1971: I Heard It On the Radio

Um Kulsoum, handkerchief in hand

رجعوني عينيك لأيامي اللي راحوا

“Raga’ouni ‘Aynek Li-Ayyami-elli-Rahou”

“Your eyes took me back to the days that have gone”

Weekends begin on Thursday in the Arab World.  Friday, the day of gathering at the mosque, is the heart of the weekend.  So, Thursday evening is known as Leilat Al-Joma’a, Friday’s eve, and marks the beginning of time with friends, family, and football.

Thursday nights (Leilat al-Joma’a) in Cairo in the early 1970s were always special. No one needed tickets to a concert. Every week, from October to June, the Egyptian state radio station, Sawt Al-Qahira (the Voice of Cairo) broadcast Um Kulsoum, the real voice of Egypt, who sang for 50 years and was such a feature of Egyptian life that many Egyptians had never lived a day without  Um Kulsoum. Love affairs and marriages were themed by her songs. The best poets wrote lyrics which she turned into music. The best composers wrote music to carry those lyrics.

Every Thursday night, radios across Cairo, across Egypt, and across the Arab World were tuned to the same station for a broadcast of a single song, lasting up to 90 minutes.  On the first Thursday of the month the broadcast was of a live concert. Other weeks Sawt Al-Qahira broadcast a recorded concert.

Um Kulsoum, known as Kawkib Al-Sharq (the Star of the East) was and is an institution. Intensely patriotic, romantic, pan-Arab, and fervently Muslim she could easily have swayed politics and brought down governments, but she didn’t.  When she died on February 3, 1975, the Arab world stopped in mourning. Special flights to Cairo were laid on for her funeral and the mass of mourners outnumbered those for Gamal Abdalnasser’s funeral four and a half years earlier. It was one of those “where were you when…?” events.

So, on Thursday afternoons, finished with teaching and studying at the American University in Cairo, I set out walking across Cairo towards the old medieval center of El-Mouski, the Khan el-Khalili, and the Darb el-Ahmar to spend the weekend  with my friends Amin, Farrag, and Yousef at the fish shop in the tentmakers market area, drinking tea, playing backgammon, and just hanging out. Farrag and Amin made a living as hash dealers, that was how I first met them. But they had become good friends, and since they didn’t speak any English, my colloquial Arabic was growing by leaps and bounds. And so on Thursday evening, we settled down with a goza, the homemade waterpipe created out of an old DDT can, a brazier of hot coals, and the necessary to get in the right frame of mind for Thursday night with Ulm Kulsoum.

As the time neared ten o’clock, radio stations across the city all tuned to Sawt Al-Qahira in anticipation of Um Kulsoum’s concert.  No one needed to sit by a radio since all radios were on the same station, windows were open, and the streets of the old city were filled with the VOICE.  And as the first strains of the orchestral introduction began voices were hushed, conversations paused, and the click clack of backgammon pieces silenced.

It was time.  And then there she was singing with those incredibly long-held notes and that tremendous vibrato:  “Raja’ouni ‘ainaiyik …”

And we were held enthralled for the next hour and a half. It was a great way to practice my Arabic.

Published by Mark Meinke

Married gay Quaker and historian, retired, and working more than ever.

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