Up until writing my novel, The Merry Millionaire, I was totally unaware that, for almost fifty years, the entire Middle East had an ongoing love affair with the international singing sensation Umm Kulthum.
From humble beginnings as the daughter of a Nile Delta Imam, she rose to become the greatest Arab singer there has ever been, stopping the whole of Cairo every first Thursday evening of the month, when she would broadcast a concert from Cairo’s famous Khedival Opera House.
“Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum.” Virginia Danielson, Harvard Magazine
One night during their stay in Cairo my protagonists in my novel, The Merry Millionaire, Ronald Fry and the young Mervyn Watson, are fortunate to catch an impromptu performance by Umm Kulthum at Cairo’s famous, Café Riche.
Here they sit along with Cairo’s elite and listen over four hours to Umm sing two songs; “I Fra ya Qalbi” or “A branch of my heart,”composed by Riad Al Sunbat and another by him, translated as ‘I like the Nile,’ or ‘Song of the University,’ ‘Nacid El Gamia’ which is regarded by many Cairenes as a song of revolution.
A snippet from chapter twenty two of ‘The Merry Millionaire.’
My explanation of this song, which Ali describes, as an anthem to revolution, can hardly be sufficient to give you an idea of the expansive power of Umm’s rendition. All I can say is, should you ever come across a record of Umm singing her Tarab songs, my only hope, ‘Nachid El Gamia’ is included in the repertoire. If so, then you will hear what I heard that night and then be able to appreciate the magic of that moment. The night concluded at two in the morning, and although the audience stamped the floor and hit the tables, Umm left the stage, never to return, leaving Ali and myself to carry the totally inebriated Mervyn to a waiting caleche.
Here, I am giving you a taste of what Ron, Mervyn and their dragoman Ali, heard that night, and I hope you find the voice and presence of Umm Kulthum as captivating as they did.