The Diva: “You Promised Me Years and Days”


First, an update to the last entry: the Cairo conference to discuss Iraq is on, apparently, but not till late November now.

Realizing I was no longer fit to do work yesterday (see last entry), I headed with another journalist named Ursula Lindsey to the Umm Kulthoum museum, which is on Rawda Island in Cairo. It’s pretty impressive, in its own modest way. Umm Kulthoum, for New Yorkers who have never heard the name, is one of the women on the wall in Fez, downstairs from the Time Cafe. She’s the one with the great sunglasses. Those sunglasses, which are embossed with diamonds on the edges of the frame, are in the first display case as you enter the museum. Virginia Danielson, an ethnomusicologist at Harvard, has written a book on the singer, and I’ve lifted the following from an essay she wrote for the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin.

Umm Kulthûm (1904?-1975) was perhaps the most famous singer of the century in the Arab world. She recorded some 300 songs. Her monthly, Thursday-night concerts were legendary as she extended a single song to last an hour or more, and the concert as a whole extended from 9:30 p.m. until 2, 3 or even 4 in the morning. She was known as an accomplished artist, often characterized as “authentic” (asîl), who honed her talents to the performance of elegant Arabic poetry, clever colloquial verse and moving devotional songs. She was called the “voice of Egypt.” When she died, her funeral was reported as being bigger than that of President Jamâl `Abd al-Nâsir. Now, more than 20 years after her death, people still listen to her songs, whether at 5 p.m. when the all-music radio station in Cairo opens its daily broadcast with one of her concert tapes; in the New Opera House, where the state ensembles perform abbreviated versions of her songs; on cassette tapes, where younger artists record arrangements of her songs…Bayram al-Tûnisî, one of the outstanding colloquial poets of the century in Egypt, worked often and successfully with composer Zakariyya Ahmad to create songs linked to the grass roots of Egypt. Works and melodies moved with the everyday speech and common entertainments of the country and were at once strikingly familiar and artistically gripping. “Anâ fî Intizârak” (“I’m waiting for you”) penetrates the frustration of waiting for what does not happen, of listening to promises never fulfilled. Umm Kulthûm rivets the emotions of listeners with her repetitions of the lines “I want to know that you’re not angry, that your heart does not belong to someone else” (`Ayiz a’raf lâ tikûn ghadbân… ) and later with her crying versions of “You promised me years and days and you came to me with excuses and talk” (Tuwa’idnî bi-sinîn…). “Huwa Sahîh al-hawa Ghalâb” (“Is It True that Love Conquers All”), another joint production of the three artists, draws similar emotions together, projects and shares them with the audience.

The picture above is of a cool panoramic wall (is that what it’s called?) that tells a visual story of her life, and her place in Egyptian history. There’s also a screening room, with grainy, slightly nationalist footage of her life and death. All her old dresses are there, letters and medals from world leaders, and her old datebooks. It’s well worth a visit. Barring that, you can buy her music in Brooklyn.