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Decision to honour legendary Egyptian singer in Israel angers right wing

This rare file photo taken in the 1930s shows Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum
This rare file photo taken in the 1930s shows Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum - AFP/File

There is perhaps no modern Egyptian cultural treasure more beloved than Umm Kulthoum. Anyone who has visited the Arab world or been in the home of a member of the diaspora has likely heard the moving tones of her distinct, resonant voice. The Israeli town of Haifa recently moved to honour her legacy –and stirred up controversy in the process.

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“The Star of the East,” as Umm Kulthoum is often called, emerged on the cultural stage in Egypt in the 1920s and dominated the music scene in the Arab world until her death in 1975. There are few Arab homes anywhere in the world in which her melancholy melodies have not been played. In a nod to the roughly 10 percent of its 30,000 residents who are Arab, Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, voted to name a street after the singer earlier this month. Haifa town council head Einat Kalish-Rotem said that the decision is a reflection of the city’s representing “a model of co-existence between Arabs and Jews”.

That Kulthoum would be recognised in Haifa makes sense, said Huda al-Imam, a Jerusalem-based expert on Palestinian culture. “Haifa has always been a city with a tolerance, a respect for differences,” she said. “When I say differences, I mean respect for the Palestinians.”

Kulthoum walked the streets of Haifa performing there, in Jaffa and in Jerusalem before the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel when those cities were still part of British Mandatory Palestine. But her influence extended outside of the Middle East as well, where she is best remembered for her legendary 1967 concert at the Olympia in Paris.

Considered peerless, Kulthoum’s contralto voice was praised by Bob Dylan and sampled by Beyoncé. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant told the Independent newspaper that he was “driven to distraction” by her. “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.”

And Jews who grew up listening to her in North Africa and the Middle East are as attached to her as any Arab. For some, though, that’s where the agreement ends. Kulthoum was fiercely pro-Palestinian and had condemned Israel, and her detractors in Israel think honouring the late singer is inappropriate.   

After the decision was announced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair tweeted that the decision was “shameful and crazy”. Right-wing lawmaker Ariel Kallner wrote in the local Kol Po newspaper that he was saddened that Haifa had decided to honour a woman who had “called for the destruction of the Jewish state”.

The newspaper published a black-and-white-picture of Kulthoum on its front page with some of her lyrics emblazoned over the image. “Now I have a gun, take me in Palestine, with you,” she had crooned in a song dedicated to the Palestinians.

That wasn’t the only time Kulthoum jumped into the political fray. During the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel in 1967, Kulthoum – sometimes called “Egypt’s fourth pyramid” – performed a song exhorting Egypt to crush its enemy.

Her nationalistic song, “Walla Zaman Ya Selahy” (It’s Been a Long Time, Oh Weapon of Mine) served as the Egyptian national anthem from 1960 until 1979 when, in a nod to peace negotiations with Israel, president Anwar Sadat replaced it with the more neutral, “Bilady, Bilady, Bilady” (My Homeland), which remains the anthem today.

Kallner said he would fight Haifa’s attempts to change the street name. But if he wants to diminish her legacy, he will have his work cut out for him: In 2011 a street was named after her in East Jerusalem and the city of Ramla is planning to do the same. 

The controversy hasn’t garnered widespread attention outside of certain political circles. Al-Imam said that some of her friends in Haifa hadn’t heard of the uproar.

In Kulthoum's native Egypt, observers were more perplexed than anything. “Anyone looking objectively at it is going to find it to be a rather strange, performative act,” said Dr HA Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. 

“Umm Kulthoum was a deeply patriotic Egyptian, who never saw an Egypt that had been in anything but a state of war with Israel. Moreover, she was openly and deliberately a strong supporter of Palestinian rights against the Israelis – so, this all looks a bit odd.”

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