My biggest sin is that I am a Pakhtoon Woman

There is a Pashto poet's lament that says, "My biggest sin is that I am a Pakhtoon".  It fits well if I say, "My biggest sin is that I am a Pakhtoon woman."

 "زما لویہ گناہ دا دہ چی پختنہ خزہ یم"

As a woman, life gives me a very tough time. Illiterate, dependent, servile, and powerless, I have to survive against society and its forces. This is not a rare cry. Much of the sisters share one or other parts of my story. Our stories complement each other but they are not told very often. 

I am a teen girl studying at a religious seminary. When I was 15, I got married to a man of 25. The whole experience was terrifying, but being a girl, I was taught how to tolerate anything. Some weeks ago, my husband had an argument with his father about some property issues. When I came back from my seminary classes and was about to enter my husband's house, a woman came from behind me, covered me with her dupatta, and asked me to move towards my father's house, saying, "This house is no more yours to enter. Your husband has divorced you." In the evening, I received three stones as evidence of the divorce. My husband had shown his anger to his father this way.

I am the widow of a man who had killed or helped in killing some men years back. He was killed last year by relatives of one of the men he murdered. My husband's second wife, a widowed sister of his, and our mother-in-law live with me. Last Sunday, a teen (whose father was killed by my husband) killed my father-in-law after he was taunted by one of his cousins. 

"See! That man killed your father and his father is still roaming in front of you. Are you that much honor-less to let him live?" We are four widows in this village house now. We never were allowed to work and earn for ourselves. We still are not earning because we cannot go out. For how long will the alms of the neighbours keep us fed and alive I wonder. 

I am a mother of seven children, and I was married for 25 years. Last night two of my boys went to meet my mother and brothers at their Grandma's home. When they came back, my husband had the door shut on them. He was shouting at me. The elder boy entered the house from his uncle's door and told his father that he is not supposed to shout at me for visiting his maternal uncles. His father, not used to such interventions, told him to get out. The boy, being a young blood, wanted to talk some sense into his father, and told him that things do not work that way, and started to step out of the house. That was when my husband shouted, "You put your foot out of my house and your mother is a divorcee. I will not keep her anymore. 

Now, I am sitting in my room, knitting the dress of one of my future daughters in-law, and am thinking, "Where do I stand in this house I had built for 25 years? Do I even matter here, though I had worked all alone to raise my children and keep the house for my husband when he was away in Dubai? I had left my father's home and now one other girl is going to  be the daughter in-law of this house." Thoughts are dripping out of my skull through my eyes. With wet eyes and an aching head, I am sitting here. What else can I do?

Atiq ur Rehman

Atiq is a student and belongs to the tribal area of Pakistan.

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Act of Peace - Campaign Highlights


In August 2017 MWT launched its first official social media campaign, called “Act for Peace.”  We used Facebook to expand our reach to encourage individuals to do something in their local area through art, literature, or local activity.





Peace Means... Messages from around the world.






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Sabyn Javeri is a short story writer set in Pakistan and UK.  Hijabistan is her collection of sixteen short stories each reflecting the lives of Asian  women and the conflict of desire and righteousness. Her characters are women belonging to different social classes and age groups. They are sex workers, professors, housewives, students , house helpers and while reading their stories there comes one or  another point where an Asian woman reader or a reader alone can relate to their ingoing and outgoing wars. 

An important aspect of the book is that it depicts female sexuality, a taboo topic in Third World societies. Javeri uses Hijab as a metaphor to represent the sexuality of a woman, she is taught by the religion and society that her sexual identity is that part of her which needs to be hidden away unlike men. As a result of this repression a woman creates a world of her own to cherish her desire, a need which is not even named or talked about in the households. Javeri’s characters question the association of piousness with a piece of cloth while trying to establish the idea that sexual identity is as much natural and important for women as much breathing and sleeping is. The most attractive part of the book is that it truly represents the lives of Third World women and the challenges they face at the hands of a patriarchal mindset. It is a piece of writing that captures reality, a step towards portraying an Asian woman other than the characters of victim ,naïve or someone waiting for a man to change her life. These women know how to exercise their power, they are in a way their own heroes who embrace their sexual identity and are determined to honor it.


