Wearing a long, beaded gown, donning dark glasses and holding a scarf in her hand, Om Kalthoum used to mesmerize audiences for hours with a voice so strong she hardly needed a microphone.
Everything about her was a trademark: Her hairstyle, jewellery, the way she moved, but most of all, her voice, a source of inspiration for generations of vocalists.
Her legacy is commemorated in a museum that bears her name. The long-awaited Om Kalthoum Museum was opened to the public in 2000 after much planning and lot of effort was made to preserve the little that was left of her belongings.
She made her home Zamalek for 40 years until she passed away in 1975. Five years later, her villa was sold, to the disappointment of millions who wanted to see it turned into a museum. The property was demolished, and the diva’s personal belongings were scattered, given to her relatives for safekeeping.
In an attempt to preserve her memory, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture established the Om Kalthoum Museum, the first in the world to honor the memory of a female singer. Located in Manial El-Roda, Cairo, the museum’s premises were originally a palace belonging to Egypt’s feudal Mansterli family.
The restored palace is now a museum that exhibits some of Om Kalthoum s dresses, jewellery, and sound gadgets she used during rehearsals. Also on display are original copies of song lyrics in various poets’ own handwriting, rare pictures and newspaper clippings.
A 30-minute film on her life and contributions is shown in the screening room. There is also a passageway with a screen used to show a moving panorama of the great performer s career. A library houses a number of works on her life, digitalized versions of her songs and a digital photo gallery.
The exhibits try to tell the life story of the Arab world’s greatest singer, but it is incommensurate with the magnitude of her character, fame and status.
Dubbed Kawkub Al Sharq (Planet of the East), her fame reached as far as Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and parts of the Indian subcontinent. She is on equal footing with distinguished performers such as the French singer Edith Piaff and the Italian Maria Callas.
For over half a century, the first Thursday of every month was special to Arabs from Morocco to the Arabian Gulf and beyond – for decades this was the fixed date for her concerts, which went on for more than five hours. Those who were not able to attend the live show gathered in each others homes with snacks and tea, tuning their radios hours before the start of the concert.
The concerts were sensational: audiences clapped, screamed, and called for numerous encores, throwing their fezzes and jackets in the air in frenzied celebration of her powerful singing. Hers was the age of sound-waves, and in the absence of images, her voice carried listeners imaginations on an emotional journey.
Om Kalthoum was one of few artists of her time who deviated from the traditional Turkish mould of singing, belting out oriental tunes with the distinguished verses of Mohammed Iqbal, Omar Khayyam, Egyptian neo-classicists Hafiz Ibrahim and Ahmed Shawki as well as romantics like Ibrahim Nagy and Ahmed Fathy.
It was her mesmerising talent that introduced the working classes to classic Arab poetry. Her mannerisms made her a mysterious figure. She never talked on stage, and would sit on a chair until the musicians finished playing the introductions, then she would rise to an ovation even before she started singing.
Performing for hours on end, she broke records with unrivaled stamina that bewilders music experts to this day. Her recordings for Egyptian radio total 625 hours.
In a way, it’s almost impossible to capture the significance of the diva’s career. And while the Om Kalthoum Museum displays only a fraction of her belongings, it’s still worth a visit. After all, just the name brings back memories of the most revered Arab singer of all time.