Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Umm Kulthum "The Ruins"

I first heard Umm Kulthum sing in 2000. The "Arab world's most famous and distinguished singer of the 20th century" is an exotic and acquired taste for most Westerners. Her voice wails like a desert wind and booms like a landslide, conveying passion, longing, and betrayal like a Middle-Eastern war. Her weekly concerts, broadcast from Cairo, brought a moment of peace each Friday night until shortly before her death in 1975. Her funeral was attended by 4 million people. According to Wikipedia she had one of the strongest and most incomparable voices of all time, requiring her to stand up to 10 feet from a microphone in order not to overpower it. Existing recordings suffer due to the limitations of the devices available to her at the time.

Mention her name to any Arab of age and he will look at you in surprise and then smile as he reminisces. I reside in NYC. In 2000 I asked a Yemeni who ran a local newsstand where I might find Umm Kulthum's work. She was not available in any domestic music outlet in any respectable form. He sent me on a treasure hunt to the Arab neighborhood of Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. When I walked into the shops they clerks behind the counter looked at me as if I were a police inspector (I'm only one-quarter Irish) but smiled when I told them I was looking for a CD of Umm Kulthum. They asked if I spoke Arabic. I sang a snatch of one of her songs "Illi shuftu, illi shuftu. Eblimet shuufet..." and said no.

Then, of course, September 11th. I remember cursing at the TV announcers who suggested that the first plane striking the WTc was some sort of horrible "accident." And the next day I couldn't bring myself to enter the Yemeni's shop. You-know-who is Yemeni.

One of Umm Kulthum's best songs is El Atlal, "The Ruins," the story of a love affair that has ended unhappily. For a long time after 9/11I could not listen to her. On the night of the attempted surgical strike to remove Saddam I played "The Ruins" as I watched his palace reduced to rubble. Here is Umm Kulthum singing the love song Inta Omri "Thou art my soul."

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