Once upon a time, in 1968…Oum Kalthoum

A photo of a street art portrait of Oum Kalthoum in Tanger, courtesy of Egyptian blogger, Amro Ali.

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.

Oum Kalthoum on stage at the Mohammed V Theater. Rabat, Morocco, 1968.

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.

Oum Kalthoum, Bob Marley, and Michael Jackson. Tanger street art. Photo courtesy of Amro Ali.

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.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

6 thoughts on “Once upon a time, in 1968…Oum Kalthoum”

    1. Thanks, Pete. You might find Amro Ali’s site interesting, too. The street art scène in Tangier is something new to me, and I love it.

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  1. Ron Soderbergh was one of my bunk mates in the training camp in Hemet. He was the oldest member of our volunteer cohort, a strong contrast to my callow youth at 20 years. He was our Yoda, small, soft spoken, quietly observant, exuding a air of mystery and wisdom. Where he had come from and where he was going, none of us could divine, but he was a profound and gentle soul. He introduced us to the wonders of Oum Kalthoum, and the great age of classical Egyptian song, which so animated life in Morocco in the ’60’s and ’70’s. I often remember and wonder what became of Ron.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your memories of the Oum Khaltoum concert.
    I was at there too. My memories are not too sharp but I do remember the concert didn’t start on time and finished late into the next morning. There was a famous Egyptian comedian too. I wonder if we ever met. I was one of the secretaries in the Peace Corps office. My name then was Kathleen (Kathy) Hasan, English, locally employed. I was asked to swap jobs with a secretay at USIS and went to work for the Press Attaché, Awad Hanna. He had a TV programme for children which I think went out once a week. Thank you again for the memories. I spent five years in Rabat. Eighteen months with the Peace Corps and two and a half with USIS. I’ve never been back but never forgotten either.

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    1. Hi Kathleen, happy to have you following the blog. Though I didn’t go to Oum Kathoum’s memorable concert, I did know that it finished late, and Gaylord Barr reported that the audience was very well dressed, making the volunteers in their jeans and sweaters look a bit out of place. What also caught Gaylord’s attention was the enthusiasm of the audience, with elderly men standing up on their seats, swaying to the music, crying, and twirling their jellabas in a sign of appreciation.

      I must have met you, but in my initial days I spent relatively little time in the Peace Corps Office. I do remember Emelina De Ros, with whom my predecessors in Sefrou, John Abel and Carolis Deal often dealt, and, a former military woman, Danny?, whose stern and strict bureaucratic opinions did not really mesh well with the volunteers’ more relaxed attitudes.

      If you have an idea for a blog post, please feel free to write it and send it along. The blog is a place where volunteers, staff, and others associated with the early programs can record their own experiences. The nineteen sixties are far from us now, but there are many memories from that time that are dear to us.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your memories of the Oum Khaltoum concert.
    I was at there too. My memories are not too sharp but I do remember the concert didn’t start on time and finished late into the next morning. There was a famous Egyptian comedian too. I wonder if we ever met. I was one of the secretaries in the Peace Corps office. My name then was Kathleen (Kathy) Hasan, English, locally employed. I was asked to swap jobs with a secretay at USIS and went to work for the Press Attaché, Awad Hanna. He had a TV programme for children which I think went out once a week. Thank you again for the memories. I spent five years in Rabat. Eighteen months with the Peace Corps and two and a half years with USIS. I’ve never been back but never forgotten either.

    Like

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