The Dome and the Well

Umm Kulthum died in 1975. I had a passing acquaintance with the singing of this venerated Egyptian artist, but knew nothing of her life. I learn from this article by Tom Faber that Umm Kulthum’s singing was admired by western performers such as Maria Callas, Bob Dylan, and Robert Plant.

I also learn that her biographer Virginia Danielson, an ethnomusicologist, mentions Umm Kulthum’s “possible lesbianism,” saying that she showed little interest in men: “It is very, very likely she had relationships with women.”

Such discussions can be bumpy, and more so concerning deceased idols who span culture divides.

She is not a feminine singer, not at all. Her face lacks the prettiness appropriate to a woman’s face, and her lungs are extraordinarily large. Her breasts are massive, true; but her neck is thick as it encases her enormous throat. She draws, too, because her voice encompasses more than one sex, soaring high as the dome of the womb and falling as low as the well of the testicles. Her voice is saltiness and sweetness: an asexual voice, but a bisexual one, too. The lyrics to her songs are in a masculine voice, but one that encompasses the feminine.

The above remarks by Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat are quoted by Iraqi writer Musa Al Shadeedi in the Jordanian LGBT magazine My.Kali referenced by Faber. The mention of Umm Kulthum’s possible lesbianism caused the Jordanian government to block the magazine’s website. Al Shadeedi’s comments reflect both temptation and reluctance to probe Umm Kulthum’s rejection of traditional gender roles.

“We don’t talk about strong or masculine women in our history… We only discuss [Umm Kulthum] as a singer… I don’t see how dragging dead people out of the closet will fix our society today… But we can ask: if she was lesbian, would that change how we see her? This might help people reconsider how they react to such taboos.”

In terms of reactions to such taboos, astonishing in its way is that of Columbia literature professor Edward Said, the Palestinian-American author of “Orientalism.”

“During her lifetime, there was talk about whether or not [Umm Kulthum] was a lesbian, but the sheer force of her performances of elevated music set to classical verse overrode such rumours.”

The remark is cited by Al Shadeedi from Said’s “Homage to a Belly-Dancer” in the London Review of Books (September 13, 1990). It is an extended tribute to Tahia Carioca. As Said warms to his subject, he makes this comment (not quoted by Al Shadeedi):

Whereas you couldn’t really enjoy looking at the portly and severe Um Kalthoum, you couldn’t do much more than enjoy looking at fine belly-dancers, whose first star was the Lebanese-born Badia Massabni, also an actress, cabaret-owner and trainer of young talent. Badia’s career as a dancer ended around World War Two, but her true heir and disciple was Tahia Carioca, who was, I think, the finest belly-dancer ever.

His remarks suggest that lesbianism and belly-dancing occupied two widely separate rungs of Professor Said’s sensibility.

(Tom Faber, “‘She exists out of time’: Umm Kulthum, Arab music’s eternal star,” theguardian.com, 2-28-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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