Being an Arab means knowing certain things. We know we created algebra, we know we have to get to the airport an hour earlier than everyone else, and we know Um Kalthum.
Um Kalthum was born in Egypt around 1900, and her artistic career spanned over 50 years. She traveled the world, performing for huge crowds wherever she set foot. She died in February 1975, and her funeral was the largest ever seen in the Arab World, as millions lined the streets of Cairo to bid her farewell. Walter Cronkite even reported her death on the CBS Evening News.
Her voice is instantly recognizable by almost every Arab, no matter what corner of the world he or she inhabits. Many of us grow up hating her music, mainly because our parents played it constantly. Then we mature, we have a moment of clarity, and we come to love her unconditionally. Our affection for her becomes uncompromising and permanent. Some people don’t ever come around to fully accepting Um Kalthum. Those people need counseling.
Um Kalthum was more than a singer. She was a force. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, someone suggested to Gamal Abdel Nasser that Um Kalthum’s weekly radio broadcasts be limited or eliminated. Nasser basically responded by saying, “No way! Do you want the people to revolt again?” Instead, he started airing his radio addresses before her concerts to ensure that people actually had their radios turned on. Once, when Egypt and Tunisia had broken up after a squabble, Um Kalthum performed her popular song “El Atlal” in Tunis. She then met with the Tunisian president, one of her biggest fans. A few days later, diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored.
During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, her songs were blasted as citizens demanded their rights. It was their way not of necessarily re-creating a new identity for themselves, but of re-claiming an identity lost, an identity suppressed. Her statue in Cairo was adorned with an eye patch in solidarity with protestors. Um Kalthum sang for love, the protestors chanted for freedom. I don’t see a difference.
Her real genius lied in creating that thing we Arabs call “tarab.” There is no word for “tarab” in English. It can only be loosely described as a feeling of ecstasy and heightened senses. “Tarab” happens when the singer gets to that part of the song when the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Well, for white people, it’s the hair on the back of your neck. For Arabs, it’s the hair everywhere.
And “tarab” can only happen when a performer is in front of an audience. It is a bond between the performer and the listener. It is a certain kind of energy, an honest exchange of emotion, an open dialogue. My favorite parts of an Um Kalthum recording (which are usually about an hour long) are when audience members yell, scream, and clap, urging her to repeat a line, or just expressing their feeling of “tarab” at something she just did. She once said of her audience, “When I see these people, I realize I can never give them as much as they give me.”
As an artist, “tarab” is about building a relationship between yourself and your listener. It is about building trust. It is about sharing vulnerabilities, sharing secrets. I try to do that when I perform and write, but it’s only because I learned it from her.
That’s why this year Um Kalthum is my valentine, if she’ll have me.