When asked who is the most famous actor in the world, how many of you would say, “Jackie Chan”? Or for the question, who was the most important female celebrity of the 20th Century, how many would say, “Oum Kalthoum”? In the West, we often forget that the majority of the world’s population is either immune to Western popular culture, or at least, has its own popular culture that influences a greater number of people than our Madonnas, Michael Jacksons, and Fernando Alonsos do. Just as American culture dominates Western theatres, radio stations, and TV, Egyptian popular culture has imperialized the Arab World. And two of its major figures are Oum Kalthoum (also spelled Umm Kulthum), the Egyptian Diva, and Naguib Mahfouz, the Egypian Nobel Prize winning novelist.
I had never heard of Oum Kalthoum (1904-1975) until 1997 when I was invited to a screening of “Umm Kulthum, a Voice of Egypt“, a documentary about her life, at the National Geographic, written by a friend of a friend. Kalthoum’s popularity is comparable to that of Elvis or the Beatles, moving masses and masses of people and becoming the most popular singer in the Arab speaking world. She grew up a peasant in a poor Egyptian village and eventually became part of Egyptian elite society. Her life story is fascinating and controversial, and I encourage anyone who is interested in Arab culture, history, or simply music and the world to read up on this popular icon. This week I purchased her CD “The Lady” on iTunes. My understanding is that the beauty of her music is the tragedy in her lyrics and her ability to improvise. Of course, I don’t get any of that, but I do enjoy it anyways.
A few Septembers ago, I had finished reading a couple of Amin Maalouf novels and Lawrence Durrell’s “Justine” and decided to further my knowledge of Arab novelists. That’s how I came across Naguib Mahfouz (1911 -). Initially, I purchased “Palace Walk“. The first 50 pages were a bit slow, but then I started to really get into the story. That’s when I realized that it was the first part in the ongoing “Cairo Triology“, so I rushed to my local English bookstore to buy the entire Triology. I became so engaged with the story that I had trouble doing anything else but reading this 20th Century Egyptian soap opera. I would read well into the night, wake up early to continue reading, and then read secretly at work and at my lunch break. I am a slow reader, but within 10 days, I had read the entire +1300 pages of the Triology.
The story is fantastic. It is a soap opera that spans rougly 1915 to 1950 Egypt, and has everything you could want in a novel: a family epic, unrequited love, sex, betrayal, jealousy, envy, politics, religion, guilt, and the history and transformation of a country seeking identity from the clutches of European colonialism. I knew very little about Egypt and even less about 20th Century Egypt. Towards the end of the story, there is even mention of Oum Kalthoum. Luckily, I had already heard of her and didn’t feel so ignorant.