ARTS

ALAIN WOODROW

NIGHTINGALE OF THE NILE
Oum Kalthoum’s voice mesmerised the Arab world and even Maria Callas thought it was ‘incomparable’. An exhibition in Paris explores her legacy
everal million people attended her funeral in 1975, outnumbering even those who had followed Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coffin through the streets of Cairo five years earlier. Oum Kalthoum, whose name has a variety of spellings, had become a legend in her own lifetime. Her nicknames said it all: Star of the Orient, the Fourth Pyramid, Nightingale of the Nile, Mother of the Arab Nation, Opium of the People, the Sphinx or simply the Lady. Thirty-three years after her death, the exhibition organised by Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World), until November 2, proves that she remains an icon. She ranks with Maria Callas, Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday among the outstanding voices of the twentieth century. The institute, created in 1988 to promote the knowledge of Arab culture, decided to celebrate the centenary of Oum Kalthoum’s birth (the exact date is uncertain, between 1898 and 1904) by means of an exhibition, with the help of the Oum Kalthoum Museum in Cairo. She defined herself simply as “a woman, a peasant and an Egyptian”. Born in the fellah class of a modest village in the Nile delta, Oum Kalthoum never forgot her peasant origins, but she saw herself as, above all, an Egyptian. Her career was closely bound up with the tumultuous history of her country, which passed, in the space of three-quarters of a century, from the status of a British protectorate, through the reigns of two monarchs, Fouad and Farouk, to the emergence of nationalism in 1952, under Nasser and Sadat. Throughout this period she was regarded increasingly as the official representative of her country. Oum Kalthoum, named after the third daughter of the Prophet, began life helping her mother to pick cotton in the fields around their village. Her mother was a descendant of a holy man who could trace his lineage to Imam Hassan, the Prophet’s grandson, while her father was a professional musician who taught her Qur’anic psalmody. After a brief spell at school, she and her brother Khaled joined a choir which her father had formed to play and sing at local events such as weddings and circumcisions. She soon outshone her brother, but always performed dressed as a Bedouin since women were not allowed to sing ern lifestyle; a singer of sacred in public. Her reputation as a Oum Kalthoum, songs who turned her hand to singer grew and she was invited ‘among the romantic ballads; an interto perform in Cairo, in the private outstanding voices of preter of learned khedival residence of a rich merchant. In the twentieth century’ music who could switch to 1923, she moved to Cairo for popular songs; an adept of classical literary good and her career was launched. The period following the First World War Arabic who also sang in dialect; an austere symand the fall of the Ottoman Empire was a trou- bol of morality who exuded a troubling senbled one and the creation of the Wafd nation- suality, not to say sex appeal. In this way, she alist political party a year after Oum united the common people and the intellecKalthoum’s arrival in the capital caught her tual and artistic elite into an adoring fan club. on the hop. She had sung at King Farouk’s She has been called a Callas who could coronation and was only saved from being transform herself into a Piaf at will. She was an astute businesswoman who banned from singing on the national radio by the intervention of Colonel Nasser, who said, drove a hard bargain, described as “choleric “What if she did sing for Farouk? Didn’t the and haughty and particularly stingy in paying sun continue to shine during the king’s reign?” her musicians”. But she was also generous She never forgot Nasser’s kindness and, in helping the poor and coming to the aid after his humiliating defeat at the hands of of her bankrupt country. She had a gift for Israel in the Six Day War, she went on a tour attracting the best poets and musicians to of the Arab capitals – and then to Paris for work for her. In the 1920s, she met the poet two concerts, the only ones in the West dur- Ahmed Rami, who fell under her charm. He ing her entire career – to collect money for translated the verses of the Persian poet Omar Khayyám for her, a daring thing to do as they the Egyptian state. Her talent was as mysterious as it was uni- exalted the pleasures of wine and sensual love. versal. Her voice, which could reach 14,000 Rami composed some 150 songs for her. Oum Kalthoum remains popular in spite vibrations per second, astounded even Maria Callas, who called it “incomparable”. Her of – or maybe because of – the mystery surunique appeal lay in the subtlety of her per- rounding her legend. She lived in seclusion, formance and the magic spell she cast on the behind the high walls of her luxurious audience by her endless improvisations, property in Cairo, and rarely gave interviews. Although she married twice, she is ruproducing an ecstatic trance (tarab) among those who heard her. She had a radio pro- moured to have preferred lesbian love affairs. gramme on the first Thursday of each month, Her public image was carefully fabricated and the life of Egypt came to a standstill as around her four favourite fetishes: dark everyone, from the president to the factory glasses, hair in a chignon, no jewellery save workers, tuned in to listen. the occasional diamond (which she considShe achieved a rare combination of oppo- ered the only precious stone fit to match the sites, which only added to her mystery: she purity of her voice), and the white handkerwas a peasant who became a sophisticated, chief she always held in her right hand. She urban star; a country girl who adopted a West- had all the makings of a monstre sacré.

