While many Americans will immediately recognize Billie Holiday, whose harrowing "Strange Fruit" described the lynching of blacks in the Jim Crow South and became a central part of the Civil Rights struggle, few Americans are familiar with the music of the greatest singer the modern Arab world has known.
In "Homage to a Belly-Dancer," an essay honoring the famous Egyptian belly dancer Tahia Carioca, Edward Said begins with a discussion of Um Kulthum that places her work in the proper perspective:
The greatest and most famous singer of the twentieth-century Arab world was Um Kalthoum, whose records and cassettes, fifteen years after her death, are available everywhere. A fair number of non-Arabs know about her too, partly because of the hypnotic and melancholy effect of her singing, partly because in the world-wide rediscovery of authentic people's art Um Kalthoum is a dominant figure. But she also played a significant role in the emerging Third World women's movement as a pious 'Nightingale of the East' whose public exposure was as a model not only of feminine consciousness but also of domestic propriety.
To truly understand the full extent of Um Kulthum's extraordinary cultural power in the Arab world, we must turn to the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's 1967 novel Miramar, which shows how ordinary people in the Middle East stopped what they were doing during radio broadcasts of Kulthum's monthly Thursday evening concerts.
"We did not get acquainted any further until the first Thursday of the Umm Kulthum season, when I learned from Mariana that they would join us in the evening to listen to the concert on the radio," Mahfouz's narrator recounts. "How pleasant. An evening of youth and music."
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Um Kulthum embodied the cultural importance for the Arab world of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles combined. Her voice perfectly encapsulated what in Arabic tradition is known as tarab, the musical ecstasy described by the scholar Ali Jihad Racy in the following manner:
"Listeners often describe their own musical sensations through such metaphors as becoming intoxicated and losing the sense of time. Comparably, musicians speak about a haunting sense of inspiration they sometimes experience before and while performing."
When I was a small boy, I recall my maternal grandmother Helen Mishaan gesturing to me to open the little cabinet in the TV unit and pull out her collection of 78 RPM records. We would then listen to the records together. They were all Arabic recordings and hearing them with her implanted in me both a deep affection for this music and a connection to the socio-cultural values of Arab civilization, a culture that was part of a world far away from my Brooklyn home but that I nevertheless claimed as my own.
As I grew up, this music followed me to the synagogue, where it was a formative part of the liturgy, to the private homes of the older members of my Syrian-Jewish community, and eventually to my own stereo. As a rebellious and alienated teenager I would crank my stereo up to ear-splitting levels and would, strangely to the ears of visitors to my home, sometimes alternate my listening of Led Zeppelin with Um Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash.
Little did I know that the musicians in Led Zeppelin were also devotees of Arabic music and recorded their 1975 classic "Kashmir" with the sort of Oriental accompaniment used by Kulthum. Some years later, during their 1994 MTV concert "Unledded," Robert Plant and Jimmy Page actually performed with an Egyptian ensemble that squared the circle for me.
Um Kulthum's most enduring piece, "Inta Omry," is immediately recognizable to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Arab culture. It can elicit tears in the most hardened person. Each time the song is played my eyes well up and my heart is completely open to the emotions of lost love and personal obsession that connect the listener to the heart of the classical Arabic poetic tradition. This was the same tradition adopted and adapted by the dozens of poets whose bold work marked the "Golden Age" of Sephardic Jewry.
Arabic music is a very important part of the lives of Jews who come from the Middle East. With the collapse of Arab Jewish culture in the wake of Zionism, the Arabness of Jews has become a complex issue that is often tied to the demand that Arab Jews reject their traditional culture and assimilate what is considered a generic Jewish identity, an identity that is Ashkenazi in orientation.
This rejection of self has complicated the relationships between Arab Muslims and Arab Jews. My grandmother's personal biography, born in Italy and shipped off to Syria to marry my grandfather in the early years of the 20th century, puts the lie to the divisions that purportedly existed between the Arab world and its Jewish population. Although the family eventually left Syria along with many others seeking a better life in America, for my grandmother there was only the brilliance of Beirut and Aleppo and the rich culture that she brought with her, a culture that she passed along to me and for which I am eternally grateful.
Those who understand the Middle East conflict as purely religious know little about the culture of the region. It is sad to see how the protagonists in the current struggle for supremacy and legitimacy in the region have reverted to their most atavistic religious impulses. I do not exclude any single group from this charge. The idea that we need to unite people under the banner of religion through what is known as "Interfaith Dialogue" ignores the cultural traditions and rich heritage of the region and accepts the terms of the reactionaries.
I would bet that many so-called "experts" on the Arab-Israeli conflict have never heard the voice of Um Kulthum. They are not simply missing some wonderfully inspiring music; they are missing the central artistic reality that has animated Arab life for many centuries.
The music of Um Kulthum and her many collaborators, particularly the brilliant composer and musician Muhammad Abdel Wahhab, is the beating heart of Arab civilization, drawing from the classical Islamic heritage as well as the more contemporary Western tradition. The music of Um Kulthum shows the elasticity of Arabic civilization and the ingenious ways that it has been able to absorb different cultural influences.
When we begin to see the fault-lines dividing people in terms of the human -- how people actually live their daily lives -- then we will better be able to unite those who hate one another. The unifying factor of culture, of music and its magical effect on us, is something that has been sorely missing from a vast majority of the discussions regarding the Middle East and its recurring dilemmas. Bringing the discussion back to the simplicity of the human is an important desideratum, regardless of the many forces that have sought to monopolize the discourse and contour the discussion to suit their parochial purposes.
Listening to the voice of Um Kulthum is perhaps the best place for us to start this dialogue.
Read more about Um Kulthum.
David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage and a frequent contributor to the Levantine Review. This commentary first appeared in the Huffington Post.