It is the story of a girl’s piousness and sexuality. She belonged to lower class and worked in an office to support herself. Her boss is a middle aged man wants to have a sexual relation with his young employee. She knows his intentions and is willing to give him what he wants. One day she is called in his office to give her a gift. She is so excited about it and about him because this gesture makes her feel wanted and special, a feeling she never got from her family or previous relations. When she opens the present she is surprised actually a little shocked to find a headscarf in it. It makes her think what part of her personality made him choose this present maybe her dupatta. 


“A beautiful girl like you should be hidden from prying eyes”

Javeri makes a point through this story that a man even if he is a boyfriend and has no legal right over a woman thinks it that a woman needs to be saved from the evil world and his is her savior. After this short meeting the girl start wearing the headscarf regularly because the words “beautiful girl” made her feel special and “prying eyes” mad him his hero.

The short meeting turns into long dates in mall and then the day arrives when h invites her to a friend’s flat which she accepts. Javeri describes their sexual encounter where the girl has to play according to the tradition which demands a woman to be shy and resistant and a man has to exercise a little force to show that he is the man.

“What was taking place was actually is custom with what tradition demanded. A girl should not give her body away too easily and a man should show a bit of force.”

During the encounter the boss finds the girl to be actively demanding for her pleasure which shocks him to realize, “This is not her first time.” 

What disgusts him further are her pubic hair. Unable to control himself further he says “it is not pious.” Realizing the irony of the situation that they just had a sexual encounter which is not religiously permitted by any means and he is thinking that her girlfriend is not pious due to her hair, she starts laughing loudly.

Shocked by her reaction he argues that she wears “an abaya, a hijab, probably pray five times a day” but doesn’t remove her pubic hair and asks “Isn’t it impure? Napak? Against Sunnah? “ An important idea or question that is raised here is that a woman’s sexuality and her way of keeping her body is associated with religion. Covering her head conveys the message that she is religious and being religious means she is pure: hesitant or not at all sexually forward.

Before she leaves he handovers her some money which she accepts knowing that her services will not be required more. She accepts the money thinking, “Better a price that a name” She leaves him happily and takes a bus to her home. On that bus there are many other women like her in hijabs and it feels like their bodies have become invisible behind these veils but the truth is no matter how unseen their bodies are their pinching and groping cannot be dissuaded.

The story ends in an unconventional way: the girl is neither ashamed of her sexuality nor she is disappointed on losing an admirer. “She smiled. The sunglasses were the first to go, then the headscarf, which she tugged at till it came loose.

This story changes thee preconceived ideas about Asian women. First is that these women embrace their sexuality and for them intimacy is not man centered only, it’s about their desire equally. Secondly it challenges the custom of associating hijab and abaya with religion. These are just a way to dress up, a choice like jeans and skirts are. A hijab wearing woman can be sexually forward and unconventional in her thinking and a woman who wears a skirt can be narrow minded too. These are just the labels attached to the identity of Asian women which writers like Javeri are shattering and the long established narratives being questioned.


Noorul Fakhar


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What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders

Seven countries' female leaders effectively managing the coronavirus crisis

Looking for examples of true leadership in a crisis? From Iceland to Taiwan and from Germany to New Zealand, women are stepping up to show the world how to manage a messy patch for our human family. Add in Finland, Iceland and Denmark, and this pandemic is revealing that women have what it takes when the heat rises in our Houses of State. Many will say these are small countries, or islands, or other exceptions. But Germany is large and leading, and the U.K. is an island with very different outcomes. These leaders are gifting us an attractive alternative way of wielding power. What are they teaching us?


Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, stood up early and calmly told her countrymen that this was a serious bug that would infect up to 70% of the population. “It’s serious,” she said, “take it seriously.” She did, so they did too. Testing began right from the get-go. Germany jumped right over the phases of denial, anger and disingenuousness we’ve seen elsewhere. The country’s numbers are far below its European neighbors, and there are signs it may be able to start loosening restrictions relatively soon.


List of Countries with Female Leaders and Coronavirus death rates

Data from the European Centre for Disease Control as of April 12, 2020



Among the first and the fastest responses was from Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. Back in January, at the first sign of a new illness, she introduced 124 measures to block the spread without having to resort to the lockdowns that have become common elsewhere. She is now sending 10 million face masks to the U.S. and Europe. Tsai managed what CNN has called “among the world’s best” responses, keeping the epidemic under control, still reporting only six deaths.

Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand was early to lockdown and crystal clear on the maximum level of alert she was putting the country under—and why. She imposed self-isolation on people entering New Zealand astonishingly early, when there were just 6 cases in the whole country, and banned foreigners entirely from entering soon after. Clarity and decisiveness are saving New Zealand from the storm. As of mid-April they have suffered only four deaths, and where other countries talk of lifting restrictions, Ardern is adding to them, making all returning New Zealanders quarantine in designated locations for 14 days.


Iceland, under the leadership of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is offering free coronavirus testing to all its citizens, and will become a key case study in the true spread and fatality rates of COVID-19. Most countries have limited testing to people with active symptoms. Iceland is going whole hog. In proportion to its population the country has already screened five times as many people as South Korea has, and instituted a thorough tracking system that means they haven’t had to lock down or shut schools.

Sanna Marin became the world’s youngest head of state when she was elected last December in Finland. It took a millennial leader to spearhead using social media influencers as key agents in battling the coronavirus crisis. Recognizing that not everyone reads the press, they are inviting influencers of any age to spread fact-based information on managing the pandemic.


Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, had the innovative idea of using television to talk directly to her country’s children. She was building on the short, three-minute press conference that Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had held a couple of days earlier. 

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox


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You will do better in Toledo

Welcome week at University of Toledo, Fall 2013

In 2013, I was selected as a cultural ambassador to the University of Toledo through a Global Undergraduate student exchange program with Pakistan. I had the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time in my life. I was one of the 80 students from around Pakistan who were attending schools throughout the United States for a semester. I was excited, nervous and overwhelmed. 


They say it right; ‘You will do better in Toledo.’ Things that I only imagined became the reality in Toledo. I experienced midwestern hospitality, which is also important in Pakistan. Though we like to express our love, affection and hospitality through force feeding. They do it here by acknowledging your diversity. I never had a chance to experience such a rich cross cultural experience and interfaith respect as I witnessed here.


In 2019, six years after that amazing experience, I returned to the same town under different circumstances.My husband was accepted as a Fulbright to the University of Toledo. Married to the love of my life, with a one-year-old daughter, we arrived last summer.


T town feels different this second time around. I am not a single student anymore, and I wasn’t living in the dorms.I learned and experienced so much about American culture when I was here in 2013, but I feel I missed out on experiencing so many changes in the years I was away, but I also feel I owe Toledo something back from my culture, my side of the world.


During the last five years I was back in Pakistan, I began working with a nonprofit called the Council for Democracy and Tolerance (CDT). Through CDT I managed the Pakistani content for a website called Muslim World Today (MWT). The goal of the website is to share positive stories about individuals, families, and organizations trying to make the world a better place by helping their communities, and by helping us to get to know each other a little better around the world through personal stories on MWT.. 

Since I am back in Toledo now, with CDT, I am leading the launch of a new in-person community project in Toledo to share Pakistani food, culture, and art with the Toledo community through cooking. One day we hope to raise enough funds to have a community cafe on or near UT where we will be able to offer free art and cooking classes, and one-day seminars on social justice issues (immigration, financial literacy, etc.) that matter to the local community. But for now, through my cooking, online cooking classes, sharing food and culture blogs on MWT and our social media, I hope to bring a little of Pakistan to you. All food purchases will be donations to the nonprofit, and will go to support Rocket Biryani. All donations are tax-deductible.

