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Umm Kulthūm

A national icon of Egypt, Umm Kulthum had a singing career that made her one of the most important stars in the Arabic-speaking world. Born in Egypt in 1898, Kulthum was taught to sing and recite the Koran by her father, an imam. By the age of twelve her talents had been identified and she began to perform—as a boy to avoid controversy—with her father’s family singing ensemble. She learned classical Arab songs at age sixteen and in 1923 permanently relocated to Cairo. Conservative, Kulthum avoided the city’s bohemian culture and maintained a restrained public persona. In Cairo, she met the poet Ahmad Rami, who would eventually write her 137 songs. Through records and performances at the Arabic Theater Palace, Kulthum’s fame rose and by 1932 she had embarked on a tour of cities in the Middle East and North Africa. In 1934 she sang at the inaugural transmission of Radio Cairo and through the decade starred in films, had live concerts broadcast on the radio, and became appreciated by Egypt’s royal family. The “golden age” of her career lasted through the 1940s and early 1950s, when she continually altered her singing style and song choice to fit the desires of her audience. In live performance, she was known for being emotive and fitting set lists to the mood she felt from the audience. Following the bloodless revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, Kulthum’s songs were banned from radio play due to her association with the previous royal family, until it was suggested that denying the people of Egypt her songs could turn them against the new ruling party. Following the Six Day War of 1967, Kulthum’s repertoire became more introspective and her performances were reported to leave generals in tears. Her funeral, in 1976, became a national event after it brought over 4 million people to the streets, more than for the funeral of Nasser six years previously.