Modern Egypt is a dream unfulfilled. Independence from Britain was supposed to usher in a glorious era in which Egypt would unite the Middle East under the banner of pan-Arabism. That dream died in 1967, when Egyptian forces suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Six Day War against Israel. Egypt's charismatic president Gamal Abdel Nasser resigned soon after, and in recent years Egyptians have lived under a notably corrupt and incompetent dictatorship propped up by billions of dollars in U.S. aid. It is an undignified fate for a country that once aspired to lead the Arab world.
For many years, Egypt's dreams crystallized in the person of Om Kalthoum (1904-75), a peasant girl who became the most celebrated Arab singer of the twentieth century. At the peak of her fame Om Kalthoum was capable of emptying the streets of major cities across the Arab world, as people rushed home and to coffeehouses to hear her sing on the radio. Om Kalthoum dominated Egyptian popular culture and even dictated the tempo of political life. Nasser used to schedule his speeches immediately after Om Kalthoum's monthly radio performances in order to reach the biggest possible audience. Her marathon live concerts put Phish and the Grateful Dead to shame. Om Kalthoum was capable of stretching a single song out for six hours or more, using her throaty, beautifully modulated contralto to weave endless improvisations on her great themes of love, loss and patriotism. Some four million frenzied fans attended her funeral in Cairo, which turned into a mass riot when the crowd seized her coffin and bore it off to a mosque that they considered to be her favorite. It was by all accounts one of the largest gatherings in human history.
Om Kalthoum's life is the stuff of legend, and now it is a fine novel. In I Loved You for Your Voice, the Egyptian journalist Sélim Nassib presents Om Kalthoum in the voice of Ahmed Rami, the poet who loved her in vain and wrote 137 of the 283 songs that she performed in her lifetime. A tale of romantic frustration and artistic fulfillment, sublimation on the grand scale: “My poetry expressed longing and that longing, in her throat, became the country's. Her voice caressed rage and pain, nostalgia for a world still to come, and which failed to come. Both of us. We reached our hands out to infinity to close them around pure desire, an empty core. Perhaps art is nothing more than the trace left by this absurd endeavor, certain to fail.”
Rami worked with Om Kalthoum from the 1920s until just before her death. Nassib sets their relationship against the unfolding history of modern Egypt, from the last years of British colonialism, through the early euphoria of independence, ending in the political exhaustion of the 1970s, when the pan-Arab fantasy finally petered out. In the last pages of the novel (deftly translated by Alison Anderson), he traces the emergence of today's international jihadi movement to the rage of an Arab underclass that once embraced the more hopeful visions of Nasser and Om Kalthoum: “They wanted to eradicate the sin all at once, no one left alive, just bodies laid out, radical suppression, therapy through the void. They are the past, seeking to wipe the slate clean.”
Nasser's dream of Arab unity never amounted to much: Egypt and Syria merged under his leadership in 1958, but the union collapsed in acrimony after only three years. By contrast, Ahmed Rami's love for Om Kalthoum lasted for more than fifty years, and their collaboration produced an enduring body of work. Om Kalthoum's recordings outsell most living artists in the Arab world, and you can still hear her beautiful voice in the coffeehouses of Egypt and Damascus. In this dream at least, the Arabs have not been disappointed.
Richard McGill Murphy is a senior editor at Fortune Small Business magazine, covering technology and politics.