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The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi

A seventeenthcentury illustration for Rumis epic poem Masnavi. Rumi is often called a mystic a saint an enlightened man....

A couple of years ago, when Coldplay’s Chris Martin was going through a divorce from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow and feeling down, a friend gave him a book to lift his spirits. It was a collection of poetry by Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet, translated by Coleman Barks. “It kind of changed my life,” Martin said later, in an interview. A track from Coldplay’s most recent album features Barks reciting one of the poems: “This being human is a guest house / Every morning a new arrival / A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor.”

Rumi has helped the spiritual journeys of other celebrities—Madonna, Tilda Swinton—some of whom similarly incorporated his work into theirs. Aphorisms attributed to Rumi circulate daily on social media, offering motivation. “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever get polished,” one of them goes. Or, “Every moment I shape my destiny with a chisel. I am a carpenter of my own soul.” Barks’s translations, in particular, are shared widely on the Internet; they are also the ones that line American bookstore shelves and are recited at weddings. Rumi is often described as the best-selling poet in the United States. He is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man. Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim.

The words that Martin featured on his album come from Rumi’s “Masnavi,” a six-book epic poem that he wrote toward the end of his life. Its fifty thousand lines are mostly in Persian, but they are riddled with Arabic excerpts from Muslim scripture; the book frequently alludes to Koranic anecdotes that offer moral lessons. (The work, which some scholars consider unfinished, has been nicknamed the Persian Koran.) Fatemeh Keshavarz, a professor of Persian studies at the University of Maryland, told me that Rumi probably had the Koran memorized, given how often he drew from it in his poetry. Rumi himself described the “Masnavi” as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”—meaning Islam—“and the explainer of the Koran.” And yet little trace of the religion exists in the translations that sell so well in the United States. “The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion,” Jawid Mojaddedi, a scholar of early Sufism at Rutgers, told me recently.

Rumi was born in the early thirteenth century, in what is now Afghanistan. He later settled in Konya, in present-day Turkey, with his family. His father was a preacher and religious scholar, and he introduced Rumi to Sufism. Rumi continued his theological education in Syria, where he studied the more traditional legal codes of Sunni Islam, and later returned to Konya as a seminary teacher. It was there that he met an elder traveller, Shams-i-Tabriz, who became his mentor. The nature of the intimate friendship between the two is much debated, but Shams, everyone agrees, had a lasting influence on Rumi’s religious practice and his poetry. In a new biography of Rumi, “Rumi’s Secret,” Brad Gooch describes how Shams pushed Rumi to question his scriptural education, debating Koranic passages with him and emphasizing the idea of devotion as finding oneness with God. Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams.

This unusual tapestry of influences set Rumi apart from many of his contemporaries, Keshavarz told me. Still, Rumi built a large following in cosmopolitan Konya, incorporating Sufis, Muslim literalists and theologians, Christians, and Jews, as well as the local Sunni Seljuk rulers. In “Rumi’s Secret,” Gooch helpfully chronicles the political events and religious education that influenced Rumi. “Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes. Even in Gooch’s book, though, there is a tension between these facts and the desire to conclude that Rumi, in some sense, transcended his background—that, as Gooch puts it, he “made claims for a ‘religion of love’ that went beyond all organized faiths.” What can get lost in such readings is the extent to which Rumi’s Muslim teaching shaped even those ideas. As Mojadeddi notes, the Koran acknowledges Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” offering a starting point toward universalism. “The universality that many revere in Rumi today comes from his Muslim context.”

The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long before Coldplay got involved. Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated.

In the twentieth century, a succession of prominent translators—among them R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel—strengthened Rumi’s presence in the English-language canon. But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.

