Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum (isn’t that a beautiful name?) was an Egyptian singer in the 20th century (1904-1975) and the documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, reveals this woman’s art and what she means to Egypt even today.

Umm Kulthum was named after one of the daughters of Mohammad, and though her family was poor, her father was an imam (local spiritual leader). Her family was able to send her to school, where she primarily learned how to recite the Qur’an. She was very gifted, and her father began taking her along with him on his trips so that she could sing religious songs. But because she was a girl, it made her father uncomfortable for her to sing in front of men, and for several years she had to dress as a boy to perform.

I found it very interesting that one of the the first qualities of Umm Kulthum’s singing voice that the documentary mentioned was her pronounciation. Because she was classically trained to recite the Qur’an, in her later songs she retains her quality of diction. This isn’t exactly something that seems to be emphasized in music today…in many cases it seems to me the more incomprehensible the better: nonsense words are used as filler. But Umm Kulthum didn’t just sing songs the way most modern music (at least what I’m primarily familiar with) is sung and written today.

Umm Kulthum was a classist Arabic singer. She would read poetry first, and then she would sing the poems she liked. From the presentation of the documentary, it seems that Arabic poetry is more meant to be sung…more a part of the language than poetry is here. In the US, poetry seems to be exclusively for the elite, but the poetry that Umm Kulthum chose really affected her listeners, not only could they sing her songs without any accomanyment, but they could recite the lines without the music.

After she chose a poem she wanted to sing though, other musicans would set it to music. It was a very interconnected process. Poets would write Umm Kulthum poems specifically for her to sing, then she might choose to or not, and then composers would set the poem to music. Umm Kulthum was such a classist that she insisted the musicians feel the music. They could not learn their parts from sheet music, but by ear, by hearing it alone. I can’t imagine doing that. I played the clarinet for years but was never able to play really anything by ear.

Performances of Umm Kulthum’s classist Arabic music could take hours, and she could spend mauch of it on one song, because she would reinterpret the poem as she was singing it. After she’d sung it the first time, she would restart the line, this time emphasizing a particular interpretation, feeding off the response in the audience.

Umm Kultum was probably the greatest beloved singer in Egypt. Her career lasted more than fifty years, and she sang up until she was seventy years old. When she died, her death was acknowledged to be equal to that of any public leader. Her funeral was attended by as many as four million people.

Arabic music is very different from anything that seems to be popular today. But I really enjoyed Umm Kulthum’s singing. It was different yes, but it was easy to see she had a powerful, amazing voice. I’m really glad that I found her music at last.

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Why Firdaus Must Die

They like to say “well-behaved women never make history.” I generally like to be a well-behaved woman, but then again, I’ve never exactly wanted to make history. And I’ve never seen any reason not to follow the rules. I follow the speed limit because it’s safer, and I’m not attentive enough to make a successful criminal. Never even got grounded as a kid because the only thing I really wanted to do was read, and I still don’t like staying out to late, and never like to loose my self-control.

But Firdaus in the “creative non-fiction” novel Woman at Point Zero hardly had the luxury of just keeping her head down and getting by. Many of her female peers have suppressed themselves and lost their individuality—and leaving Firdaus without any protection. It is her mother and aunt who most want to forced her into the mold of the obedient women—a fate that Firdaus is desperately attempting to escape throughout most of the novel. Until she is forced to actively confront one of the men oppressing her, she isn’t able to break free.

Firdaus is a woman born to a poor family in Egypt sometime perhaps around the 1950s. She is systematically abused by nearly everyone around her, and she eventually finds her way to prostitution. In fact, she is led to it by the first woman who actually also teaches her to take pride in herself. This woman never was really looking out for her, but she gave Firdaus strength nonetheless. Firdaus didn’t have trouble with the moral aspects of profession because she recognized she didn’t have any other avenue to support herself. She at one point tried to use her secondary school certificate to get a “real” job, and still, because she was a woman, she barely had a living wage and couldn’t even get promoted. When she thought she had a real relationship, her boyfriend (for lack of a better term) ended up announcing his engagement to the daughter of the president of the company.

Finally she returns to prostitution, and yet this time another man comes in to take control of her. This one is a pimp, very well-connected politically, and Firdaus has no way to protect herself from him. When she is forced to finally resort to physically leaving the situation, as she has done before, he tries to stop her—physically. He goes for his knife when she fights back, but she gets it first and stabs him to death. She is arrested and sentenced to death, a sentence she does not fight. She is imprisoned and interprets her situation in this passage:

They put steel handcuffs around my wrists, and led me off to prison. In prison they kept me in a room where the windows and the doors were always shut. I knew why they were so afraid of me. I was the only woman who had torn the mask away, and exposed the face of their ugly reality. They condemned me to death not because I had killed a man—there are thousands of people being killed every day—but because they are afraid to let me live. They know that as long as I am alive they will not be safe, that I shall kill them. My life means their death. My death means their life. They want to live. And life for them means more crime, more plunder, unlimited booty. I have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live, nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us. The freedomIenjoyfills them with anger. They would like to discover that there is after all something which I desire, or fear, or hope for. Then they know they can enslave me once more (110).

Firdaus accepts her death sentence because it is finally a way she can fight the system and have her independence. It doesn’t sound all that great from my perspective, or from many people’s in the US I expect, because there are so many more options in this country at this time. At the very least a lawyer could argue self-defense…it would probably be an ideal case. But Firdaus doesn’t have that protection. Because women are so subjected in her country, and politically have no power. To reinforce the power of the patriarchy, Firdaus must be put to death. When she killed the pimp, it proves that women can fight back, can be stronger, even physically if necessary, than men.

