In search of song amid sounds of war in Baghdad

by Leila Fadel

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

24 August 2008

(Leila Fadel/MCT)

(Leila Fadel/MCT)

“I am living between heaven and hell /My day is night and my night is day /Grief and pain”
—Umm Kulthoum, the late Egyptian singer

BAGHDAD - For more than 30 years, Yousef Taleb Rashid has walked the same street in old Baghdad. Along Rasheed Street, he passes cafes named for patriotic Iraqi poets and ornate balconies that have witnessed an attempted assassination, demonstrations, and the sounds of poets and writers reading their works.

Now they’re bullet-scarred. Towering concrete walls, erected to protect the road from car bombs, tell of the capital’s recent tragedies.

At the end of Rashid’s jaunt is a familiar cafe. He comes to it nearly every day. The 61-year-old retired math teacher has returned during curfews and gun battles, even when his family begged him to stop.

Here he meets his love, Umm Kulthoum. She has been dead for more than 40 years, but the Arab love affair with this singer has never ended. She’s still arguably the most famous and well-loved Egyptian singer in history. Her songs of lost love and suffering resonate here.

Dozens of portraits of her grace the cafe’s yellowed brick walls, and her melancholy voice plays from 40-year-old tapes spinning on an old reel-to-reel player. Rashid sits on the low-slung wooden benches surrounded by her watchful eyes, closes his own and lets her sorrowful voice wash over him. He feels relief from his sorrow, solace in her words.

“You will sacrifice your life for Umm Kulthoum,” he recalled his family saying.

Past the open iron gate and down a small dark hallway, a gaggle of friends huddle in the back corner of the cafe. Dominoes smack the tables, and everyone listens to their small sounds. When shooting erupts outside, the manager padlocks the gate.

“Take the present for what it is,” Umm Kulthoum sings. “Because it is not the nature of nights to be faithful /Tomorrow the untold will present itself but today is mine /How many times are we disappointed with what has come?”

The lyrics strike a chord.

“The end of man is death, and through her songs she identifies men through birth, pain and death,” Rashid said. “I feel comfort in this tone. Hearing this melody.”

The men around him, all in their 50s and 60s, are familiar to him. Their faces are lined with the worries of war, longing and remorse.

“Umm Kulthoum represents our suffering,” Rashid said. “We find in her our sorrows and our tragedies.”

Her voice makes grown men weep as they remember lost lovers, lost youth and lost life.

Rashid hears in her songs the life that’s passed him by.

As an estimated half-million people died during the Iran-Iraq war, Rashid sat here listening to Umm Kulthoum. As sanctions choked the economy and people lived on next to nothing, he listened to Umm Kulthoum. As the U.S. invaded in 2003, insurgents sprang up and the capital became a battlefield between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Rashid listened to Umm Kulthoum. Now, as Iraqis wonder what comes next, he listens to Umm Kulthoum.

“We walk in here and the exhaustion melts away,” he said. “We forget the bullets and we enter a different world.”

He sits and listens and relishes his sorrows, ignoring the outside world for now and losing himself in the layers of her voice.

“We have been in a battlefield since the dawn of time until now,” he said. “But our death will be the death of this cafe.”

Topics: baghdad | iraq
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