Some time ago, Al-Bustan chose the incredible Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum to be the focal point of an online curriculum. She was chosen because her life can serve as a window into the larger issues of Arab art, culture and history during her turbulent time period in the mid-twentieth century. She serves as such a window, because of her ubiquity in the Arab world. From Morocco to Egypt to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, the unforgettable sound of Umm Kulthum's voice is popular and serves as a touchstone of Arab identity.
This fact was reinforced to me recently. On a trip to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank, I suddenly heard a sound that was instantly familiar to me.
I was in a taxi cab traveling between West Jerusalem and the small town of Mazra ash-Sharqiyya in the West Bank. I was on a mission to meet the family of a friend of mine from college, and a former Al-Bustan colleague. On the way there, the taxi driver's phone rang. The ringtone was none other than the voice of Umm Kulthum, accompanied by her orchestral ensemble! I asked the driver if it was Umm Kulthum, and he said, "Of course! I love her!" We talked briefly about her, and the discussion reinforced to me just how central and representative Umm Kulthum is, as a figure in the formation of Arab cultural identity.
We continued speeding towards Mazra ash-Sharqiyya, where I met with my friend's parents, and took in their extraordinary view, and enjoyed the delicious fruits of their land. Olives, fresh bread, kebab skewers, and homemade hummus made for an unforgettable meal and day.