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Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467


Contemplating harmony

I drew her throat, that incredible throat, perhaps even more incredible than her face. I looked at no pictures, but drew her as one of her records played, and her voice, liquid like a molten metal, poured into the room. The lines stopped when they reached her hair: I had to look at a picture then. I had enjoyed drawing that splendid, unattainable, unimaginable voice. Could I draw it? Can the stroke of a pen translate for the eyes the pure aural delectation that one experiences when listening to the incomparable Umm Kulthoum? As I draw, I am transported back in time, I am sitting at one of her concerts, bathed in sound, shouting out despite myself: "More! More!"

I summon that instant, willing myself back into my seat at that concert hall. The present seems insipid in comparison, but my memory is accustomed to these prodigious feats of purely cerebral yoga. Then is now. It is difficult, but immensely rewarding.

The advantage of memory, here, is its capacity to act as a sieve, retaining only the very best moments: now I can see her, the throat swelling as her pure voice rushes through in song, her arms stretched out to encompass the last notes as they leave her, soaring into the air. "You are my life": this is what she sings; "what I saw, before my eyes laid eyes on you: a whole life wasted, how can it be counted as my life?"

The lines of her face are taut, like the strings of the orchestra that frames her. Sometimes they cross, like the violinist's bow across the chords; then they curve, like a harp, or a tambourine.

The conductor has lifted his baton; she is a lute, a violin, preparing to sing, her lungs filled to bursting with the pure oxygen of music. The qanun sings to her, a hymn of passion and temptation, and she replies.

Her dress is embroidered in rhythmic patterns that take up the music's theme, echo it, rise and fall between the urgent, persistent strains of the Voice. She returns to the refrain, holds it, repeats it, differently every time: there is infinite variety in each eternal harmony. Bubbles of sound rise and hover; there is no use waiting for the explosion, for it will not come.

There is a secret here, in the fluttering hands, the face like a pale full moon raised to the heavens, scrutinising the sky for signs of faith. What it is, I cannot say. Everyone knows it. It sings for itself.


George Bahgory

Umm Kulthoum

 Mourning a very dear friend, artist George Bahgory shared some of his reminiscenAli El-Shoubashyces with me, and I thought that they might strike a nostalgic cord in all of you who knew him well. "In Paris," George told me, "Ali El-Shoubashy's home was ours. He collected artists, writers and intellectuals; all of those living in exile would rest by his side, as would those who were passing through Europe. It was perfectly normal for an Egyptian artist to arrive directly from the airport, knock on the door and be admitted: no arrangements were necessary. We would sit next to the window watching the moon. I might phone and say: 'My neighbour George Moustaki wants to see you tonight.' Shoubashy would come over, and we would make ourselves comfortable. As the moon appeared, Shoubashy would point to it and Moustaki would suddenly break into song. Whenever the moon is present, especially the Paris moon, I   think of Ali El-Shoubashy. I think of him." 








George Bahgory * My good friend the famous caricaturist and painter George Bahgory, is particularly pleased these days. The companion of his salad days in Paris, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni has just opened his new exhibition, amidst a crowd of admirers, artists and photographers of course. While Bahgory made the honours, leading the minister from painting to painting, one could hear them exchanging souvenirs and pleasantries about the good old days which made many of us quite nostalgic my darlings. I in particular kept dreaming of the time, not so long ago of course, when I was one of the adored Muses of the Qartier Latin. Needless to say, my dear George's exhibition went exceptionally well.

Bahgory * Looking at the number of exhibitions which will be taking place this month, I can only reflect that we are not suffering from a shortage of talents, quite the contrary, an opinion that I am sure you will share when you attend the opening under the auspices of Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni of George Bahgory's exhibition at the Gallery Picasso on 21 May. Of course you have been seeing my good friend George's caricatures in our esteemed paper and he really does not need an introduction from little old me. Still, I think that it is my absolute duty to tell you that you should really not miss seeing his paintings in which he expresses both a great understanding of human nature and a fantastic sense of humour.


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