Sharing a Beloved Middle East Secret

Share via

If the information highway leaves you feeling the world is shrinking at an alarming rate, go see “Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt.” A documentary directed by Michal Goldman that plays through Thursday at the Grand Theater, this film will remind you of how very big and mysterious the world remains.

Umm Kulthum was a peasant girl born at the turn of the century whose musical gifts carried her to the top of the Arabic world. Combining the exquisite pathos of Billie Holiday with the patriotic fervor of Eleanor Roosevelt, Umm Kulthum was nothing short of a national obsession in Egypt, and when she died in 1975, 4 million people jammed the streets of Cairo for her funeral. That she remains virtually unknown outside the Middle East is proof that there are still unexplored frontiers of experience.

Goldman first conceived of a film about Umm Kulthum in 1992 when her companion, historian Avriel Butovsky, invited her to spend 18 months in Cairo where he was researching his doctorate thesis on Egypt’s royal family. Having recently sold a documentary on klezmer music to PBS, Goldman had enough cash that she felt at liberty to relax and go along.


“Avriel had lived in Egypt, so he’d told me about it, but no one can prepare you for Cairo--the masses of people in the streets was something I’d never experienced,” Goldman recalls. “Egypt is a place you either love or hate, and I fell in love with it, largely because of the conviviality and warmth of the people.

“When I got to Cairo I heard music by the same woman vocalist everywhere I went. It was Umm Kulthum, and I discovered you could stop anyone and they’d have something to say about her. People of all classes related to this music with incredible intensity and that fascinated me because I couldn’t think of anything in my own culture that functioned as this kind of unifying cultural event.

“Umm Kulthum rose to fame when Egypt was shaking off the colonial domination of the British, and in the country’s collective consciousness, her songs of romantic yearning seemed to merge with Egypt’s longing for independence.”

Goldman began thinking about a film, but worried that she didn’t speak Arabic. She then had the luck to meet Virginia Danielson in a Cairo restaurant. Danielson, a Boston-based historian whose book, “The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the 20th Century,” was published this year, is fluent in Arabic language and agreed to help Goldman. Thus began four years of periodic visits to Egypt, and the struggle to raise money.

Born in Boston in 1944, Goldman came of age during the civil rights movement. She began making films in the mid-’60s when groundbreaking documentary work was being done by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers; in fact, Goldman worked with the Maysles on a short film about Truman Capote. That led to several assistant editing jobs with producers Ed Pincus and David Newman.

“I didn’t go to film school,” Goldman says. “In those days it wasn’t necessary. And I became an editor because, although I wanted to direct, I felt I needed to have a craft first.”


Goldman moved to L.A. in 1974, and edited Jonathan Demme’s debut feature, “Caged Heat,” but by 1980 she’d concluded she wasn’t “a Hollywood person,” so she moved to San Francisco, where she began developing her first project as director. It was a chronicle of klezmer music in America titled “A Jumpin’ Night in the Garden of Eden” that she shot in 1984 in Boston, which is where she met Butovsky. It was he who first told her about the legendary Umm Kulthum.

“Rumors abound about Umm Kulthum, but she remains a mystery,” says Goldman, who made her film for $500,000. “Her music is almost exclusively about romantic love, and the streets of Cairo are filled with books for sale with titles like ‘Umm Kulthum: The Men in Her Life,’ but I don’t know who she loved. She married a musician, but King Farouk [who ruled Egypt from 1936-52] decided the marriage had to end because the man was a drunkard. In the late ‘40s a member of the royal family supposedly wanted to marry her, but the king forbade it because she was a peasant. A few years later she married a doctor, but that was said to have been a marriage of convenience. It’s impossible to know the truth about any of this, and that’s what Umm Kulthum intended.”

Beautiful though it is, Umm Kulthum’s music sounds decidedly foreign to Western ears largely because of its use of microtones and quarter tones.

“You rarely hear piano in her music because pianos play half tones and she’s working with much finer gradations of tone,” Goldman says. “As my grasp of Arabic has improved I’ve begun to understand what she does with words and how she plays with them. It’s not unlike Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing--the difference being that Umm Kulthum’s best-loved songs deal with the pain of love and thus employ much darker tones.”

When Umm Kulthum was a child and her talent first became apparent, Goldman says, her father was so ambivalent about having her sing for strangers in public that he dressed her as a boy.

“She was a tremendously ambitious girl, though, and she changed the fate of her family dramatically. When [President Anwar] Sadat came to power, Umm Kulthum lost the relevancy she’d had as a symbol of Arabic unity and she was pushed aside by history. But to this very day, one of her songs is broadcast at 5 o’clock every afternoon and it’s heard by all Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East. Generations of Egyptians come and go, but Umm Kulthum remains.”