Monday, August 31, 2020

Street named after Umm Kalthum causes controversy

With thanks: Veronique

In the summer of 2020, the city of Haifa caused a furore when it announced that it would rename a street after the famous Egyptian diva Umm Kalthum.

The journalist Eldad Beck fulminated that  the renaming would be to 'commemorate one of the greatest enemies of Israel, who wanted to wipe out the state.'

In 2011,  an Umm Kalthum street was named in east Jerusalem; there is also one in Ramla. The Haifa municipality thought that naming a street in the city where Umm Kalthum performed in the 1930s would go down well with the israeli-Arab community, 10 percent of the residents. It  would also reflect the city's ethos of Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Umm Kalthum had such an influence on the Arab world that her friend, the journalist Mustapha Amin, said that only the Koran was more important than her. "No singer could match her, no voice could epitomise the soul of a people", he declared." She was virtually canonised, not just in Egypt, but in the entire Arab world."
Egyptian stamp commemorating Umm Kalthum

When Umm Kalthum was buried in 1975, three million Egyptians turned out for her funeral, almost as many as attended the funeral of President Nasser five years earlier. 

So popular was Umm Kalthum with the Jews of the Arab world that they invited her to sing at their parties. Her concerts and films were screened in Jewish-owned cinemas. The Jewish liturgy was recited in Sephardi synagogues to tunes which she made popular.

Even today, her repertoire is played by Israeli musicians,  such as Tom Cohen, conductor of the Jerusalem East-West Orchestra, and singers such as Zahava Ben, Nisreen, and even Sarit Haddad, who has performed one of Umm Kalthum's greatest hits, Enta omri.

However, there was a dark side to Um Kalthum, one sometimes omitted in documentaries about her life. During the Six Day War she was co-opted by Nasser's regime to boost Egyptian morale with these blood-curdling lyrics, broadcast over the radio in Cairo and Damascus :'Cut, cut, cut their throats, hurl their heads into the desert, cut, cut, cut their throats as much as you please, cut the throats of all the Jews and you will be victorious."

Two years later, she expressed her wish to join fighters for Palestine with these lyrics, written by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and set to the music of Abdel al Wahab: " now I have a rifle, take me to Palestine with you...I want to live and die with the men, I have been with the revolutionaries from the day I carried my rifle, Palestine is only a few metres away..."

But plenty of Jews are ready to  excuse as patriotism the bloodlust of the 'fourth pyramid of Egypt'. Sephardi Jews grew up with Umm Kalthum. They are prepared to forgive her inciteful words.  Since her death, Egypt has signed a peace treaty with Israel, and in 2005 Egyptians and Israelis gathered together to perform her music.

One wonders if she would she have approved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, she also said in the egyptian radio during the 6 day war that she was "ready to perform in Tel Aviv" after Israels defeat