Nostalgia on the Nile at Um Kulthoum Museum
In the 19th century Manastirli Palace on the Nile island of Roda in southern Cairo, a red silk scarf flutters in a plastic display case, beckoning visitors into a dark hallway from which the melancholy strains of violins can be heard, according to AFP.
A dozen years in the building, the museum of Um Kulthoum is at last ready to be opened, honoring a diva who is still held here to be the paragon of Arabic song.
Known as Kawkab Al Sharq (Star of the East) or simply Al Sit (The Lady), Um Kulthoum is said to have developed a voice of incomparable range and power during her childhood as a village religious singer and trained reciter of the Koran.
At the height of her fame, presidents and kings of the Arab world came to pay her their respects, while Egypt was said to have come to a halt when Radio Cairo broadcast her concerts on the first Thursday of every month.
"Our ministry believes that this museum will be an encouragement to Egyptian and Arab artists... to bring their work to the high level to which Umm Kalsoum brought it," Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni told a press conference two days before the museum's official opening on Friday.
Egypt's culture journals forever bemoan the allegedly declining state of popular music, while today's singing sensation Shaaban Abdel Rehim -- some of whose lyrics claim that Egypt has left the days of al-Sit for the days of the Internet -- was recently attacked in parliament as a threat to the nation's youth.
The museum, however, hopes to combine the two eras, with multimedia facilities to listen to Kulthoum's songs and watch the handful of movies in which the diva starred.
Inside, visitors inspect a pair of her trademark ornamented sunglasses and a red scarf like those she clutched at concerts, plus a collection of her dresses, handbags, passports, and the numerous honors bestowed upon her by Egyptian and foreign state bodies.
In pride of place are manuscripts of songs written especially for Um Kulthoum by the great Arabic poets of her era, whose lyrics the fastidious diva edited herself with a red pen.
Though a quarter century has passed since Kulthoum died, her voice still emanates from coffee-houses and taxicabs across the city, and a mini-series dedicated to her was the hit of the Ramadan television season two years ago.
Physical traces of the diva are harder to find.
Her villa in Abul Feda street on the Cairo island of Zamalek was sold and demolished after her death in 1975 -- hence the museum's venue in a palace which has little direct connection to her life.
The ministry of culture, having already disgraced itself in the eyes of fans by failing to purchase the singer's villa, compounded its sin by taking 12 years from the unveiling of plans in 1989 to the inauguration of the museum this year.
The diva, however, seemed to be well aware that all legacies must fade with time.
"My heart, do not ask where is love/It once was a great temple of imagination, but it falls," she sang in "Al Atlal" ("The Remnants"), perhaps her most famous song – Albawaba.com
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