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Egyptian Museums Honor Two Singing Legends - 2002-07-12

In the past six months, Egypt has opened two museums of music to honor two of the country's singing legends, Oum Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. A special institute has also been restored to preserve the country's musical traditions.

The songs of Oum Kulthum can still be heard in most Egyptian homes, more than a quarter of a century after her death in 1975.

She was fondly known as "al Sitt," or The Lady. Her singing career spanned nearly six decades.

Egyptian poet Ahmed Anter Mohammed, who manages the recently-opened Oum Kulthum museum in Cairo, waxes lyrical when speaking about her influence beyond Egypt's borders.

Oum Kulthum succeeded in doing what no national unity program could, Mr. Anter says. The first Thursday of the month when she performed live on TV, he says, Moroccans, Sudanese, Egyptians, the whole Arab world sat and watched her.

Now the general public can see the souvenirs of her singing and acting career in a newly opened museum in central Cairo.

A display of her trademark scarf and diamond-trimmed glasses greet visitors at the small building on the grounds of a former palace nestled on an island in the Nile River.

Mr. Anter says Oum Kulthum used to clutch the long white scarf in her sweaty palms to ease her stage fright and control her emotions as she serenaded her millions of fans. Special audio-visual booths in another room allow visitors to see scenes from her singing and acting careers. There is also a film of her funeral procession, often described as bigger than that of the popular Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Cairo schools now include the museum on cultural trips for youngsters who only know of Oum Kulthum from old films on television or stories from their parents.

Thirteen-year old Ashgar says she loves the young balladeer Hani Shaker but calls Oum Kulthum a national treasure. She was the Planet of the East, Ashgar says, and we watch her films on TV and hear her voice on the radio all the time.

Another of Egypt's singing legends, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, has also been immortalized, in a museum under the supervision of Samir Farag, chairman of the National Cultural Center. Mr. Farag says a collection of Abdel Wahab personal souvenirs is included in the newly renovated Arab Music Institute in downtown Cairo.

"For Abdel Wahab we were very lucky because his wife is still alive so everything was in her house. So when we start to have the museum, we went to her house and took everything so you will find everything is in the museum. Even his suits, his piano, his Oud (an Arab lute), the chair where he died," he says.

Abdel Wahab died in 1992 after a singing career of more than 60 years. He also starred in five films and composed songs for himself and others, including Oum Kulthum's well-known song u Are My Life."

Mr. Farag says the decision to house the Abdel Wahab museum in the restored Arab Music Institute is part of a program to preserve Egypt's musical heritage. The building itself is an example of classic Islamic architecture. "It is the history of the nation. It is our culture. In my opinion, if you want to measure a country you can measure her culture, not even for other countries but our people, our sons and grandchildren. We should have it and keep it," he says.

The institute's audio library includes musical recordings that date back more than 100 years. A central auditorium complete with royal seats from the time of Egypt's monarchy has also been restored for traditional Arab music concerts.

Mr. Farag describes Adel Wahab and Oum Kulthum as envoys of Egypt's golden era, the 30s and 40s when Cairo was a cultural beacon for the Arab World. He acknowledges the slow pace of past melodies may not appeal to today's youth, but insists there is a room for both.

"We call it hamburger music in Cairo and Egypt because it is a very quick meal, the new kind of music here. When you drive your car you have to listen to a very calm and beautiful music you have to go to the past," he says.