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” On the evidence of I Was a Child Prodigy. but above all because it reinforced the clichés that keep the Holocaust unimaginable and distant. A decade earlier Louis Malle’s quietly devastating Au Revoir Les Enfants had depicted a boarding school where two Jewish boys seek shelter from the Nazis. perhaps more so than plot. away from the demands of the labour-gang supervisors. In fact. Maths. When the boys meet across the wire. What Mark Herman. or lack C of it. So when he first climbs on a chair to peer from a tall window in the new house. After you’re 30 there’s nothing left for you except consolidation. this unspoken game exacts a terrible toll. has done is to refract the tale through Bruno’s reactions. where proficiency requires a full set of brain cells. a sucking silence that precedes an explosion. this urge to make as much of your physical or intellectual capital as quickly and single-mindedly as possible seems an absolute necessity. There’s a revealing moment when he interrupts a clash between his parents. It doesn’t matter that the situation seems so extraordinary. Bruno’s father is forbidden to discuss his work but no one in this film really knows what’s going on. Whenever something goes wrong. The literary device of keeping readers. It’s grave and sober. like stalks of human asparagus that had been forced before their time. Bruno’s family has moved from Berlin. the conceit could be mawkish.CINEMA Eyes of innocence The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas DIRECTOR: MARK HERMAN Asa Butterfield (right) as Bruno and Jack Scanlon as Schmuel in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas ohn Boyne’s bestselling novel for children. the first instalment of a new five-part series. admirable musical Crichtons whose presence at school concerts. defying a ban on the woods behind the house. the film meticulously creates the kind of airless boredom that a child can experience in an unsympathetic house in the countryside away from his friends. Make-believe and delusion characterise the actions. he reckons. Bruno’s parents (fine performances from David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga) tend a loving family – apparently a paragon but also a paradigm of the Reich. Mark Bennet had begun to see his way at an age when most of us have yet to realise that the adult world even exists. If the shuffling figure in striped rags who helps around the house was once a doctor. As the film progresses. if not incredible. his father is an army officer and the “farm” an extermination camp. was sometimes not terribly edifying. neither sentimental nor simplistic. Much of what makes this film so compelling is the attention to detail and nuance. (Continued on page 26) 13 September 2008 | THE TABLET | 25 . someone is always to blame and must be punished. then he can’t have been a very good one or he’d be doing it still. bemused about the true nature of the farm isn’t open to a film-maker. With certain exceptions they had an exhausted if not actually resentful air. while everyone in the house is preoccupied. Bruno naturally wants to see his father as a hero and he clutches at any evidence. It’s the 1940s. “you’ve got to follow it up at once. He had been three. after all. alongside Bruno. Bruno is a logical child who’s slightly annoyed but intrigued by inconsistencies. the camera stays on his solemn eyes while we imagine what he might see. a conscience to be awakened. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is far closer to Malle’s film. Gradually. He shuts the door on their distress. Mood is important here. his mother is cry- ing. but the film’s perspective is adult. It depicts a terrible logic that in the end turns on itself. Life is Beautiful. “If you think you see your way. Bruno begins to explore. not least for Benigni’s self-regarding performance. Many people will disagree (it won an Oscar after all) but I hated this film. It is all too imaginable. There is a wonderful scene in Simon Raven’s novel The Sabre Squadron. Bruno doesn’t want to acknowledge this terrible scene. As time goes by. Their later progress. for the individuals ring true. The Nazis have set the example. it’s no more than a glimpse of a shed and some figures but the audience is ahead of him. Roberto Benigni made a clowning parable about a child in the camps. he simply wants them both to tidy up and receive a guest. The summer tedium is like a vacuum. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. In its approach. who has adapted and directed the story for the screen. With mathematical geniuses. like the propaganda footage he glimpses. Shot on location in Hungary. In 1997. fearful of the horrors. concerns nine-year-old Bruno who becomes fascinated by the farm close to the house where his family comes to live. lies and evasions surround the sim- J plest conversations and actions.” he argues. is a young man’s game. who has found a rare quiet spot at the perimeter of the camp. What saves it is that Bruno is more than a screenplay cipher. published in 2006. Eventually his explorations take him to Shmuel. shaven-headed and starving. terrified of what she is beginning to realise. was an embarrassment to everyone else on the bill. Francine Stock RADIO Series to infinity I Was a Child Prodigy BBC RADIO 4 hildhood was full of child prodigies: champion athletes breasting the tape in the country 100m finals so far ahead of the field that they looked to have run only half the distance. like Bruno’s pubescent sister who suddenly reinvents herself as an Aryan pin-up girl under the influence of a young lieutenant. There are moments of childish betrayal that are utterly predictable and yet dreadful. where they twiddled away with studied nonchalance. The book might have been for children. Each creates their own fantasy. in which a young graduate student tries to convince the provost of his college of the need to pursue a particular course of study.

of which Bennet was an ornament. David Nicholls’ adaptation is the BBC’s first-ever version of Hardy’s classic. murder. Thought about maths. creeping about. He drives dangerously fast.” he declared. which made the estimates of his juvenile talent even more impressive.TELEVISION Beyond her station Tess of the D’Urbervilles BBC1 Not a plaster saint: Gemma Arterton as Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles ostume dramas have done well in the ratings in recent years. a vision of innocent pleasure that can’t last. Compared to Austen and Dickens. an invalid surrounded by the caged birds to whom Tess is supposed to whistle. Hans Matheson’s Alec is a stock villain. Pure mathematics. C Another. but Thomas Hardy is different. 14 September) is no exception. The 1981 British team. he teaches her to whistle. As for his previous calling. “You are dust and ashes to me now. Some young men. which the atheistic Hardy characterised as “The President of the Immortals” having his sport. The clerical dark horse acknowledged that he “yearned for simplicity” and that he didn’t want his egghead past to distance himself from his parishioners.” says Tess to Alec after he has done his worst. When she goes home. the rich woman to whom Tess is sent. spirited female characters determining their own fates. being a tale of rape. not just of men but of fate. Chris Ledgard’s questions were the icing on a very considerable cake. more challenging vision. In this account. The first episode opens with the conversation that sets the whole plot in motion. was urging him to talk to as many people as possible in a world beyond the Cambridge cloister.) One problem for anyone considering a modern adaptation is Tess herself. and here he was at St Mary’s. students walking the cliffs. Gemma Arterton makes a very beautiful Tess. Taylor 13 September 2008 . Almost as good as the “mathematical world” which seethed inside his head was the arrival in the everyday universe beyond it of “people who thought as I did”. and that Hardy’s plot remains intact. with a bit of dialect and poetry. It is a decision that will have disastrous consequences. A decent showing here gets you a place in the international competition in America. Anna Massey makes a strong impression as Alec’s mother. he thought when. approach and consider the scene. When we first meet Tess. consequently. he presents a bleaker. now extinct. where a churchwarden who had sat on the selection panel thought he had “lots of very