Umm Kalthoum, known as Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East), was born in a Delta village some time between 1898 and 1904, when girls’ births weren’t registered. Her father was an imam who taught her to recite the Koran (she reportedly memorized the entire book) and, when she was 12, disguised her as a boy and entered her in a performing troupe where she was later noticed by an established singer who taught her the classical repertoire. Moving to Cairo in 1923 she was taught to play the lute, and mentored in Arabic literature by the poet Ahmed Rami (who wrote 137 songs for her), but never became part of the bohemian set, proudly espousing her humble origins and conservative values. Her powerful and wide-ranging voice had an immediate emotional impact which very quickly brought her to public attention – King Farouk became a big fan, as did Nasser. Her funeral drew 2.5 million mourners, so many that their combined weight almost brought down the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. A café at 21 Sharia Orabi dedicated itself to playing her music all day long and was soon followed by imitators such as the Soma Caffe.

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