On Thursday, April 14, a small group of students and professors attended a lecture in the Scheuer Room on “Umm Kulthūm and the Poetics of Revolution” by Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature at University of Pennsylvania Huda Fakhreddine. The lecture, sponsored by the Arabic program of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, the Islamic Studies Department, and the Department of Music and Dance, was one of the last to be held this academic year. Professor Nesrine Chahine of the Arabic program played a major role in organizing the event.
“She’s a dear friend of mine,” Chahine said fondly about Fakhreddine. “In terms of logistics, it wasn’t that difficult to get her over here.”
Fakhreddine specializes in modernist movements or trends within Arabic poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries and their relationship to the Arabic literary tradition. She recently published a book, “Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition: From Modernists to Muhdathūn,” where she focused on the poetry of the Free Verse and Abbasid “muhdath” (new, modern) movements. Her talk, however, focused on Umm Kulthūm.
“I have this obsession with Umm Kulthūm,” Fakhreddine warmly said at the beginning of her lecture. “This is going to be a very personal talk about her.”
Umm Kulthūm was an Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. She created over three hundred recordings and appeared in six films. With her incredible vocal ability and style, where she repeats and varies each line of her hour-long songs, she came to be known as one of the most famous and popular Arab singers — but she was also much more than that.
“She is, as I like to call her, a cultural institution all by herself,” said Fakhreddine. “She is associated with so many things that go far beyond entertainment…language, poetry, the Qur’an, the tradition of belonging, identity, revolution, and so many other things.”
In her lecture, Fakhreddine explored Umm Kulthūm’s contribution to the revolutionary discourse of the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on her framing and keying of two “quasīdahs” (Arabic stories) by post-colonial poet Ahmad Shawqī. During the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, former leader of Egypt, played a major role in the revolutionary rise of Arab nationalism contra Western powers. He formed close associations with Umm Kulthūm, who then departed from her usual repertoire of “tarab” (emotional; lovesick; overflowing with happiness or sadness) songs for more nationalistic anthems, though even these later incorporated more elements of “tarab.”
“Umm Kulthūm became the voice of the revolution,” said Fakhreddine. “Indeed, Abdel Nasser had found the most resounding voice for his revolution.”
Her renditions of Shawqī’s poems are an example of this departure and her prominence in the revolutionary discourse, while also highlighting Umm Kulthūm’s intense skill as a singer-songwriter and her knowledge of the Arab literary tradition. Of nearly one hundred lines of poetry each, Umm Kulthūm selected about 20-30 lines from the poems without forsaking any of their original meanings and themes. During her performances of these poems, Umm Kulthūm would repeat and vary each line to deliver her own message, calling the people of Egypt to action.
For students in the Arabic program, the lecture was important in that it gave them an opportunity to learn more about the Arab culture in a way that is particularly informed by the language. Additionally, many students had heard of Umm Kulthūm before, and the lecture provided a means with which to further explore her cultural significance. Evan Grennon ’18, who studies Arabic at Swarthmore and actually took a class with Fakhreddine at UPenn on the Abbasid “muhdath” movement last semester, often heard Umm Kulthūm played by his host family in Morocco, where he spent a year during high school.
“It’s sort of a tricky thing because she’s an icon of a culture that isn’t mine,” said Grennon “But I really like her, as a singer.”
Nonetheless, Chahine and the Arabic program coordinated the event so that students who do not speak Arabic could also enjoy the talk and simply learn about other cultures. This was mainly because Umm Kulthūm is a singer; virtually anyone can listen to her and appreciate her awe-inspiring voice.
“The thing with Umm Kulthūm is, it doesn’t matter what she sings,” said Fakhreddine. “It matters how she sings it.”
Grennon maintained that he would recommend Umm Kulthūm to anyone, regardless of whether or not they spoke Arabic.
“I think that she’s absolutely a powerful singer,” said Grennon. “I mean, I didn’t speak Arabic very well when I first started listening to her, so I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but just her voice alone can really carry your listening.”
Chahine encourages more students outside the departments that sponsored the talk to come to these events, since they are campus-wide events after all. These events offer students a opportunity to learn about topics they may not encounter in the classroom.
“Keep an eye out for events with the Arabic program next semester!” said Chahine. “There’s something for everyone.”