The Mediterranean is Shaeri's primary source of inspiration, and we are keen to address various aspects of it with sincerity and curiosity. For this reason, we have chosen to portray one of the Arab Divas, those powerful women, timeless icons who have marked post-war Arab societies: the Egyptian singer Uum Kulthum.
If her nicknames were many, "The Lady", "The Voice of the Arabs" or "The Star of the East", her talent was unique. All the facets of this woman who was the object of an unprecedented cult for almost half a century could not be covered in a single article. The exhibition "Divas of the Arab World, from Umm Kulthum to Dalida" at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris pays tribute to several of these women!
Umm Kulthum, "the Egyptian"
Her real name is Fatima Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Beltagui, and she was born in the Nile Delta. There is no real consensus about her date of birth, but some sources say she was born in 1904, others in 1898.
Her vocation as a singer began when her brother Khaled, who used to chant the Koran with his father at village festivals, got sick. His father, an Imam, decided to take Umm Kulthum in his place and her voice completely charmed the audience. From that day on, her father began to disguise her as a boy so that she could continue to sing without offending the morals of the time.
Despite her young age, her fame grew very quickly and with the support of Abou Ala Mohamed, an Egyptian singer, she conquered Cairo with her voice.
Umm Kulthum, "the talented one"
For years, Umm Kalthum struggled to escape her father's tutelage and abandon religious songs for love songs. In 1932, she began touring the Middle East, visiting Iraq, Syria and Libya.
She could sing on stage for up to five or six hours at a time with only two or three songs in her repertoire. Indeed, she used to improvise and reinterpret her songs endlessly to the delight of her audience.
Her success extended beyond the Arab world: Maria Callas described her as an incomparable voice and Charles De Gaulle nicknamed her "La Dame".
The woman who was also called "the Nightingale of Egypt" died on 9 February 1975, and her funeral was attended by nearly 5 million Egyptians who wished to pay their last respects.
Uum Kalthum, "the committed"
Uum Kalthum carried Egypt in her heart and multiplied patriotic songs. After the Six Day War and Egypt's defeat against Israel, she used her voice to urge women to donate their jewellery to the state coffers.
She said she wanted to unite the people in the face of tragedy and instil hope and courage. In her work El Attlal, she evokes her sadness and frustration at Egypt's losses, and sings of her Arab identity, to which she devotes a boundless love. From the Gulf States to Morocco, Umm Kalthum was for many Arabs the one who knew how to unite them beyond their divisions.
Also, behind her bun and her dark glasses, Uum Kalthum represented a free artist who militated for the emancipation of women. Her career and emancipation became a model for many Arab women. She managed to conquer an entire homeland with her talent, in a country and at a time when men were dominant and omnipresent in all areas of society. Umm Kalthum managed to challenge an entire male society without ever becoming a sexualised object.