A KHAWAGA'S TALE: Om Kulthoum packs big crowds in Paris

Peter A. Carrigan
6 Min Read

Om Kulthoum is again the toast of Paris. In an exquisitely tasteful exhibition at the Institute of the Arab World, the Nightingale of the Nile is pulling in the crowds as she did back in the 1960s.

In November 1967, the International Herald Tribune reported: “The fans went hysterical at Paris’s Olympic Music Hall – at one point, they charged the stage in an attempt to kiss the singer’s hand – the crowd of about 2,000 cheered and stamped their approval throughout the four and there-quarter hour performance – which consisted of three songs.

Difficult to fathom really; almost five hours and just three songs. Maybe she kept a little something in that handkerchief, her ever-present prop.

In 1975, Time magazine’s obituary for Om Kulthoum said, “Known as the Nightingale of the Nile – her voice was a near-perfect instrument for expressing the sinuous quarter tones of Arabic music.

“She once sang a single line 52 different ways, Time magazine wrote.

If you are in Paris over the summer, postpone Euro Disney for a day and make for the University of Paris. There you can relive your own love affair with Om Kulthoum or educate the kids about an Arabic woman whose voice was spread firstly via the medium of radio on the first Thursday of every month, and then by her records sales which made her a multi-millionaire.

The exhibition space is beautifully designed, with a soft blue tone running through the various segments of the space. On display are photography and art from the period and contemporary images of Om Kulthoum’s life and career.

The exhibition is not only an historical record, but is also a modern interpretation of Om Kulthoum’s impact on Egypt and the wider Arab world.

Om Kulthoum is depicted as the Statue of Liberty, as a pop art relief and as a heroine of democracy with fighter bombers flying over head.

Maybe she will be the next Che Guevara to adorn a flood of politically “right-on T-shirts.

The exhibition contains two small cinemas. One is showing Om Kulthoum with a full orchestra and the diva in full flight as the high flung notes fill the exhibition. During my visit, older men sat transfixed in front of the screen, no doubt reliving their own carefree days in the Delta or on Cairo’s streets, dreaming of love and inspired by Om Kulthoum’s poetry and voice.

A red cinema shows Cairo’s street life 40 or 50 years ago. Om Kulthoum is singing, of course, and her songs are the narrative to a variety of comic scenes depicting children, animals and Cairenes in their daily lives.

The exhibition has some unique memorabilia including Om Kulthoum’s Arab Republic Diplomatic Passport, medals she was awarded and the keys to the city of Cairo.

It is déjà vu in a way being back in Paris. I first came here as a backpacker in 1984. I have visited subsequent times since and have always enjoyed indulging in the lifestyle and being part of the élan of Paris.

But now with baby Max on board, it is back to my backpacker roots. There is no plate du jour and glass of Bordeaux at lunch. It is a baguette, cheese and an apple in the Tuilleries garden. Forget whizzing from a Pigalle nightspot to a Latin Quarter Jazz venue, I am in bed by 10 pm.

I am traveling light and washing underwear as I go; dark colors only, and nothing that needs ironing or dry cleaning.

Max likes the mornings. I mean the early mornings. He enjoys catching the crimson light and strolling along empty boulevards searching for a café and a copy of the IHT.

My accommodation is not a youth hostel, but a rented apartment I found on homelidays.com. It had to be ground floor and near a park. Inexpensive as well, and with booking the Eurostar from London three months in advance, I feel I have hedged my British pounds somewhat against the strengthening Euro.

As a family, our next stop is the French Alps. Though I haven’t instituted any economic measures to offset fuel prices, we will just have to motor along without air conditioning to conserve some of that ?1.60 a liter juice. Sorry Max, but the fresh air is free, so get it while you can.

The Om Kulthoum exhibition, Institut du Monde Arabe, Metro Jussieu, on display until Nov 2. Tel: 01-40-51-38-38.

[email protected]

Share This Article
Leave a comment