It’s verse of a very particular kind. Barks was born in 1937 and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in English literature and published his first book of poetry, “The Juice,” in 1971. The first time he heard of Rumi was later that decade, when another poet, Robert Bly, handed him a copy of translations by Arberry and told him that they had to be “released from their cages”—that is, put into American free verse. (Bly, who has published poetry in The New Yorker for more than thirty years—and whose book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” from 1990, greatly informed the modern men’s movement—later translated some of Rumi’s poems himself.) Barks had never studied Islamic literature. But soon afterward, he told me recently, over the phone from his home in Georgia, he had a dream. In the dream, he was sleeping on a cliff near a river. A stranger appeared in a circle of light and said, “I love you.” Barks had not seen this man before, but he met him the following year, at a Sufi order near Philadelphia. The man was the order’s leader. Barks began spending his afternoons studying and rephrasing the Victorian translations that Bly had given him. Since then, he has published more than a dozen Rumi books.

Rozina Ali


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Muslim Comics Gather Over Zoom To Celebrate Eid With Jokes And Joy

From left: Comedians Natasha Chandel, Abdullah Afzal and Mariam Sobh. They each performed a set during the Socially Distant Eid Comedy Night Special, a virtual event hosted by the Concordia Forum.

May 26, 20205:37 PM ET

Performing on a Facebook livestream, Salma Hindy began her stand-up routine by giving a shout-out to everyone in the audience who was following the guidelines to keep the coronavirus at bay, such as washing hands regularly, covering one's face and keeping a respectful distance from others. Though, as a Muslim, she found these habits a tad familiar.

"You call it coronavirus, I call it sharia law!" said Hindy, referring to the set of principles Muslims abide by.

The Canadian Muslim comedian was one of 40 performers taking part in The Socially Distant Eid Comedy Night, an event hosted by the Concordia Forum, a networking organization for Muslim influencers and changemakers. The goal was to give Muslims around the world some comic relief as they do the unprecedented: celebrate Ramadan and Eid in isolation at home, with fewer family members and friends than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A holy month typically observed by attending daily prayers at the mosque and dinner parties to break the dawn-to-dusk fast, Ramadan was indeed a different sight to behold this year, as was Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

The stand-up comedians come from different occupations and backgrounds, including award-winning performers based in South Africa and the U.K. Their show was livestreamed on May 24, Eid day for many countries. The event is available to watch on the Concordia Forum's Facebook page until Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET.

Muddassar Ahmed, organizer of the event and chair of the Concordia Forum, put together the comedy special during the week leading up to the holiday.

"For the hour or two that people tune in I hope it lifts people's spirits and helps them take their mind off things," says Ahmed.

Each comedian did a 3-minute set, poking fun at themselves and making jokes about Muslim stereotypes.

Hindy's act revolved around dealing with the coronavirus as a Muslim daughter of immigrants. She mentioned the new degree a lot of parents seem to have gained during the pandemic — a PhD from WhatsApp University.

"In WhatsApp University, absolutely no fact-checking is allowed," said Hindy, referring to the habit of some Muslim parents to forward myths and unproven coronavirus cures on WhatsApp, a social messaging app especially popular among immigrants as well as in many countries around the world.

Yaaseen Barnes, a South African stand-up comedian and one of several hosts for the evening, found some pros in celebrating Eid under quarantine. He joked that he no longer had to deal with the issue of praying next to someone who occasionally releases smelly burps of the food they just ate at iftar, the meal to break the daily fast.

"This is why [Zoom] is great, because you don't need to be in the burp," said Barnes, who is known as the "king of one-liners" by the stand-up community in South Africa.

Barnes was delighted to take part in the event and described it as a combination of what he loves: making others laugh and helping people. He hoped he could create a sense of community for those celebrating without family.

"Maybe we can give you something to laugh about and make everyone feel a little bit at home," said Barnes.



Hafsa Quraishi


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Ramadan: German church opens doors for Muslim prayers

A Muslim man wearing a face masks prays at a church in Berlin

A church in Berlin has opened its doors to Muslim worshippers unable to fit into their mosque under new social distancing rules.

