The exhibition Divas showcases the lives and careers of the greatest female artists of the Arab music and film world of the last century. Women whose work had a worldwide artistic and social impact. Four well-known divas from the exhibition are Umm Kulthum, Asmahan, Fairuz and Warda. On these pages you can read more about their lives and careers, and listen to their music.
Umm Kulthum 1898-1975
Umm Kulthum was born in the late nineteenth century as Fatima Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Beltagi in a religious family in Tamay al-Zahayira, a village in the Nile Delta. Dressed as a boy, she started singing in her father’s ensemble and won over the audience with her voice. In 1923, this young lady settled in Cairo permanently. Surrounded by great musicians and intellectuals, she changed her repertoire and her appearance – a diva was born.
In 1926 she made her first recording, In kunt asamih (If I forgive you): the start of a successful career. She sung about desire, love, pain, and parting. Starting in 1934, and for the next 27 years, she gave a concert every first Thursday of the month that was broadcast live on Radio Cairo.
Umm Kulthum gained the honorific title of ‘Star of the Orient’. On stage, she was the queen of improvisation, with a powerful and low voice without equal. By repeating lines time and again, her songs often lasted more than an hour – making her audiences ecstatic. She nurtured her image with great care and discretion. Her close relationship with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser also made her an ambassador for Pan-Arabism, the movement for the political and cultural unification of Arabic-speaking countries.
Umm Kulthum was a private person. She performed as an artist in a man’s world and guarded her private life. Ironically, it was this desire for privacy that helped develop the air of mystique around her person. Her silk scarf, the only object she brought onto the stage from her very first concert, her diamonds, her bun, her glasses, and her pearls became her trademark. The career of Umm Kulthum lasted from the mid-1920s until the early 1970s. She died in 1975 in Cairo.