The ‘Divas’ Who Serenaded and Seduced the Arab World


PARIS — The diva sings of love and unmitigated lust. Dressed in a scarlet evening gown with her hair pulled high, she cries out to her beloved, longs for a night of undying passion and yearns for the sun not to rise.

The vocalist in the 1969 concert video is Umm Kalthoum: the Arab world’s greatest 20th-century performer, possibly the best-known Egyptian woman since Cleopatra and the star of the exhibition “Divas” at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or Arab World Institute, in Paris.

The show, which runs through Sept. 26, is a richly illustrated flashback to the period between the 1920s and the 1970s. It portrays unveiled and openly voluptuous women performing onstage and screen without fear of censorship or religious condemnation, and feminists, political activists and pioneering impresarios facing down the patriarchy.

Besides costumes and jewelry, passports and posters, album covers and high-heeled shoes, visitors get to watch footage of female performers wiggling their hips in mesmerizing moves and posing on the beach in hot pants. The overall picture contrasts sharply with present-day Western perceptions of the Arab world as a place where women are veiled from top to toe and silenced by all-powerful men.

“The exhibition knocks down a fair number of clichés and preconceived ideas about this part of the world. Women actually occupied center stage, embodied modernity and were not at all absent from history,” said Élodie Bouffard, the exhibition’s co-curator. “They sang, acted, made people cry, broke hearts and showed off their bodies just as Western actresses did at the time.”

“These images are still very present in the minds of younger generations,” she added. “They don’t just represent the past.”

The institute’s president, Jack Lang, who was France’s culture minister in the 1980s and early 1990s, recalled in an interview that when he was a boy visiting Cairo, he sneaked into a theater where Umm Kalthoum was performing, and was “stunned, absolutely breathtaken.” He later heard another singer, Fayrouz (the exhibition’s other major diva), while touring in Lebanon as a young actor, he said, then gave her a medal as culture minister in 1988.

These women were not just exceptional vocalists, Lang noted: Some participated in their country’s struggle for independence from the colonial powers, Britain and France, and joined in a wave of nationalism that swept across the Arab world. “The emergence of these divas coincided more or less with a time of collective emancipation,” Lang explained. “The music sung by them is an extraordinary expression of freedom.”

The exhibition opens in pre-World War II Cairo, the artistic and intellectual hub of the Arab world, where concert halls and cabarets proliferated, many of them established by women, the exhibition co-curator Hanna Boghanim said. Women also had a significant role in the film industry, she added, working as “directors, producers, actresses, costume makers, talent scouts.”

Many of these women came from very humble backgrounds, including Umm Kalthoum, who is introduced in a velvet-curtained enclosure in the show. Born in a village in the Nile Delta, she first performed disguised as a boy, singing religious songs that bewitched the crowds. Eventually, she came into her own, as a woman and as a voice, and became famous for her improvisational style. Her songs sometimes went on for more than an hour.

Her story is told through photographs, album and magazine covers, videos, and bright-colored costumes created for the 2017 biopic “Looking for Oum Kulthum,” directed by the Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat.

There are no loans from the Umm Kalthoum museum in Cairo, the curators said; they were too complicated and expensive to organize. Nor are there loans from Fayrouz, who is still alive, despite requests made via the family and entourage of the reclusive vocalist. Her section contains posters, album and magazine covers, photographs and other paraphernalia, some compiled by a dedicated fan.

By contrast, the section on the half-Algerian, half-Lebanese diva Warda is full of her personal possessions: sunglasses, medals, earrings, passports, an oud instrument, a brown leather suitcase and an Agatha Christie crime novel. Born in the Paris suburbs, Warda made her debut as a child in her father’s cabaret in the city’s Latin Quarter and became a successful recording artist before moving to Algeria in 1962, the year the country gained independence from France. There, she married an army officer who stopped her from singing. Her career took off when she moved to Egypt a decade later.

The exhibition gets racier as it goes along, culminating with the last wave of 20th-century Arab divas, including the Egyptian-born Dalida, who became a superstar in France. Interspersed among displays of sequined evening gowns, stilettos and powder compacts are video monitors that show a woman singing from a hot tub and rows of others lifting their legs in skimpy outfits worthy of the Folies Bergère.

In the decades since, the place of female performers in Arab countries has changed. Islamist movements and migration from rural areas have made parts of society more conservative about women’s dress and public behavior. That has led to assumptions in the West that Arab women are veiled and constrained today, as opposed to the decades when the divas reigned.

To Coline Houssais, the author of “Music of the Arab World: An Anthology of 100 Artists,” these then-versus-now perceptions, which the exhibition risked encouraging, were misguided.

“There are two visions of the Arab world,” she said in an interview. “One is: ‘They’re barbarians, they’re Islamists.’ The other is: ‘Everything used to be so good before. It was a golden age.’”

“The Arab world’s development is measured using ultra-Western criteria, such as whether women smoke or not, or whether they wear short skirts,” she said. There were “more important factors, to do with equality: the number of women who work, women’s civil rights,” she added.

Despite the coronavirus epidemic, the show is a hit with Parisian museumgoers, and visitors to the exhibition appeared to validate Houssais’s assessment. On a recent afternoon, onlookers seemed intrigued by the story of these stars of yesterday, who bucked contemporary stereotypes about Muslim women in France.

“It’s really very interesting to find out about the emancipation of women in these societies and to see the contrast with today, even in terms of hairstyles,” said Camille Hurel, 23, a visitor to the show. “These were strong personalities who were known all around the world.”

“Nowadays, I have the feeling that there isn’t as much freedom of expression,” she added.

Houssais said that, in fact, the Arab world today was mostly populated with people under 30, a generation “glued to social media, completely open to the world, and leading their own private revolutions against their families and their communities.”

The notions of family, community and religion were fading, and these societies were in the middle of a major “recomposition,” she noted.

“There are still 1,000 places in the Arab world where you can wear a bikini, snort coke and listen to American music,” she added.

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