While revolutionary ideologies and charismatic leaders of the 20th century in Arab countries have been widely studied, few Western institutions have focused on Arab art and music as a powerful social mobilizer and vector of common identity. In a promising shift, the Arab World Institute in Paris has taken up this challenge by launching the exhibition “Divas: From Oum Kalthoum to Dalida,” to celebrate the Arab world, its cultural richness, and its pluralism through the portrayal of Arab women artists and feminists, who went against the societal conservatism and artistic classicism of their time.

The exposition invites visitors to discover the lives and careers of several female artists in the Arab music and film industry from the 1920s to the 1970s—namely, Oum Kalthoum, Asmahan, Fairuz, Warda, Dalida, Samia Gamal, and Sabah. Visitors are taken through a series of dimly lit rooms and hallways, immersing themselves in the impressive and often tumultuous careers of the legendary female singers and actresses. Their lives are depicted via photographs, records, personal possessions, and unforgettable stage outfits which are accompanied by sound and video clips featuring the artists in all their magnificence.

Each “diva” rocked entire generations of Arabs.

Each “diva” rocked entire generations of Arabs, who were captivated by the greatness of their voices, the beauty of their performances, and the strength of their characters. These powerful and influential women played a major role in advancing the artistic expression of their time. They delighted crowds during historic concerts and brought together millions of Arabs with their talent and charisma, from Rabat to Baghdad, through Cairo and Beirut.

Whether a peasant of the Egyptian Delta, a Palestinian fedayeen[1] fighting against the Israeli occupation, or a Moroccan or Jordanian celebrity, everyone forgot their political differences at the time of a concert or a movie by one of these remarkable women. No social or political cleavage was great enough to stop their impact on the Arab world.

Divas Arab world

Costumes worn by the Lebanese singer Sabah in the 1970s on display at the Arab World Institute. (Photo Alice Sidoli via NYT)

[‘I Loved You for Your Voice’ by Selim Nassib: Oum Kalthoum and the Poet Who Loved Her]

[Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers’ Iconic Music Shaped Lebanon]

The “Divas” exhibition is structured in four thematic “acts,” which take the visitor on a journey through countries, historical eras, and musical styles.

First, Cairo in the 1920s is featured, covering the emergence of a powerful feminist movement fueled by the first female artists on stage: Mounira al Mahdeyya, Assia Dagher, and Aziza Amir. These pioneering divas, who are now almost forgotten, broke the male monopoly on artistic representation and opened theaters, cinemas, and operas to female artists. They gained undisputed recognition among Arab audiences through their mastery of “taqtuqa,” an accessible and light musical style that contrasted the heaviness and elitism of classical Arab music.

The second part of the exhibition is dedicated to the golden voices of Arab music, set up as icons of their countries of origin and of the Arab world as a whole: Oum Kalthoum, Fairuz, Warda, and Asmahan. Each woman is celebrated in a specific room where her public and private life is explored, along with her artistic career and political commitments, moments of glory, and times of doubt. One will appreciate the portrait of Fairuz and the osmosis she created in the city of Beirut, as she sang during the darkest hours of the Lebanese civil war.

In a darkened room, the visitor is led to watch excerpts from concerts by Fairuz, Warda, and Oum Kalthoum. The footage shows audiences being carried away by the repetitive rhythm of the tarab, a musical style in which the singer leads the audience to a euphoric state, through variations of the same phrase and the creativity of improvisation, losing all notion of time and space.

The Egyptian cinema in its golden age is saluted in the third act, mixing audiovisual productions from the musicals that have made Egypt the cultural beacon of the Arab world. Melodramatic scenarios, kitschy sets, and glamorous outfits follow one another in a true festival of colors, combining presentations of oriental dance, stage performances, and musical interludes. A series of artists are then introduced, some attracting more attention than others—particularly, Tahiyya Carioca, Samia Gamal, and Hind Rostom. The main attraction of the displays showcases the famous singer and actress Dalida, who conquered audiences located on both sides of the Mediterranean. Visitors can learn about her youth and beginnings in her native land, Egypt, which she went on to celebrate through a song titled “My beautiful country” (“helwa ya baladi”).

This fresh look at the divas’ legacy is proof of the vitality of Arab culture.

The divas are undoubtedly part of the artistic heritage of the Arab world, as well as its present and future. This notion concludes the exhibition, which highlights the contemporary resonance and re-appropriation of their artistic work. Holographic creations, films, photomontages, and techno remixes of 60s hits show how the divas have been an inexhaustible well of inspiration and creativity for current artists, linking heritage and modernity in a fascinating mix. This fresh look at the divas’ legacy is proof of the vitality of Arab culture, incorporating new codes within the framework of its own specificity while guiding Arab youth, in search of innovation, towards their idols.

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Costumes that belonged to Oum Kalthoum on display at the “Divas” exhibit. (Photo RFI/IMA)

The artistic epic of the divas, although glorious and intriguing, is sometimes overshadowed by another narrative: that of changing Arab societies in the face of galloping urbanization, and the irruption of modernity and globalization. In a context of social and economic mutation, the divas represent the symbol of female emancipation, catalyzing in their works the aspirations of a whole generation towards more freedom and social justice.

The struggle against imperialism and colonization is not left out, it occupies an important place. This is evident in the strong relationships that some artists have honed with the leaders of their time, such as Oum Kalthoum with former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in hopes to influence positive change. The exhibition therefore succeeds in weaving a living fresco of the Arab world, punctuated by the haunting melodies of Oum Kalthoum and the hypnotic sway of Samia Gamal.

“Divas” depicts a region in the midst of social and intellectual upheaval, during a period of optimism and effervescence.

Contrary to the stereotypical view of the Arab world as being marked by oppression, patriarchy, and traditionalism, “Divas” depicts a region in the midst of social and intellectual upheaval, during a period of optimism and effervescence, where dreams seemed achievable. A sharp criticism is present throughout the exhibition on the objectification of the female body, not only concepts of inherent sensuality, but also as the orientalist prism through which the divas were perceived by their Western public.

Nevertheless, some viewers have criticized the exhibition for being too focused on political feminism, neglecting the artistic contribution of divas in Arab music and cinema. “The exhibition presents divas essentially as feminist activists in a patriarchal society, to the detriment of their central and major role in the development of arts and culture in the Arab world,” objected Dana Jomaa, a visitor to the exhibition. The focus indeed appears to be reversed: the divas, their art, and their political commitments are not a subject of interest in themselves, but above all, a means of understanding the Arab world and its societal challenges.

This impression seems to be confirmed by the French media coverage of the exhibition, which, in a context of public debate around Islam, has focused more on ideological and societal considerations than on the divas themselves. However, “Divas” still has the merit of revealing to the French public the careers and lives of these women, as their artistic success and the cultural revolution they led embody a deeply feminist character.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the “Divas” exhibition is attracting considerable crowds, and has been widely acclaimed by critics. It will remain open at the Arab World Institute in Paris until September 21, 2021.

[1] guerilla militants