Devotees of the Sad, Beautiful Voice of Umm Kulthum

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post) View Full Photo Gallery

The cafe's dust-streaked sign is lost amid the chaos of old Baghdad. But a painted silhouette of a woman hangs above the entrance, signaling the way to an unlighted, soot-covered hallway stacked with broken generators.

Through the passage, street sounds fade and a woman's voice becomes clear. A reel-to-reel tape player is spinning the songs of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. More than 30 years after her death, she is still probably the best-known and most beloved singer in the Middle East.

Several regulars -- well-dressed men who appear to be in their 50s -- sit on benches in the multitiered room known as the Umm Kulthum Cafe. They sip tea as they listen.

"Her voice is sweet," says Waheed A. Fatia, 61, who claims to have had an Umm Kulthum obsession since he was 10. "She has layers, a rich soprano. And she performs improvised, like American jazz."

Hookah pipes bubble, the fragrant smoke competing with the harsh, unfiltered cigarette smoke from the other side of the room, where men flip dominoes or softly move a rook into check. They play from midmorning to early evening, every day, to the sad, beautiful voice of Umm Kulthum. The cafe plays nothing else.

"No one obeys laws now, or has pride," Waheed says. "No security. No stability. But through all of this," he adds, looking around the cafe, "this is the same."

Less than a minute later, four young men wearing soccer jerseys and T-shirts emerge from the hallway and approach the cafe manager. They are members of the Sons of Iraq, former insurgents now allied with U.S. forces, here to collect the monthly "protection" fee of 15,000 Iraqi dinars -- about $12.

"This used to be a good street. With a bus stop, nightlife," says Jehad el-Obeiedi, 70, a retired movie director. "They called it 'the city of singing.' There was a famous nightclub next door."

From age-blackened paintings and framed black-and-white photos, Umm Kulthum looks down over her fans from every wall of the cafe while they hum her songs.

"We listen to her every day," Obeiedi says, "as if listening to it for the first time."

By Liz Heron  |  August 11, 2008; 12:00 PM ET  | Category:  Baghdad
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Reel to reel tapes? Do they re-record at periodic intervals? Tapes s-t-r-e-t-c-h.
I'll never forget the day I started to sing along with a CD--a song learned fr/ an old cassette. Automatically sang in the key I learned--a full half tone below the CD! Such a cacophony!

I hope they re-record or burn some CDs!

Posted by: kfritz | August 11, 2008 2:37 PM

Thanks Liz for your beautiful piece. One element worth pointing out is how Umm Kulthuum sang metaphorically about the tragedy of the Arab world in general after the Israeli occupations of 1967 - something that makes the gripping image of Iraqis listening to her today under US occupation even more powerful.

Posted by: toufic | August 11, 2008 3:05 PM

Her funeral was, at the time, the largest gathering of people in the history of the earth. It still may hold that record.

Posted by: Kevin | August 14, 2008 8:35 AM

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