Germany allowed religious services to resume on 4 May but worshippers must maintain a distance of 1.5m (5ft).

As a result the Dar Assalam mosque in the city's Neukölln district could only hold a fraction of its congregation.

But the Martha Lutheran church in Kreuzberg offered to help by hosting Friday prayers at the end of Ramadan.

Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk. Normally families and friends would gather to break their fast and attend communal prayers, but in Berlin - as in countries across the world - this year's celebrations have been affected.

Women wearing headscarves and face masks attend Friday prayers at a Berlin churchImage copyright REUTERS

"It is a great sign and it brings joy in Ramadan and joy amid this crisis," the mosque's imam told Reuters news agency. "This pandemic has made us a community. Crises bring people get together."

"It was a strange feeling because of the musical instruments, the pictures," congregation member Samer Hamdoun said, noting the contrast to Islamic worship.

"But when you look, when you forget the small details. This is the house of God in the end."





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Photographer & director Shady Habash dies at the age of 24 in Egyptian prison

Egyptian photographer and music video director Shady Habash dies in Tora prison, Cairo, at the age of 24.


After almost 800 days in prison, photographer and music video director Shady Habash dies in Tora Prison, Cairo, on May 2nd 2020, from health issues yet not specified.

Shady Habash was imprisoned since March 2018, because of directing the music video for Egyptian artist Ramy Essam’s song Balaha. Shady didn’t have anything to do with the content of the song. As an acknowledged photographer and director Shady was constantly working on Middle Eastern projects, and Balaha was just one of the many music videos that Shady directed in his career.

The charges against Shady Habash included being a member of a terrorist group, spreading false news, abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion and insulting the military. A verdict was never given.

Shady's last letter

Prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does.

I need your support, to not die.

For the past two years I’ve been trying on my own to resist everything happening to me, so that I can come out of prison the same person you’ve always known, but I can’t go on.

Resistance in prison means resisting yourself – protecting yourself and your humanity from the impact of what you see and live each day. It means preventing yourself from losing your mind or slowly dying, because of having been thrown into a room two years ago, being forgotten, without knowing when or how you will get out.


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‘She exists out of time’: Umm Kulthum, Arab music’s eternal star

Umm Kulthum was a social phenomenon who broke gender boundaries.


With a voice adored by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and millions across the Arab world, Umm Kulthum rejected gender norms with her powerful, political music. But can her 90-minute songs work in a new stage musical?

You hear the Umm Kulthum cafe before you see it. Violins swoon and a monumental voice surges from a doorway in Cairo’s Tawfiqia neighbourhood. Outside, couples smoke shisha on plastic chairs, dwarfed by two immense golden busts depicting the singer known variously as “the star of the east”, “mother of the Arabs” and “Egypt’s fourth pyramid”.

Umm Kulthum recorded about 300 songs over a 60-year career and her words of love, loss and longing drift reliably from taxis, radios and cafes across the Arab world today, 45 years after her death. Despite singing complex Arabic poetry, she influenced some of the west’s greatest singers. Bob Dylan said: “She’s great. She really is.” Shakira and Beyoncé have performed dance routines to her music. Maria Callas called her “the incomparable voice”.

There is no western counterpart to Umm Kulthum, no artist as respected and beloved as she is in the Arab world. Despite that, she remains relatively unknown in the UK; a one-off show at the London Palladium on 2 March aims to change that. Umm Kulthum & the Golden Era will dramatise the singer’s life in English with her music sung in Arabic. “My whole message,” says the show’s producer, Mona Khashoggi, “is to promote our rich culture of classical Arabic music in the west.”

The musical depicts Egypt during a period of cultural fertility and seismic sociopolitical change. It responds to a question posed by the ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson, who wrote a biography of Umm Kulthum: “Is it possible that 50 years in Arab societies, where women appear to outsiders to be oppressed, silent and veiled, could be represented by the life and work of a woman?” And not just a woman, but one whose possible lesbianism and rejection of gender norms raised a few eyebrows in her lifetime.

