Gender Identity through Umm Kulthum "el-sitt"
By Musa Al-shadeedi
Translated by Mohammad Tamimi
Sitting editor: Bethan Staton
A woman is standing in front of a large crowd, holding a thin scarf and shouting: "Give me my freedom, release my hands". This lady goes beyond being just a singer. She becomes a rebel against the dominant cultural patterns in her community.
Umm Kulthum's confident standing on the stage was not just to delight and entertain the crowd. She was threading the crowd through the eye of a needle, injecting them with an overdose of . In her presence, they were Ecstatic , entering into a hysterical mania from which they could not be awakened, either during the concert and beyond it.
Her voice was political like the voice of the cannon. She was struggling with her music against the Israeli occupation, raising the determination of the Arab armies and inspiring the spirit of patience and of struggle in Arab people. But, at the same time, her voice was a romance to make their hearts melt.
on the first Thursday of every month , ten o'clock at night, Umm Kulthum's voice was taking all Arabs, inevitably, away from their works, gathering around the radios, listening with the fullest respect to her voice. It was a collective ritual.
Umm Kulthum began her career as a little girl singing in the villages of Egypt. In his book "The Mystery of Umm Kulthum", critic and journalist Rajaa Al-Naqqash mentions important details about the difficulties of her beginning:
"She was wearing the agal (a headband) to look like men. It was not easy for a girl to stand among the peasants to sing. She would be accused in her morals. Anyone who takes a look at the photo of Umm Kulthum with her brother Khalid, feels that her father and family were trying to hide all her feminine features in order to avoid any embarrassment as she stands amid men to sing".
The Lady and gender
She is considered perhaps the greatest singer in Arab history. She does not need a title, just "Umm Kulthum" is enough to define her widespread phenomenon. This illustrates what it means to need no introduction. But all that brightness surrounding the star of the east made her sexual life a mystery.
She was an iron woman, a strong character, she made courageous and crucial decisions. And for other reasons, too, she did not completely correspond to the gender stereotypes of her time. The Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat observed:
"This is why, I knew, I can listen so intently to Umm Kulthum, why her songs enchant me so. She is not a feminine singer, not at all. Her face lacks the prettiness appropriate to a woman's face, and her lungs are extraordinarily large. Her breasts are massive, true; but her neck is thick as it encases her enormous throat. She draws, too, because her voice encompasses more than one sex, soaring high as the dome of the womb and falling as low as the well of the testicles. Her voice is saltiness and sweetness: an asexual voice, but a bisexual one, too. The lyrics to her songs are in a masculine voice, but one that encompasses the feminine. She is even called "The Lady". That's all, just el-sitt "The Lady" as if to confirm all that is uncertain, equivocal, undecided; as if to decide once and for all, both to escape and to contain any remaining confusion. She shows on hesitations about furtive conversations, lyrical flirtations..she tells of nights of passion and communication, of goblets of wine passed round, of the mouth of the beloved. Women hear her as a man, and men hear her as a woman. Her voice offers the anger of a woman and the resignation of a man. Her voices is the exchange of lovers. The tempo of Umm Kulthum's voice hovers between the femininity of a waning aristocracy and the masculinity on an emerging liberation, between the elderly and the adolescent. The physiology of her voice is a careful coding and blending of hormonal balance, yet also a parting, between the public street and the closed wooden balconies of the harem shaded by jasmine, between the sunshine of crowded thoroughfares and the tremor of fresh, hot vapors in the Turkish baths, between sparks flying off red-hot metal and cool milk curdling slowly in warm air. It's the voice simultaneously of a woman and a man".
The Dotmsr website published a report titled "Was Umm Kulthum a lesbian?", and then deleted it after several hours. The report was prepared by Islam Rifai, who argued: "Considering the words of Umm Kulthum's songs, we note that it is a combination of the language of masculine and feminine; a strong signal of being her a woman outside the framework of sex in its clear sense in that time. The verbal analysis of her songs and performance may more or less allude to her sexual orientation, which was, timidly, under discussion".
Men in the Lady's life
This prompted us to check the list of men in Umm Kulthum's life. The poet Ahmed Rami may be considered the most important. Rajaa Al-Naqqash commented in his aforementioned book on the subject:
"Ahmed Rami's love to Umm Kulthum was true, great and special. This love was the source of the songs that he wrote for her. The number of these songs were, according to some reviewers, 137 among 283 songs sung by Umm Kulthum throughout her career".
The title of this text is "The Impossible Marriage" – a title that neglects to mention any reason why such a union might have been impossible in this case.
The second man was Mahmoud Al-Sharif who was announced by the newspapers as Umm Kulthum's husband. He was a novice folk singer, and they divorced after less than two weeks for reasons no one knew for sure.
The great musician and lute player of Umm Kulthum's band, Mohamed El Qasabgi, fell in love with her until his last day, but it was one-sided love and it was said that he suffered a lot.
We can consider Dr. Hasan Hifnauy to have been the only real husband of Um Kulthum, although the sources agreed that he was her doctor, rather than a husband. Their marriage lasted until her death.
The Lady's status
Before writing this article, I asked myself, do we have the right to address the personal life of such a person as Umm Kulthum, the Lady with a voice of 14,000 vibrations per second, whose funeral was attended by millions? Many people will consider this article a kind of grave robbery, overstepping all boundaries. But I consider – and may I be wrong – that public figures are historical figures, in their covert or overt aspect. They belong to all people; who wear them for the rest of their life, whether they love or hate them. What was a secret in certain circumstances, overburdening the public figures as it cannot be revealed, will make be happily revealed after those circumstances pass. What a victory!
The Lady's kiss
A photo of Umm Kulthum receiving a kiss from a lady on her mouth has been spread recently on social networks. The photo was published by a Lebanese magazine.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian actress and producer Etemad Khorshid’s book A Witness to the corruption of Salah Nasr was recommended to me by a reliable source, who declined to be identified. I read it to contain a reference to Umm Kulthum's sexual orientation when I found, on page 113, the following text: "There was the great singer who exceeded the prospects of fame, but she was attracted to women and young girls".
An Egyptian activist told me: "She got married late. He was her doctor rather than a husband. She had a female close friend and they lived almost together. Many men offered to marry her and she had many lovers, but she refused all of them. She had no children. Her friend disappeared completely after her death. The light was not shed on her friend like the other parts of her family".
Between 2002 and 2004 a play, written by Egyptian playwright Adel Hakim and directed by the Tunisian Lotfi Ashour, was performed in Europe about the life of Umm Kulthum. It represented her in a homosexual image. The play was adapted from Selim Nassib's novel "Uum", which was first published in French in 1994. The novel suggested that there was an intimate relationship between Umm Kulthum and her husband Mahmoud Al-Sharif, as well as depicting her in two intimate scenes with a woman.
Edward Said was perhaps the most daring when he declared it, shortly, simply and directly, in an article entitled "Homage to a Belly-Dancer", dated September 13, 1990 : "During her lifetime, there was talk about whether or not she was a lesbian, but the sheer force of her performance of elevated music set to classical verse overrode such rumors".
From the beginning to the end of this article on Umm Kulthum's sexuality we have known for sure that it would be impossible to reach a conclusive answer. What you have just read is speculation, but speculation that deserves to see the light. All the available information on the sexuality of Umm Kulthum is ambiguous, and not enough to be conclusive at all.