Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Egypt – LXXVIII. My Years at 12A Rue Khantaret Ghamra – Entertainment (4 of 30)

Om Kalsoum

On the first Thursday of every month, a phenomenon perhaps unique in the world took place. The Egyptian people had a date with Om Kalsoum; her monthly concerts were broadcast across Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Only an insane person would think of attending the concert itself; the price of a scalped ticket was phenomenal; and even if you were willing to pay, it was impossible to find one. The lucky mortals who could secure such a ticket would remember the experience for the rest of their lives. The story goes that Om Kalsoum insisted that the first few rows be donated to poor people; presumably, a draw took place to allocate those seats.

Whether you were attending the concert or not did not matter; for Om Kalsoum was everywhere; people had their radio on full blast; and with the windows wide open, no matter where you were, like it or not, you heard her. Her golden voice cleared the streets of some of the world’s most populous cities as people gathered in their homes or in cafes to tune in.

Her performance was not of fixed duration; it included anywhere from 2 to 3 songs sung over a period of 3 to 5 hours. One song could last for hours. Thus, while the official recorded time of a song such as Enta Omri (You Are My Life) was approximately 60 minutes, in live performance, she sang it for hours. What she did was to repeat a single phrase or sentence of a song’s lyric over and over, introducing variations every time. The audience participated by saying things such as ya salam (how wonderful), ya genan (it could be taken as it’s driving me insane, or it’s heavenly) and so on. And this went on for hours as the singer and her audience fed off each other emotional energy. (What I said here applied to the performances of many other singers, but to a much lesser extent. After all, they didn’t have her voice or her stamina).

The lyrics of her songs dealt mostly with love, longing, and loss. Unrequited love, the agony and ecstasy of a relationship, and parents love for their children were common themes, and they spoke directly to the hearts and souls of a nation. The language of her songs was at times in Classical Arabic, at other times in the Ommeyya (the Arabic of the people in the street, and the Arabic we all used on a daily basis).

She was born Fatma Ibrahim Elbeltagi. Om (mother) Kalsoum was her stage name. Om Kalsoum was born in Soumale, she then moved to Tamay Ez-Zahayra village in El Senbellawein, in Dakahlia. It’s unclear what her exact date of birth is, it is either 1898 or 1904 (or somewhere in between?).

She came from a humble home. Her childhood was spent playing among the lush fields bordering the Nile and riding donkeys.

At a young age, she exhibited exceptional singing talent. Her father, an Imam, taught her to recite the Koran, and she is said to have memorized the Holy Book from cover to cover.

A talent like that was not going to be denied. Eventually, she was introduced to the proper cultural circles in Cairo; and slowly but surely, her career took off. Even in her early days, known poets and composers wrote lyrics and music for her.

For the sake of Egyptian old-timers, I’ll mention two names: The famous poet, Ahmed Rami who wrote 137 songs for her; he also introduced her to French literature. Mohammed el Qasabgi, a virtuoso oud (lute) player and composer, introduced her to the Arabic Theater Palace where she enjoyed her first real success.

She also, early on, acted in a few movies. But her only love was her singing, and she dedicated the rest of her life to it.

It would be near impossible to guess as to how many songs she has to her credit. They no doubt number in the hundreds.

Our art reflects our life. Her songs told us in no uncertain terms her longing for a love which was always denied. Although she was never blessed with great physical beauty, she had legions of male admirers who courted her, all to no avail. When she surrendered to love, it resulted in great personal pain. She once remarked that “the story of my songs is the story of my life.”

Om Kalsoum was rumored to have had an affair with one of King Farouk’s uncles in the ’40s. In 1955, to quell rumors surrounding her personal life, she married a dermatologist. The couple had no children.

In 1967, Om Kalsoum was diagnosed with a severe case of nephritis. She went to the U.S. for specialized care, alas, her illness proved incurable and she died in February 1975.

“El Leila Eid Al Donia Sa’aid” (the opening lines of her theme song and they mean: Tonight Is A Fete Or Celebration On A Happy World) would never again bursts through a Cairo’s night and stops its dim for a moment. The inimitable way she sang the time- honored line “Ya Laili! Ya Eini!” (Oh My Night! Oh My Eye!) would never again be heard live.

She was mourned by all of Egypt. Four million grief- stricken mourners attended her funerals; the crowd proved uncontrollable and they seized control of her coffin and carried it to a mosque that they considered her favorite, before later releasing it for burial.

Although dead, her music will always remain an integral part of the Egyptian psyche.

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