January of 2018 marked 50 years since the 30 volunteers of Morocco X stepped off their Pan Am jet and onto Moroccan soil. The event was recorded by a couple of the Moroccan newspapers, and though it is doubtful that anyone took much notice, many of the volunteers bought copies of the papers to save as mementos. A few months later, in March, another arrival took place, and that one was widely noted all over Morocco. Oum Kalthoum, the Egyptian diva, had visited the country at last.
In the history of Arabic song, Oum Kalthoum was, and still is, the unparalleled female voice. Revered throughout the Arab world, she reduced grown men to tears and titillated her fans with the life story of a poor Egyptian girl’s rise from rags to almost unimaginable wealth and fame. She sang songs of quality, with a wonderful voice and unrivaled talent for improvisation, a key feature of Arabic song.
She arrived for three days of concerts in Rabat and then traveled to the other imperial cities of Fes, Meknes, and Marrakech. In Rabat, she performed at the Mohammed V Theater, and gave private performances for King Hassan and his brother, Prince Abdullah.
One of the Morocco X volunteers, Ron Soderberg, had many Oum Kalthoum records and was already a fan. Thanks to Ron, her name was on our lips in training camp in California, well before we left for Morocco. Hearing that she was appearing in Morocco for the first time, Ron and a number of other volunteers bought tickets to her concert. The tickets were expensive, 300 dirhams or about $60 American in 1968. At the time, a Peace Corps volunteer received a living allowance of 620 dirhams per month. For most Moroccans, the tickets were simply out of reach. The concerts went long into the evening, and were a spectacle. Oum Kalthoum’s improvisation drove the audience wild. Men in expensive djellabas stood on their seats and twirled their djellabas in the air, alternately excited or entranced.
Everywhere in the country the few people who were fortunate enough to have TVs were glued to them. On the CT outside of Meknes where I lived, the CT director kept the generator going late so that he and his friends could watch a broadcast of the concert. He was bleary-eyed the next morning.
An Egyptian, Amro Ali, wrote an interesting blog post in which he elaborated on Moroccan perceptions of Egypt, culled from his own travels in Morocco (How Egypt functions in the Moroccan imagination). Among his many observations, he notes that one cannot visit Morocco today without hearing Oum Kalthoum’s music. In homes, in cafes, in taxis, on cell phones, Moroccans listen to her songs everywhere. The feelings shown for her contrast with Moroccan general ambivalence toward Egypt, whose cultural luster has dimmed and whose language is difficult for the uneducated. That said, Amro was greeted warmly everywhere he went. Moroccan hospitality is legendary.
Those few volunteers, newly arrived in the spring of 1968, were indeed fortunate to attend an event that Moroccans still recall today with reverence. The number of videos on YouTube documenting Oum Kalthoum’s visit in 1968 bear testimony to Moroccans’ profound attachment to her.
Oum Kalthoum died in 1975 and never revisited Morocco, but her songs live on, especially in the hearts of Moroccans.