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New museum honours diva of Arabic music. (Mosaic).

More than 25 years since her death, the haunting voice of Umm Kulthoum still brings tears to the eyes of her millions of admirers. The diva of Arabic music, known as the Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East), brought Egypt to a standstill on the first Thursday of every month as Radio Cairo carried live broadcasts of her concerts.

Hailing from a poor family in the Nile Delta, Umm Kulthoum began singing professionally at a young age. Her father recognised her talent early and took her from village to village to recite religious verses for weddings and other celebrations. Crowds were mesmerised by her youth and strong voice, and by 1923, at the age of 19, she moved with her family to Cairo to launch her career.

For the next half century until her death in 1975, she enchanted peasants and presidents alike with her incomparable voice and expression.

"Her songs of love, religion and patriotism expressed the sentiment of all Arabs. She united us as a people," says Mohammed Thabet, 48, a life-long fan.

Forgotten by the establishment, but never by the people, Umm Kulthoum's popularity has endured. Fans continue to buy her albums, a television series on her life received the highest ratings when it was screened two years ago, and radio listeners in Cairo tune in every night at 5 p.m. to hear selections of her repertoire of more than 300 songs.

The most fitting place for a museum to honour Egypt's most famous singer would have been her modest villa overlooking the Nile in Zamalek. At the time of her death, however, the Egyptian government failed to recognise the value of preserving her legacy and the villa sat idle for years before being sold to a Kuwaiti real estate developer, who demolished it and erected a hotel in its place. The singer's fans were outraged.

"Had Umm Kulthoum died while President Nasser was still alive, he would have ordered the government to pay any price for the villa and turn it into a museum. Unfortunately, President Sadat was in office and he was very cool to the singer owing in part to the political power she wielded under his predecessor," says Thabet.

Years after Umm Kulthoum's death, the political currents had changed enough for the government to begin thinking seriously about building an edifice to honour its most famous chanteuse. Plans were drawn up as part of a long-term project to establish museums in honour of the pillars of modern Egyptian culture, including composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab and poet Ahmed Rami, both of whom collaborated with Umm Kulthoum on many works.

"We wanted a museum to give Umm Kulthoum the recognition she deserved," said Mohammed Abdel Dayim, a spokesman for the Cultural Development Fund, which allocated $1.5 million to building the museum.

With the singer's villa gone, the government resigned itself to finding another location, settling for the annex of Qasr el-Mansterly, a 19th century palace with no personal connection to the singer except its proximity to her great love, the Nile River. At the risk of further infuriating critics, the Ministry of Culture hired a foreign contracting firm to renovate the annex and design its exhibits.

Italian designer Maurizio di Paolo, whose work on other museums in Europe dedicated to musicians first attracted ministry officials, incorporated cutting-edge lighting, display and multimedia technology into the museum.

"We borrowed his experience, but took great care to ensure that his design incorporated Egyptian and Arab aesthetics so that there was no gap between them," affirms the museum's director, Ahmed Antar.

Officials faced a formidable challenge in gathering the pieces for the new museum, as Umm Kulthoum's personal belongings were dispersed among her many inheritors and some items had vanished into obscurity. The task of collecting the museum's nearly 300 pieces took over a decade to complete.

"All precious items in the museum belonged to the family (of Umm Kulthoum) and were kept for up to 27 years before being offered as a gift to the government and all Egyptians," says Antar. "The collection is small, but it expresses her character and gives a deep insight into her personality."

Opened to the public early this year, the Umm Kulthoum Museum features a modest collection of its namesake's personal belongings and memorabilia. The diva's signature red kerchief-something she always clutched while on stage-dangles in the display case beside the diamond-studded dark glasses she wore late in her life.

Inside, a contoured glass cabinet contains a small selection of evening dresses that the diva wore during some of her most memorable concerts. Other exhibits present her shoes, scarves and designer handbags, but hardly convey the classic elegance of the one Egyptians referred to as `Al-Sitt' (The Lady). Umm Kulthoum's fashions, as well as her comings and goings, were always the talk of the town.

But the celebrated singer was more than just a superstar, she was `the voice and face of Egypt'. Devastated by the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 War, the diva stopped singing, resuming only after then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser summoned her for a special mission.

"You have done with your singing what we politicians have failed to do. You have united the Arabs," he reportedly told her.

Following that meeting, Umm Kulthoum launched an extensive tour, performing to sold-out concert halls throughout the Middle East and donating the proceeds to help Egypt rebuild from its war losses. Her charity work and patriotism earned her the red diplomatic passport on display in the museum, and she became Egypt's honorary ambassador to the world.

Other accolades came in the form of trophies and awards, including the Nile Medal presented to her by King Farouk in 1946 and the Lebanese Cedars Medal that she received in 1959. In all, 18 rows of awards from Arab governments are mounted behind glass.

"All these precious things belonged to her relatives and were offered to the museum as gifts," explains Antar.

Framed letters from dignitaries and song lyrics by poet Ahmed Shawki and Bairam el-Tounsi are presented in temperature and humidity controlled glass cases. Among these unique treasures are the original lyrics of `Leila we Nahari' (All Day Long) in the handwriting of poet Abdel Fattah Moustafa.

Documents chronicle the development of Umm Kulthoum's music, and a 1934 contract on display reveals the managerial shrewdness of the singer, even in her early days. The contract, through which Umm Kulthoum performed 52 one-hour live recitals over ten months for Radio Cairo, gave the 30-year-old singer all rights to her recorded works and, through an article she inserted, ensured that she would be the highest paid singer in Egypt. Enamoured studio executives could not refuse, and eagerly signed on the dotted line.

Vinyl LPs from the 1940's and 50's--considered the Golden Years of Umm Kulthoum--share space with the original devices used to record her music. The RCA microphone on which the diva recorded most of her songs occupies one corner. Nearby, a Uher 4000 Report, possibly the same recorder used to capture the celebrated 1964 hit "Inta Umri" (You're my Life), is stuck on pause as if a testament to the star's enduring spirit.

Not everything in the museum is an antique. Multimedia installations--including a darkened room where video footage is projected on a huge screen with a wave-like surface--aim to convey the cultural importance of the greatest Arab singer of all time. Touch-screen stations in the museum's library allow visitors to browse digital photographs, listen to music or watch recordings of Umm Kulthoum's concerts. A 24-seat cinema shows documentaries on Umm Kulthoum and excerpts from the six films she starred in between 1936 and 1947: Wedad, Nashid al-Amal, Dananir, Aida, Salama and Fatma.

"If Umm Kulthoum were alive today to see this museum, I think she would cry with happiness," says Antar. "Her surviving friends and family are happy with what we have made for her."

But music critic and opera singer Ratiba el-Hefni wonders if Umm Kulthoum really needs a museum.

"She is alive inside every Arab person," she says.
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Comment:New museum honours diva of Arabic music. (Mosaic).(Brief Article)
Author:McGrath, Cam
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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