalism. By 1948, Om Kalthoum caught Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attention. The musicians’ guild she was a part of had rejected her since she had sung for the then deposed king. Abdel Nasser, though, did not hide his admiration for her. When he discovered that she was no longer being allowed to sing, he reportedly said something to the effect of, What are they? Crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us? It was his favor that made the musicians’ guild accept her back.
Om Kalthoum’s monthly concerts took place on the first Thursday of every month and were renowned for their ability to clear the streets of some of the world s most populous cities as people rushed home to tune in.
In 2001, the government opened the Kawkab Al-Sharq (Star of the East) Museum in the singer s memory. Housed in a pavilion on the grounds of the Manesterly Palace, the collection includes a range of her personal possessions, including her trademark sunglasses and scarves, along with photographs, recordings, and other archival material.
The Arab Image Foundation is a non-profit organization established in Lebanon in 1997. The Foundation aims to locate, collect, preserve and promote the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa. You can visit their extensive collection on www.fai.org.lb.