- Umm Kulthūm: Artistic Agency and the Shaping of an Arab Legend 1967–2007 by Laura Lohman
Descriptions of Umm Kulthūm (1904–75) are often free of reference to her female identity. Common titles assigned to her are “The Star of the East” (Kawkib al-sharq) and “The Voice of Egypt” (Ṣawt al-miṣr). In addition, she is routinely grouped among male icons of Egyptian and Arabic musical culture.1 These facts reflect a view of her that emphasizes her identity as an artist and an Egyptian over her identity as a woman. In her monograph on Umm Kulthūm, Laura Lohman explores the final stage of the Egyptian singer’s career in an effort to discover how and why she constructed this identity. As such, it builds upon the latter part of Virginia Danielson’s book on this artist.2 The primary focus of Lohman’s book is to illustrate how Umm Kulthūm redefined her image between 1967 and 2007 in an effort to prolong her career and to insure her legacy as a musical icon. Lohman offers this exploration as an addition to recent literature featuring female Arab auto/biography and to scholarship on the relationship between music and politics. Finally, her approach is intended to bridge the gap between musicological and ethnomusicological inquiry by engaging in a biographical study of a musician outside of the Western classical canon.
Lohman’s book is most valuable as a case study in the construction of female identity in modern Egypt. Umm Kulthūm was born at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when Egyptians were redefining their identity as a result of greatly increased contact with the West. Negotiations between local, regional, and global identity are evident in much of the creative production of [End Page 101] Egyptian artists in the twentieth century. Composer Mohammed Abdel Wahhab (ca. 1910–91) sought to modernize Egyptian music by infusing it with foreign musical elements, while writers such as Moḥammed Ḥussayn Haykal (1888–1956) and Taha Hussein (1889–1973) struggled to reconcile Islamic spiritualism with a Western scientific approach to reform. The plots of Egyptian novels and films featured themes of modernization as well. At the center of this issue was how to be a modern Egyptian without sacrificing one’s cultural heritage. For Umm Kulthūm this issue was further complicated by the fact that she was an Egyptian Muslim woman whose life and career choices were not consistent with the traditional view of this identity.
Since she did not fit the typical role assigned to women in Arab Muslim society, Umm Kulthūm forged a unique identity for herself as an artist and an Egyptian by employing the “artistic agency” mentioned in the title of this book. Lohman defines this agency as “the shaping of both an artist’s public image and her art” (7). The title of the first chapter, “A New Umm Kulthūm” (17), highlights Lohman’s assertion that the artist employed this agency more in this period than in any other of her career. Later in the book, Lohman acknowledges that Umm Kulthūm had been honing her public image since the late 1930s but goes on to claim that in the late 1960s, “she took particularly intentional steps to craft a personal legacy” (64). While I am hesitant to separate this period from the rest of Umm Kulthūm’s career, Lohman does provide a wealth of information on the choices that the singer made regarding her image in the marketing of her tours, her charity work, and her efforts to control what was said about her in the media.
Chapter 3, “Sustaining a Career, Shaping a Legacy” (63), lays out various aspects of this image and provides insight into its construction. As noted by Lohman, Umm Kulthūm was a woman who was difficult to categorize (117). She was traditional in her religious views and artistic tastes but modern in her independence and her dedication to her career...