Recently, I took a survey amongst my social network to see which Middle Eastern women were considered style icons, social distruptors & muses to them. Over a hundred comments later on my feed and the muses kept rolling in. I was both humbled and blown away by the rich herstory of fiercely talented and beautiful women who have broken boundaries, healed the hearts of their nations, and brought decades of inspiration to those they have touched with their lives' work and missions. Please note: I'm using the term "Middle Eastern" somewhat loosely here to include North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and all of the Arab-speaking nations.
One of the most iconic and celebrated of these women is Oum Kalthoum (also spelled Umm Kulthum). She was an internationally famous Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. She was given the name "The Voice of Egypt", but her music and her unique singing style has been mesmerizing the entire Arab world and beyond for decades now.
“ Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Oum Kalthoum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world. ”
— Virginia Danielson, Harvard Magazine
What I love about this singing diva of divas is that not only did she have a unique singing style, but she also had a very distinct personal sense of style. To me, she looks like an Arab goddess mashup of Roy Orbison (with her dark sunglasses), Jackie Kennedy (with her smart tweed tailored suit skirts) and Amy Winehouse (with her bouffant beehive hairdo).
I will be exploring Oum Kalthoum, her style and the impact she has had on generations of Arab/Middle Easterners in future posts. For now though, I leave you with this live performance that Beyonce did where the music she sampled is from an iconic Oum Kalthoumsong “Enta Omri” (you are my life), one of Kalthoum’s biggest hits and most famous musical pieces of all time in the Arab world. Though definitely a sexy way to start the show, Beyonce's use of Kalthoum's iconic music has been criticized as cultural appropriation and according to this Muslim Girl article "an orientalist nightmare".
And here is some (blurry) but amazing footage of Oum Khaltoum performing "Enta Omri" live many moons ago. I feel swept away be her voice and the rhythms of the music and beat. I can only imagine how the audience felt in her presence, allowing her voice and the hypnotic rhythms lull them into a trance-like state of ecstasy.