"We have two Umm Kulthums here," the man responded matter-of-factly, seemingly bemused by my expression of sudden relief. In the hour-and-a-half since I'd got to Cairo's Imam al-Shafi'i district – a sprawling historic cemetery that unchecked development had transformed into slum housing blocks – I'd grown increasingly desperate, hoping that was the case.
As I moved in concentric circles around the eponymous tomb of Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i, the Gaza-born Islamic scholar whose mausoleum gave its name to the district and who established one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, I'd asked roughly a dozen different people where Umm Kulthum's grave was.
And each time, after negotiating the dirt streets and occasionally getting distracted by the mix of modern stores and craft shops, and medieval and neo-Mamluk tombs, I'd eventually found myself directed to the unremarkable tomb of the daughter of an early Islamic political figure who also happened to be named Umm Kulthum. On the fifth occasion, I'd grown close to giving up, worried that I had come to the wrong cemetery.
It seemed inconceivable that there could possibly be any confusion regarding which Umm Kulthum I was looking for. Fatima Ibrahim Al Sayyid Al Baltagi – the singer's real name – was born in the Nile Delta village of Tammay al-Zahayrah at the turn of the 20th century.
Her voice garnered her local fame even in her teens; this grew to astronomical fame after she moved to Cairo in the 1920s, connecting with the musical elite of the day and embarking on her first regional tour in 1932.
While her career spanned half a century and the Egyptian monarchy being overthrown, she was able to negotiate both shifting political and musical trends. While a favourite of King Farouk, she quickly came into favour with Egypt's president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who went as far as to co-ordinate his speeches and her regular radio concerts, which featured hours-long performances of single songs enriched by nearly endless ornamentation, variation and improvisation. To describe her as a phenomenon would be an understatement. Eschewing the excesses of stardom, she remained true to her roots, maintaining a humility at odds with her renown, even as her style remains legendary – her black-rimmed glasses are still instantly recognisable. Her tours across the region were mobbed. Her fans in the West ranged from Bob Dylan to Maria Callas, who hailed her unparalleled music acumen and unique contralto voice.
"It was like time would stop," said a friend of mine describing when the radio would broadcast her concerts. "And you know how non-stop Cairo is." Regardless of the dramatic changes that have swept Egypt over the past century, Umm Kulthum – even from beyond the grave – has remained a constant. Whether under Mubarak, SCAF, Morsi or Sisi, her music was inescapable on the streets of the capital. EgyptAir has a whole radio channel devoted to her music. Concerts playing her old records with a hologram of her on stage sell out to multigenerational crowds.
Where Umm Kulthum rests
I was in Cairo for a few days, so I figured I’d devote a morning to visiting her tomb and paying my respects. I’d come across an article bemoaning the dearth of visitors to her tomb; the Lady, I figured, deserved a trip. Going off the thin details in what I had read and some Google mapping, I set off and hitched a cab to Imam al-Shafi’i’s mosque, assuming I’d find my way to the tomb after a bit of midmorning wandering. It turns out this was easier said than done. There were no real signs or clear means to divine direction; the cemetery effectively fused into the sprawling neighbourhood. And, most confusingly, the cemetery was indeed home to two Umm Kulthums.
After realising this, I wisely moved to stressing that I was looking for the singer, something I hadn’t imagined needing to do before. It quickly became clear that I was on the wrong end of the cemetery. Sensing my looming lunch meeting, I impulsively hailed the next tuk-tuk passing through the streets, briefly explained what I needed to the confused driver and, crucially, told him I’d pay him double fare if we actually made it.
It may have been the thrill of buzzing through the narrow streets, but in an instant, confusion turned to action. That’s not to say it was a smooth trip: every minute was punctuated with a stop and a question – an indication of a new landmark to turn at or a confirmation that we were heading in the right direction, the general conviviality gesturing to how tight-knit the area is. Upon hearing my task, baffled glances at the foreigner sitting shotgun turned to pleasant smiles. “You know Umm Kulthum in America?” one older woman asked, as we confirmed that we’d turned the right corner this time. “Ya hajja,” I replied. “People know her everywhere.”
'There hadn’t been a visitor in a while'
I’d never seen a photo of the mausoleum before, but as soon as we turned the corner, I knew we’d reached it. An imposing Egyptian revival structure set back from the street, it projected a quiet monumentality that seemed congruent to the mood projected by Umm Kulthum herself.
We stopped, I paid the driver, and the family tasked with guarding the tomb immediately came out to see who had popped by. It was clear there hadn’t been a visitor in a while.
Walking into the mausoleum with the tomb-keepers, I found myself tearing up. Perhaps it was the journey, perhaps it was the mood, perhaps it was because I’d all but given up finding the place an hour ago, or perhaps I’d just managed to psych myself out. Whatever it was, I collected myself as we made small talk.
"It's so good you came," the tomb-keeper told me, to nods from his wife as he directed me to sign the guest book. "She used to get constant visitors from everywhere. But the Khaleejis stopped coming after 2011 and even Egyptians don't come much any more."
I shot photos of Umm Kulthum's tomb stone and the mausoleum's sitting room, drawn in part to the decor, which looked remarkably similar to a living room in an upmarket apartment in Cairo. Finally, I summoned the courage to make my main request, asking if they'd allow me to stay for a bit and listen to Umm Kulthum's music as I sat by her grave.
They obliged and I opened my phone's Spotify and played Siret El Hob. As I put on my headphones, the tomb-keeper gestured to me to put it on speaker. I obliged. The music wafted through the mausoleum's high ceilings and we all fell silent. Seated on the mausoleum's sitting room's couch, it felt like time had stopped. For an ethereal moment that seemed to last both seconds and hours, we sat transfixed, united across whatever differences we may have had by the magnitude of the voice being streamed from my phone.
The song ended, I said my goodbyes and exited, and time restarted. Walking out and preparing to haggle over cab fare, I debated trying to draw out some wider meaning and declined. Umm Kulthum’s greatness is that she transcends. She doesn’t need to be praised or described. She just is.