“Umm Kulthum is the Che Guevara of the Arab world!”
If the legendary Egyptian-born singer had to be summed up in a single sentence, the way writer-producer and all-around woman extraordinaire Mona Khashoggi describes her hits right on the mark. In fact, the Egyptian national icon that is Umm Kulthum can be seen throughout the Arab world, her likeness on t-shirts, coffee cups, pillows and posters from Beirut to Dubai and everywhere in between. She is a treasure, and a reminder of the strength, talent and resolve of Arab women everywhere.
Along with her likeness being an immediately recognizable image, there are cafes dedicated to her, films made and films in the works, and her inescapable, unmistakable sound rings like a soundtrack of the golden era of Egypt, throughout the entire world. Umm Kulthum recorded around 300 songs over a 60-year career, and Khashoggi explains that “for nearly 40 years, Umm Kulthum released one song on the first Thursday of every month.” The entire Arab world would await those radio broadcasts, her monthly concerts, with bated breath.
This Eid, Mona Khashoggi is bringing her West End musical tribute dedicated to the iconic singer to the Dubai Opera, to help celebrate the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Her musical Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era will play in Dubai for 3 nights, after having been performed at the London Palladium in 2020. “I wanted to create a West End musical, something bilingual for all to enjoy, even audiences that haven’t listened to her music before.” And that she has done, the untiring, multitalented Khashoggi who also has a film in the works based on Umm Kulthum’s life, to be produced by Lloyd and Beatriz Levin, the award winning couple who produced the 2021 Guantanamo Bay drama The Mauritanian.
The synopsis for the musical reads: “Egyptian Delta, the turn of the century. In Tammay al Zahayera, the village imam takes his daughter to sing in a ‘mawlid’ festival [ed. —celebration on the birth day of the prophet Muhammad] where she wows the crowd with her voice. As she gets older, he dresses her up as a Bedouin boy for performances before taking her to Cairo to develop her career, where she is surrounded by great composers, intellectuals, musicians and thinkers of Egypt's golden age. There she meets poet Ahmed Rami, a Sorbonne graduate, and a love affair begins.
“Beloved by all and belonging to no one, admirers of Umm Kulthum have won her love and praise with their attention and songwriting. Her songs about love and longing express the many forms that love can take, its pain and complications.”
As with most musicals and West End plays, Khashoggi’s work takes some artistic license with the legend’s life, but a lot of the Saudi-born, Jeddah and London based entrepreneur’s work on the production comes from what she admits is the legacy of Umm Kulthum, “I lived in Lebanon as a child. I love Umm Kulthum and my father is from the same generation as her.” As Khashoggi sat next to American experimental director and playwright Robert Wilson one night at a Venice Biennale dinner, she mentioned her fascination with the Egyptian singer. Wilson asked to listen to her music, Khashoggi played one of her songs for him right then and there from her phone. Wilson was of course mesmerized by her voice and proclaimed “you have to create something about her!” And that is how Khashoggi started to write the story of what would become Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era.
Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era promises to take the audience through a musical journey, from her early years in the 1920s, up to the 1970s, when she performed her grand concert at L'Olympia Theatre in Paris. A live orchestra and singers will perform this bilingual show, and song such as Ghanili, Alf Laylah, Serat el Hob, Hob Eyh and many more of her top hits will be performed live.
Her personal connection with the singer seems natural as “she was a workaholic and a very strong woman among men, her perseverance and her need to follow her dreams — I can relate to her, she inspired me, her energy inspired me,” Khashoggi admits, and the singer’s determination inspired Khashoggi to finish the difficult task of writing her first musical. There is even a photo of Khashoggi’s father and uncle with Umm Kulthum and the singer's likeness, she admits, “guided me — I have a picture of her above my bed, and others around my house.” For Khashoggi, the likeness hits close to home as she says, “she reminds me a bit of my mother, who had a very strict religious upbringing. Even after being married to my father, a minister and traveling around the world she would say “I’m proud to be a Saudi, and of being a woman and a Muslim”.” This is all something that Khashoggi shares with Umm Kulthum, as the legendary singer once said to a journalist, 'didn’t you know I’m a “fallaha”, a peasant girl and I come from the Delta and my father is a sheikh and we read the Quran.' This was at a time all the other aristocrats in Egypt wanted to copy the foreigners and she didn’t, she was an Arabist” the Saudi producer explains.
During our chat Khashoggi also praises her leading lady Lubana Al Quntar, an opera singer who is the descendant of the famous Syrian singer, Amal Al Atrash (better known by her stage name Asmahan) and renowned composer and singer, Farid Al Atrash. “She’s a Syrian Druze princess and a singer, plus she is a professor of music and she is an actress and this is what I like to see,” Khashoggi gushes.
Those who were lucky enough to catch Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era in London say it was wonderfully entertaining, the perfect blend of Arab sounds with a Western musical sensibility.
Umm Kulthum, more than 40 years after her death, continues to inspire all around the world. “I have young girls coming up to me and telling me how they admire her strength, and her courage. And that she did it her way!” As Khashoggi explains. And what a great “brand” the Egyptian legend created, almost always seen wearing those iconic dark glasses, her hair in a stylish updo and the elegant, modest robes that have become synonymous with the Umm Kulthum persona.
I ask Khashoggi what she wishes her Dubai audiences to take away from the performance of her musical. She says, “this is an homage, it is really reviving one of her nights. I want the audience to walk out of the show thinking that Umm Kulthum has been here, among them, one more night -- magically.”
Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era runs from May 3-5 at the Dubai Opera. For info and tickets check out their website.