good ideas”. It is. offered fewer and fewer aspirants capable of understanding the subject to a level in which he could discuss it with them. telling her she must form her lips into the shape of a kiss. All this simmering intensity is true to Hardy’s original. Writer David Nicholls has provided naturalistic. “I was never really conscious of how good I was. Tess is undeniably Alec’s victim. Most cunningly of all. he made the “conscious decision” to do only enough work to get “an ordinary first” and compromised on a career in accountancy. The achievement transformed both his life and his sense of who he was. is the British Mathematics Olympiad. D. He stands in her way and makes her brush past him. as readers of Hardy will know. by sending his daughter Tess to “claim kin” with them. It is a beautiful. She is blind. The local parson tells a poor and feckless man called Durbeyfield that he is really a descendent of the noble D’Urberville clan. It is pleasing to be able to report that Gemma Arterton’s Tess has not gone too far in the direction of “feisty”. the opportunity to live the dream. another element of the plot is put in place. says one. Harlow. she blames her mother for not warning her about what might happen. Bennet himself scored a maximum 42 in the six questions needing 26 | THE TABLET | solution and won the gold medal. That just leaves the third important character to make his appearance. was one of the hottest on record. Modern television demands strong. At Cambridge. as a reality TV contestant might put it (and the idea of a reality TV show full of PhD level mathematicians is strangely appealing) brought a spiritual crisis. and she puts herself at risk. he decided that he “wanted to study maths at Cambridge and be a professor”. but also shows her to be ambitious beyond the lowly station in which life has placed her. smoking foul cigars. The subtitle of Hardy’s novel is “a pure woman”. poverty and back-breaking agricultural toil. but she is not a plaster saint. spiced. came across as the last word in humility. he wrote books that were denounced as immoral in his day. at present the incumbent of a parish in Harlow. that is. it turns out. The Revd Bennet. meanwhile. She is a victim. Shown in four episodes. as he now is. But Durbeyfield hears of a rich family with the D’Urberville name and seeks to cash in on the connection. But her mother’s actions have been worse than that: she has knowingly dangled her innocent daughter in front of a rich man in the hope that it would lead to marriage. He is an experienced seducer. sunlit scene. but so he is in the book. Faith. the same source muttered something about “knowing he’d been good with figures”. And the locations – shot in high definition. But how good was good? The blue riband in domestic maths. on the edge of the Dorset cliffs. played with relish by Hans Matheson. like Hardy’s. He pops a strawberry into her pretty mouth. “To give it up for naught!” she wails. glimpsing the university boat race on the television. J. in which he now specialised. In his third year. (LWT made one 10 years ago. trying to make her cling to him. Tess of the D’Urbervilles (BBC1. John Morrish (Continued from page 25) or perhaps four. view of the Essex arable somewhat obscured by the Glaxo Smith Beecham research site. and wearing down Tess’ resistance by sheer relentlessness. Clare joins in the dance. for those who have the right equipment – look stunning. unfussy dialogue. Tactful and sympathetically engaged. but she does not expect what ensues. “some pagan ritual”. but not blind to her son’s faults. suggests that it will end in a “human sacrifice”: he could be describing the whole novel. and he and Tess exchange a meaningful look. Alec D’Urberville. I did not find her downfall quite as moving as it might have been – but perhaps she is pacing herself for the agonies still to come. she is in a group of girls dancing around a standing stone to the music of a rustic band. Unlike Austen and Dickens. is the son of Mrs D’Urberville. Angel Clare. ominously enough. or nearly so. and his scenes with Tess have a powerful charge of barely suppressed eroticism. There is a streak in her that likes his attention. It didn’t give him the satisfaction he sought.

