Book Review

By Stella Andrada Kasdovasili

In ​Οum Kulthoum’s Sexuality, ​Musa Al-Shadeedi offers an interesting reflection on the sexuality of one of the most prominent singers of the Arab world, an artist whose songs “united Arabs in their modern history like nothing else ever did or could” (Oum Kulthoum’s Sexuality 2019,6). The book focuses on unravelling the cultural, political and socio-economic bras de fer that dictates how Kulthoum’s sexuality and body appears in the public’s discourse of her persona. Via an examination of various anecdotal sources regarding the artist’s career and personal life, the writer attempts a detailed, yet at times confusing and overly condensed, move beyond a binary understanding of her sexuality.

The book’s main corpus consists of 6 chapters in which the writer attempts to illustrate how Kulthoum’s sexuality is an essential element of her identity. As he claims, she was a body that “refused to comply to the authoritarian normativity” (Oum Kulthoum’s Sexuality, 8). In the first chapter, “A girl or a boy?”, we are provided with Oum’s origin story, making it clear that the patriarchal structure that mandates the fate of bodies was at play long before she was even born. The negative connotations giving birth to a girl bears in the context of a small village are contrasted with the fortune of her great voice, which allowed her to assist her family financially by singing for the wealthy. Her move to Cairo in 1932 coincided with the end of the Egyptian Revolution, a fact which shaped the artist’s career to a great extent. In the next chapter, “The woman’s voice,” the writer engages with the key element in the comparison of Oum Kulthoum to singer Munira Al-Mahdia: their femininity. 

Despite the fact that art was seen as a disgraceful occupation at this time, these two singers gained great popularity. However, what appeared to set the tone when addressing them was the fact that Munira Al-Mahdia held the ideal femininity standard according to the male gaze, in contrast to Kulthoum’s sexless or even manly gender performance. Yet, as Al-Shadeedi notes, by employing such a masculine performance to make her singing acceptable in accordance to social norms, not only did she perform an act of rebellion but also illuminated how a woman’s voice is always already gendered. 

Kulthoum’s use of the Iqal as a means to hide her femininity until her move to Cairo is addressed in the next chapter, “The Iqual,” where the writer argues that to some extent that decision was dictated by Oum’s father and formulated by socio-economic factors. That choice, as the writer claims, could be read as an act from her father’s part that signaled a departure from the strict patriarchal norms and standards. The chapters “Abu Kulthoum” and “El-Sitt’s Husband” engage with her acts of rebellion. The stories about being fierce and bossy, her detachment from her family, her unconventional approach to marriage in a societal context where marriage was considered a safety measure for many women in show business indicate, for the writer, the fascination she provoked to her audiences.

In the last chapter “Our Idol,” the writer sums up the book by choosing to address an issue that provokes quite a turbulence when publicly discussing Oum’s life: whether or not she was interested in women. Drawing on personal experience from the way people reacted when he first attempted to address her sexuality in 2016 in his article “Gender Anthem: Gender Identity through Umm Kulthum „El-Sitt,‟”, Al-Shadeedi claims that the desire to control the narrative of Kulthum’s life, the desire to police her body and her sexuality constitutes the audience as a controlling father, one that does not allow any agency to its child. As the writer concludes, addressing his critics: “They missed the point of my article, which was simply asserting that we cannot discuss elements of her personal life with certainty, nor do we have the right to do so.” (Oum Kulthoum’s Sexuality, 45).

Overall, the book makes an interesting read. What I enjoyed the most is that Al-Shadeedi’s positionality as an lgbtq activist and artist could be felt throughout the book. However, I believe that the book could have benefited enormously by drawing from queer theory scholarship, as it could have provided valuable tools for his analysis, which at times seems to be discursively trapped in the very same binary he wished to escape.

Musa Al-Shadeedi (b. 1992 Baghdad) lived his childhood under the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. At the age of eleven, US forces invaded Iraq under the guise of regime change and freeing the Iraqi people from authoritarian rule.

The liberty that was promised to them never came and the painful reality of these experiences influenced Musa in various ways.

He is a visual artist, writer and an activist, committed to defending gender equality, LGBT rights and women’s rights. He currently lives in Amman, Jordan where he is studying psychology.

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