I don’t think that when Firdaus says “They know that as long as I am alive they will not be safe, that I shall kill them” she literally means that she will “kill” them. She means she wouldn’t give into their power. She wouldn’t just accept the inferior position that society prescribed her. And if she wouldn’t give in she would set an example. They wouldn’t be able to take their “unlimited booty” so easily after that. It’s that ubiquitous “common knowledge” that education tends to lead to change—which is exactly what they don’t want.

And for those last few sentences? It seems that hoping and fearing and wanting ought to be basic human rights, if any there are. But Firdaus realizes, particularly for her own situation, that those kind of desires mean that she would have to work to get to any of them. It takes effort to hope, and you must be willing to sacrifice to avoid fear. If she had wants, hopes and fears, she would be vulnerable to the patriarchal tools of keeping women oppressed in their society. Murder is ugly, and I don’t think should ever be acceptable, but when Firdaus says “I was the only woman who had torn the mask away” she is right. In killing the pimp–and subsequently telling her story to El Saadawi–she is revealing the injustice inherent in her society. When Nawal El Saadawi tells Firdaus’ story to the world then something can be done by those who now understand the uglier aspects of their society. Even if Firduas cannotbe saved, others do not have to suffer as she did.

El Saadawi, Nawal. Woman at Point Zero. Trans. Sherif Hetata. New York: Zed Books, 2007.

Point Zero is Not the Place to Be

Oops, rather forgot about this place 🙂 May as well catch up on the class blogs then:

I know I’ve been spoiled by living and the US and my own particular upbringing. I wasn’t told “you can grow up and do anything you want” because I was told “you can grow up and do whatever you want to do as long as you work for it.” I haven’t experienced sexism, and frankly I still find the whole concept bizarre. In my family, you do what you need to do to stand on your own two feet (I confess, I’m not particularly good at that yet. I blame college.)

It’s not like that everywhere—even in the United States—and in many countries women still suffer from entirely different societal values. Particularly in countries that have not “industrialized” women are still primarily “useful” in terms of their breeding capacity. Having someone carry on the family name, children to support the parents when they’re older, is far more important in more agricultural, rural, and poor societies, because they usually can’t rely on the government to take care of them.

When I first started reading Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, a novel that is in many ways more properly called creative non-fiction, I was a bit put off by the author. She starts the first chapter from her own perspective, going to meet a woman named Firdaus in prison and sentenced to death for murdering her pimp. There’s quite a bit about the guards and the author herself having some kind of almost supernatural connection to this Firdaus. I was never quite sure what to make of that chapter. I just didn’t buy it, and struggled with the book because I was questioning the author’s sanity after that chapter.

Well, at least I was until I saw her in an interview. Nawal El Saadawi is a writer, psychologist, activist, academic (escaped from the ivory tower), and a successful, intelligent woman from Egypt. I doubt I agree with all her views—but no one agrees with everyone all the time—and El Saadawi is so articulate and good-humored, that I must say, rather crudely, she’s entirely awesome. Unlike Firdaus, whether her character of the novel or the real woman, Nawal El Saadawi had a pretty good childhood: her father never yelled and wanted to be a poet, and her mother ensured her education and was also something of a romantic. To El Saadawi, this seems to have only emphasized the dichotomy in her own mind about how badly other women in Egypt are often mistreated, andinWoman at Point Zero she finds pretty much the lowest common denominator.

Firdaus, a woman to be put to death for killing her pimp, was abused physically, emotionally, and sexually for almost her entire life, and she tells Saadawi her story. From the beginning of the novel she is abused by her father, her mother, her uncle, her husband and then various acquaintances. Not only does her father beat her, he beats her mother, and then he seems to starve them both, while his other children die around them. Firdaus calls her siblings “chicks that multiply in spring…and one by one creep into a corner and die.” Her mother subjects her to some kind of a female circumcision, though Firdaus throughout the first half of the novel seems almost oddly innocent about everything sexual.

In a way rebelling against her parents’ abuse, Firdaus questions whether they are even truly her parents. Her father, who has no redeeming qualities, simply gets the line “I sensed he was not my father.” Her mother “was no longer there, but instead was another woman who hit me on my head.” Though she is told this is the same woman who taught her to walk with “two eyes that alone seemed to hold me up,” and Firduas says has the same features and clothes, but is still not the same person. Perhaps she has broken. Perhaps it really is a new wife. Or perhaps once Firdaus is past puberty she is dangerous. As a “lower class” Egyptian woman, Firdaus has no resources to protect herself. Though her situation is extraordinary, unlike her mother whose eyes have become “two extinguished lamps,” Firduas is never able to surrender. She truly wants to be independant. First she runs from her uncles home, then she runs from her husband, and then eventuallyfrom everyone who tried to own her body.

But Firdaus is only capable of running away, because even with her secondary school certificate she is not allowed to be powerful on her own. She will not submit to her society’s norms no matter what. But for the first half of the novel Fiduas is entirely vulnerable to anyone who offers her any kindness. Sharifa, though she acts as a mother to Firduas, offers her as a prostitute. Firduas is allowed to stay in her nice home, but “day and night, I lay on the bed, crucified, and every hour a man would come in.” Firdaus is sacraficed by the woman she trusts, and for a long time assumes it is simply the price for having received affection. She assumes it is her place.

Finally, she also discovers that Sharifa was another one taking advantage of her, and again runs away. Despite her circumstances, she still intends to be independant. Though so far the only way she is able to demonstrate her refusal to become give up her individuality. And when she runs away, she again runs into a man who only wants her as a prostitute. But this time he pays her. Firduas realizes that there is a place in society that she can make her own independance.