The 1994 novel “Umm” by Lebanese journalist Selim Nassib, inspired by the relationship between legendary Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum and poet Ahmed Rami, opens with a surprising event that took place in 1924. A childhood friend of the poet, who has literally just returned to Egypt from studies in France, takes him out to celebrate at a show in central Cairo.
He finds a troupe of men onstage and, in front of them, “a boy sitting motionless, terrified, his hands held together over his stomach In spite of the heat and the projectors, a Bedouin cape covered his body.” The boy’s fears disappear when he starts to sing, but something about the young man’s singing disturbs the poet. “The power, timbre, and mastery of breath were remarkable, it wasn’t that, but his voice crept into me despite myself, filled me with something so natural it was obscene a slight hoarseness gave off a whiff of sensuality, something unveiled. I was ill at ease.”
Part of the mystery is solved after the performance: When Rami and his friend meet the singer backstage, he removes his disguise and is revealed to be a woman – the peasant girl Umm Kulthum. But removing the disguise does not completely dispel the confusion. On the contrary. “I couldn’t fathom it, she was still a boy-girl in my eyes, it was not something you could obliterate like that: that hint of the hermaphrodite and the beauty of the voice seemed mysteriously linked,” says Rami.
Like most biographies of Umm Kulthum (1904-1975), Nassib’s book – which is the basis for a successful musical at the Jaffa Theater – starts with the assumption that the person who eventually became the “Diva of the Arab world” began her singing career dressed as a Bedouin boy because of her father, who was concerned about her modesty. It’s possible.
But the patriarchal explanation still leaves us in the dark regarding the way in which the disguise was understood by the urbane Cairo audience that attended the performances. Umm Kulthum’s attraction for those listeners could have stemmed from the fact that some of them actually identified the disguise. From the 16th century until the demise of the Ottoman Empire, a tradition of cross-dressing shows pushed performers of undefined gender to the fore. These included Kocek (boys who danced and sang in female dress) and Cengi (girls who did the same in male dress).
Cities like Cairo and Istanbul were characterized by a wide range of passions and, no less important, by diverse characterizations of sexuality – disobeying the supposed generic connection between gender and sexual preference. In the world of theater, the classification of artists was influenced less by their sexual organs and more by external features such as facial hair or their voice.
Egypt in the early 20th century represented a watershed in this regard: During that period, it was a place to which Europeans traveled in order to take a break from the Victorian masculinity prevalent at home. But gradually, those rigid European norms migrated to the Ottoman and post-Ottoman world, suppressing passions such as an attraction to smooth-faced boys and turning them into illegitimate desires.
Is this the alluring but embarrassing bisexuality about which Nassib speaks in the voice of poet Ahmed Rami? Such a reading, which stresses the subversive impression that the Bedouin clothing made on the knowing audience, is reinforced by the fact that Naamat Ahmed Fouad – Umm Kulthum’s good friend and biographer – also understood the singer’s boyish aspects as an example of a “third gender.”
Despite the many decades separating Nassib from his protagonists, he seems to have sensed something important about the worldview of members of the developing Egyptian middle class, the effendiyya.
Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin, “the first Egyptian feminist,” offers another perspective on how to understand the issue. At the turn of the 20th century, Amin described “the Liberation of Women” and “the New Woman” (as he called his two best-known books), but also, by implication, a vision of a new heteronormativity: how an Arab man is supposed to behave and to love. As a substitute for the love of men, which was no longer acceptable, reformists like Amin promoted romantic partnerships between men and women. Unsurprisingly, though, it was closely connected to the homoerotic model that he wanted to replace.
Such a vision characterized, for example, Amin’s famous call for the education of women and removal of the veil: Instead of basing the partner relationships of male and female members of the effendiyya on a passing physical attraction, Amin tries to base it on the spiritual attraction of the intellectual encounter between equals. “We have all tasted the sweet hours when we talk with a male friend, when one soul blends with another and you forget who is talking and who is listening”, he identifies the missing component in men’s love for uneducated women. In his writings, Amin bases the model he proposes for romantic love between a man and a woman on the friendship between men.
