Author Selim Nassib takes us on a memorable journey through Oum Kalthoum’s life in “I Loved You for Your Voice.” Set against the backdrop of a critical era of Egyptian history, including the ups and downs of the tenure of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s iconic second president, who led the 1952 coup against the monarchy and still stands as a symbol of pan-Arab unity, the historical details of this fictional work are accurate, and its vibrancy, masterful use of dialogue and character development bring to life a relationship between the singer and the poet who wrote the words of 137 of her 283 songs. Their bond spanned five decades and was built on foundations of poetry, literature, and music. The uncanny mix of reality and fiction makes this novel irresistible. This book is, to the best of my knowledge, the only work of fiction about the monumental Egyptian singer.
“You have stayed inside me / With you I have spent my life,” Ahmed Rami wrote after more than two decades of having hopelessly loved “his peasant girl,” as he affectionately calls her throughout the book. These verses, according to the novel, cost him his marriage. Rami, the poet-narrator of this half century-long saga, fell intensely in love with Oum Kalthoum when he first heard her dazzling voice as a young girl singing disguised as a Bedouin boy in order to help her family make ends meet. He loved her madly his entire life. However, the novel is ambiguous about whether she ever reciprocated his haunting love for her, save for bringing his poetry to life.
Oum Kalthoum is indisputably the greatest and most famous musical legend the Arab world has known. Egyptian contemporary history would be incomplete without her, and any discussion of Arabic music inadequate without serious coverage of her work. Oum Kalthoum’s overpowering talent, magnificent voice, intensity, and ability to emotionally fuse with her audience are to this day unparalleled. Her melancholic songs still fill the air in most Arab countries; she is loved by admirers from all corners of the world, capable as she is of enrapturing Arab and non-Arab hearts alike. The titles bestowed upon her say it all: She is “The Star of the Orient,” “the Mother of all Arabs,” “another Name for Egypt,” “the Fourth Pyramid,” and “the Nightingale of the Nile,” among others.
Oum Kalthoum was born on May 4, 1904, in the small village of Tammay al-Zahayrah in Egypt. She came from a poor peasant family and was the daughter of Sheikh Ibrahim, the imam of the local mosque, and his wife Fatmah, a homemaker. She was born during the Night of Power, Lailat al-Qadr, the night the angel Gabriel first revealed the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad. That evening, her father spent the night praying at the mosque and fell asleep. In his dreams, he was visited by a woman covered in a white veil who offered him a green jewel. Accepting the jewel, Sheikh Ibrahim asked for her name and the woman in white replied she was Oum Kalthoum, the daughter of the Prophet. And so she was named.
From childhood, she believed her name and auspicious birth circumstances were a blessing that gave her a special, divine protection. This belief translated into the unyielding strength and determination that were part of her character until her death. Oum (or Umm) means mother in Arabic, as most know. However, Selim Nassib explains that its actual origin comes from the Aramaic “Amma,” which means arising, beginning, and leading. An entire family of words is derived from “amma,” including Umma, community or nation; Imam, the religious leader of the believers; Ima (or Ama?), a decadent woman from the Abbasid times; and others. In harmony with her name, Oum Kalthoum united and led not only the Egyptians but the entire Arab world during her life and continues to do so even after her death.
Considering her voice a divine gift, Oum Kalthoum used it indefatigably to uplift and unite the Arabs, lending her unswerving support to the social and political causes she believed in, such as the plight of the Palestinians. She performed in Palestine several times and once, years before the tragedy of the Nakba, the mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from British Mandate Palestine from 1947-1949 during Israel’s creation, she offered the entire proceeds from her concert in Haifa to the fund against British occupation and Jewish immigration.
Everywhere she performed, whether Cairo, Baghdad, Jerusalem or Amman, theaters filled with hundreds of people who melted upon hearing her sing. The characteristically bustling streets of Cairo would empty when radio stations broadcasted her songs and cafes filled to the brim as people gathered to hear her concerts, which could last up to six hours. Political leaders avoided issuing important communications at the times she was scheduled to sing; had they done otherwise, they would have gone ignored. She gave everything of herself to her public and her generosity was reciprocated. People virtually worshipped her. Her love songs, filled with tenderness, pain, and longing intoxicated the masses and these, in turn, inebriated her with their fervent love and adoration.
A noteworthy aspect of “I Loved You for Your Voice” is its depth. The novel opens a window into Oum Kalthoum’s fascinating inner world, taking us on a journey through the various stages of her intellectual and artistic development. She was, according to the fictional Ahmed Rami, “famished to learn” and “brutally demanding” with herself and those who composed for her. Having grown up in a village of about 1,665 people, she marveled at being introduced by Rami to the magical world of poetry. She was fascinated with words, obsessed with bringing them to life, and unquenchably thirsty to learn about entire worlds that had not previously existed for her.
In the mid-1920s, soon after arriving in Cairo with her father, brother, and lifelong caretaker Saadiya, Ahmed Rami began visiting Oum Kalthoum weekly. During these chaperoned visits, they sat on her balcony overlooking the Nile. She tirelessly recited Rami’s verses over and over, until she reached perfection, which meant: making each word and verse become the emotions they signified.
Rami introduced her to French literature as well, his specialty, since he had studied it in the Sorbonne. But, most significantly, he helped her discover the poetry of Rumi, Ibn al-Fared, Omar ben Abi Rabi’a, Abu al-‘Atahia, Hafez, and, gradually and cautiously, the controversial mystical verses of Omar Khayyam, which Rami had translated for the first time from Persian into Arabic.
As Rami read their verses for her, she looked at him as if, in the words of her character in the novel, he were “offering her the forbidden gate to heaven, right then and there.”