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Umm Kulthum: ‘Enta Omri’, a song to advance Nasser’s brand of nationalism

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Mythical African songs that made history

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Wednesday, 23 June 2021 09:31, updated on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 18:58

Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum sings on 14 November 1967 at the Olympia in Paris.

Recorded in 1964, Egyptian Umm Kalthoum’s most popular hit is more than just a beautiful love song; it’s also the brainchild of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, who used the song to boost his influence in the Arab world.

This is part 2 of a 6-part series

During Beyoncé’s 2016 world tour, she stirred controversy after sampling the song Enta Omri (‘You Are My Life’) in the sexy intro to her track Naughty Girl. What shocked the Arab world wasn’t just that the classic hit by Egyptian music diva Umm Kalthoum was hijacked to spice up a concert – while channelling tired clichés about oriental sexuality – but that the history of the original song and its real meaning were completely obscured.

Soft power

With lyrics like “The sweet nights and the desire and the love / For so long my heart carried them for you / Taste love with me / Taste love with love / From the feeling of my heart whose desire extended to your feeling,” Enta Omri (You are my life) is indeed a celebration of desire and love, but the song is more political than it seems on the surface.

 

Born into a poor religious family from a Nile Delta village, Kalthoum spent her entire career singing about the greatness of Egypt. When the country suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the Israelis in 1948, she held a concert for the Egyptian brigade that had fought in the al-Faluja siege and included Gamal Abdel Nasser along with other members of the Free Officers Movement.

After the overthrow of King Farouk I, the country’s new leader – Nasser – took Kalthoum under his wing, allowing the diva, who had been banned from the airwaves for singing the praises of the former regime, to find her way back to radio. She paid him back generously, using her voice to promote nationalist messages and Nasser’s pan-Arab project.

Her repertoire expanded to include patriotic songs that lauded the greatness of the Egyptian nation, such as Nashid al-Huriyya (‘The Anthem of Freedom’) and Walla Zaman Ya Selahy (‘It’s Been a Long Time, O Weapon of Mine’), the latter of which was composed after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and would go on to become the country’s national anthem.

President Nasser expanded Egypt’s prestige and influence well beyond the nation’s borders through Kalthoum’s songs, which were heard by an audience stretching from Iraq to Morocco, and film appearances. What’s more, Enta Omri, recorded in 1964 for the label Sono Cairo (re-released on vinyl in 2019 by Souma Records), can be seen as a tool of Egyptian soft power.

‘The meeting of the clouds’

Nasser, wanting to score a major hit, put all his power of persuasion into convincing El-Sett (‘The Lady’), as she was known in Egypt, to collaborate with one of her biggest rivals on the Egyptian music scene: the singer, musician and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

By the latter’s account, in 1963 his violinist, Ahmed El Hefnawi, acted as middleman, persuading him that Kulthum didn’t mind teaming up with him on a song. He stayed up all night composing the new piece before meeting her face-to-face.

After listening to the song three times, she agreed to work with him. After a month of rehearsals and 12 hours in the studio, a version of Enta Omri was finally recorded for the radio station Sawt al-Arab (‘Voice of the Arabs’), which was broadcast in Arabic-speaking households and one of Nasser’s main vehicles for spreading pan-Arab propaganda.

What gives the song its originality is the use of electric guitar, which begins featuring prominently two minutes into the lengthy track (59 minutes and 11 seconds long), composed in a special style of music [HC3] reserved for expressing affection and love. Kalthoum was initially against the idea of the electric guitar, as she thought the song didn’t need the help of Western pop music’s new go-to instrument to have a modern feel. But Wahab ultimately convinced her and the global hit came to symbolise the Arab world’s openness to the rest of the world. The collaboration between the pair of music icons was dubbed ‘the meeting of the clouds’, or liqā’ al-saḥāb in Egyptian Arabic.

By the end of his career, Wahab had written a total of eight long-form love songs for Kalthoum, who was given the honorary title of ‘First Lady of Egypt’. But Enta Omri has garnered the most fame and gone on to be covered by many Arab performers from different generations – including Lebanon’s Wadih El Safi and Egypt’s Amal Maher – as well as by singers from a wide range of backgrounds – like Israel’s Sarit Hadad and the United States’ Richard Bishop.

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