The Angel is the only female part in the opera and was sung here with crystal clarity. is trading phrases with the vast. Rick Jones Working in Pastoral Ministry. commencing January 2009. which do not lend themselves to transposition or key change. or awe – in radiant. Catechesis? MA in Pastoral & Educational Studies A 30-month. gripped the hall immediately with their dry. only of marvelling at or sympathising with the various ecstatic or agonising states in which Francis found himself during his life. Although there are stretches of the opera which. recording and notating their song. Messiaen sets St Francis of Assisi in eight scenes from the saint’s life. admittedly. the second time for an hour. took as a personal slight. please contact: The Postgraduate Secretary. mutinous edge. mostly from the organ loft but occasionally from the front of the stage with the promenaders beaming up at her like awestruck worshippers in a Renaissance religious painting. wistful. distance-learning course with short residential schools. Indeed. demanding more and more volume until the tam-tam beaters could beat no more and the audience barely contain its roar. from A to B. heart-quickening rhythms and slow. usually St Francis. from the Turangalila Symphony. not least at the very end when Metzmacher held the final chord for eternity. There are four pathways from which to choose: Personal. melancholic melody and both snappy. He was eventually persuaded to write the opera in the late Seventies. Religious Education & Leadership in Schools. highlighting the essential T The Netherlands Opera.maryvale.uk MARYVALE INSTITUTE International Catholic College for Theology.pipex. His composing style was based on modes or scales often from exotic. England. told him he might like to honour the Paris Opera with a composition. The extraordinary elation Francis and the leper both feel after the humbling kiss. one constantly hears snatches of other works by Messiaen expressing particular emotions.maryvale@dial. Although the very last tableau depicts the saint’s death.MUSIC Franciscan ecstasies Prom 70 ROYAL ALBERT HALL. which my guest.ac. or the start of a tale to its end. the saint who talked to birds. sung by Charles Workman and Donald Kaasch. When they joined the other Brothers. almost rock-star presence. Moral and Spiritual Development Religious Education and Catechesis Chaplaincy for Catholic Schools Educational Leadership for Catholic Schools Validated by the Open University The Institute welcomes all students whether or not they are from the Catholic community. These are spread among three acts for no better reason than to give the audience a break. or express a particular emotion – joy. Pieces by Messiaen. Messiaen had resisted the form before because he felt his music was unsuited to the narrative progress that writing to a libretto suggests. Birmingham B44 9AG. Messiaen. The three mesmerising xylophonists who opened the opera. wave-like pulses. say. there is no sense of progress towards that point. Tel: 0121 360 8118 Email: ma. also a tenor. Religious Education and Catechesis 13 September 2008 | THE TABLET | 27 . however. non-European sources. the ensemble took on a slightly menacing. which staged the work at home in Amsterdam earlier this year. Old Oscott Hill. punctuating orchestra. like boxers standing toe to toe. is depicted by the leaping euphoric music of the movement entitled Joie du Sang des Etoiles (“Joy of the blood of the stars”). who performed Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi. Baritone Rod Gilfry sang the huge part of St Francis with impressive energy and rugged. He was sung in all his wretchedness by Hubert Delamboye whose bitter. The 100 singers of the choir of the Netherlands Opera. The Leper is a tenor. all gentle baritones. pecked tunes. are overcome by stasis. when he was himself 70 and Georges Pompidou. It was a concert performance though this did not stop the Franciscans appearing in chaste white shirts and entering and exiting the stage on cue and with acted solemnity. tight-textured chords. so that the trio look to be performing a choreographed hand jive. especially those where the soloist. Paris. from C to G even. Photo: Chris Christodoulou beauties of each tableau. arrow-straight tone and seraphic authority by Heidi Grant Murphy. The other tenors in the piece. are also distinguished by unsaintly behaviour as they complain of being woken early by the Angel’s importunate questioning. It is this element in music which makes it feel as if it was travelling somewhere. including “Kissing the Leper”. Brothers Masseo and Elias. sang from the stalls at organ-pipe height as a voluble and often ecstatic angelic host. woody tone. “The Sermon to the Birds” and “The Stigmata”. and urgent. the overall impression is of having been permitted to see a fabled fresco painted on to several walls which are wheeled one by one before the audience by the conductor Ingo Metzmacher and performed by the Hague Philharmonic. was always going to suggest itself as a subject for musical treatment to the composer Olivier Messiaen whom it is possible to describe in almost the same terms. LONDON he story of St Francis. and using the resultant melodies in his works. as the whole evening is a six-hour affair. its shimmering harmonies and dancing beats. For further details. self-pitying tone made the saint’s gesture even more heroic. tend either to meditate on or revere a given subject. standing on a ledge behind the densely packed strings and wind. for 60 years the intensely mystical organist of La Trinité. which are in unison. with presidential disregard for whether or not the composer wanted to.com Website: www. Maryvale Institute. also communed with birds.

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