Umm Kulthum was born in a Nile delta village in about 1904 to an imam and his wife. Her father supplemented his income by singing religious songs with his son and nephew, and his daughter would mimic them, later reflecting that she first learned to sing “like a parrot”. Joining the family ensemble, her powerful voice proved a novelty but also, as a woman performing religious songs, provocative. Her father dressed her in a boy’s coat and black Bedouin headdress, leaving only her eyes and mouth visible. Freed from the limitations of gender, her talent shone and she attracted the interest of noted musicians, who invited her to Cairo.

It took Umm Kulthum time to find her feet in the big city in the early 1920s. While her voice was admired in the homes of Cairo’s elite, she was mocked for her rough country attire and behaviour. She gradually learned to dress with style and worked with the best artists of the age, despite a reputation as a demanding collaborator. Record labels competed over her and she negotiated shrewdly to increase her fees and fame. Soon she was making twice as much money as the biggest stars of Cairo’s art scene.


Umm Kulthum.
 Photograph: CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant said that he was “driven to distraction” on hearing Umm Kulthum’s voice while in Marrakech in 1970. “When I first heard the way she would dance down through the scale to land on a beautiful note that I couldn’t even imagine singing, it was huge: somebody had blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.”

Her voice was a contralto, the lowest type for a female, and had enormous power. She performed to large audiences without a microphone and improvised virtuosically. “She acted like a preacher who becomes inspired by his congregation,” the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz once said. “When he sees what reaches them he gives them more of it, he works it, he refines it, he embellishes it.” Crowds called out for line repetitions and she obliged, meaning a song could last between 45 and 90 minutes. She subtly altered emphasis and explored the maqamat, the set of Arabic scales, to eruptions of applause. It was said she never sang a line the same way twice.

An Umm Kulthum performance would generally last about five hours and consist of three extended songs. Her goal was to induce in her listeners tarab, a state of rapturous enchantment, where time and self dissolve in the music.

During the 1940s she shifted towards colloquial, populist Egyptian music, a canny move as the country chafed under British control. Other songs using vivid Arabic poetry linked her to fine literature. She presented two popular images: the refined woman who could educate the masses and the peasant daughter who articulated working-class pain.

She recorded on vinyl and starred in six musical films; from 1934 for almost 40 years she broadcast a live concert on the first Thursday of each month. This became a social phenomenon: stories abound of streets and workplaces from Tunisia to Iraq becoming suddenly deserted as millions rushed home to listen. She embodied pan-Arab unity and became an irresistible proposition for shrewd politicians.

A common story goes that Umm Kulthum’s music was taken off the airwaves after Egypt’s 1952 revolution because she had sung for the leaders of the old regime. Gamal Abdel Nasser, national hero and later the second Egyptian president, on hearing the star’s music was forbidden, apparently said: “What are they, crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us?”

Nasser understood Umm Kulthum was a symbol of authentic Arab and Egyptian culture. He piggybacked off her radio broadcasts by making political speeches straight after, promoting his pan-Arabist agenda. For her part, she sang in support of Nasser and donated millions of dollars to the military. While some regard her as his tool, Danielson believes the relationship was mutually beneficial; they agreed on many issues. “They tended to say the same things about themselves, Egypt and the Arab world,” she says. “There are times you don’t know which one is speaking, Nasser or Umm Kulthum.”

Starring in the 1947 film Fatma.
Starring in the 1947 film Fatma. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

In 1967, Umm Kulthum made her only performance in Europe at L’Olympia in Paris. She was paid twice what Callas received for the same venue, with admission prices four times those for Sammy Davis Jr. After the show, she said: “No one can describe the extent of my pride when I went to Paris, stood in the middle of Europe, and raised my voice in the name of Egypt.”


Tom Faber


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