Like other male and female spokespersons from the first generation of feminism, Amin wanted to promote equality between the sexes. But if his European sources of information maintained that this equality was based on the fact that women are human beings just like men, according to Amin the women were the ones aligning themselves with the male standard. He believed Egyptian wives had to fulfill the model of male friendship: They would become objects of spiritual passion and be prepared for a full romantic partnership only if they donned men’s clothing – in a metaphorical and intellectual sense.
Many women from the Egyptian middle classes seemingly entertained a similar fantasy, which drew from such varied sources as new fashions in the Weimar Republic and the United States, perhaps even more so than from the existing Ottoman inspiration, and also from Amin’s writings, which had a wide readership among both men and women.
The issue of the “masculine woman” began to preoccupy newspaper readers from the mid-1920s, more or less when Rami and Umm Kulthum first met – and, as historian Dr. Lucie Ryzova recently revealed, even more so in the following decades. Dozens of photo albums from the 1930s and ’40s show that middle-class girls used to be photographed in male garb, both at home and in the studios of professional photographers. As they sit wearing ties at desks filled with modern writing and smoking paraphernalia, they embody primarily a very specific type of masculinity – that of an educated effendi who practices a free profession.
In the second half of the century, this tendency became a familiar theme in the cinema as well. In the 1964 film “Lel Regal Fakat” (“For Men Only”), for example, the two female protagonists – geologists in an oil drilling company – want to go to a drilling area in Sinai, but are rejected with the argument that the site is “for men only.” The two women, played by Soad Hosny and Nadia Lutfi – among the most prominent sex symbols of Egyptian cinema – protest vehemently, argue that “women are equal to men and can do anything men can do,” and then steal ID documents from the Cairo office and disappear.
In the next scene, two “male” geologists turn up at the Sinai site. The film primarily deals with the increasing sexual tension between them and a pair of veteran technicians, who, as opposed to the audience, are unaware that the geologists are women in disguise and want to attract them to the usual pursuits of a drilling team at a remote site – like dancing cheek to cheek or engaging in pillow fights. As with Amin, here, too, the homoeroticism is ultimately channeled into straight partnerships, while along the way there is confirmation of the model which states that women’s charm is related to their ability to disguise themselves as men, and to be active in a man’s world.
As opposed to such visual media as cinema and photography, performing as a boy only occurred during the early days of Umm Kulthum’s career, as she morphed into a sophisticated, attractive female persona. But even here, the attempt to play a straight woman onstage was slightly distorted by gossip about the singer’s lesbian tendencies, as well as by her own voice. For instance, she encouraged the myth that her deep and clear contralto – cultivated by years of Qur’an recitation, a practice seen as masculine – needed no artificial means of amplification. (In fact, her ability to create 14,000 vibrations per second forced her to stand far back from the microphone.)
It was exactly this gender ambiguity that allowed her voice to create that feeling of “one soul blending with another, when you forget who is talking and who is listening,” that Amin had mentioned. This was the musical-mystical effect of tarab that she spent a lifetime perfecting, when the performer and audience engage in a dialogue of equals culminating in a cathartic unison.
Finally, the singer hailed as “the voice of Egypt” showed her mettle also in the manly world of record companies and radio stations, where as a savvy businesswoman she managed to control how her recorded and broadcast voice was used, apart from the body’s masculine or feminine garments. Passing as a Bedouin boy in the beginning of her career and later as a straight woman, and also as a voice dressed only in the gramophone’s horn of the mahogany of old radio sets, Umm Kulthum always carved for herself an independent space for creation.
The writer is a historian of the modern Middle East and part of the Social History Workshop.
This article was amended on March 29, 2017 to correct translation and editing errors.