The garden as enchantment

There is a scene in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel “Miramar” in which the residents of the eponymous Pension in Alexandria gather round the radio to listen to a Thursday night concert by Umm Kalthoum.

It’s an image so evocative of the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt: the monthly broadcasts by the great singer were an integral part of just about everyone’s life. People came from all over the Middle East to attend the concerts, which were carried on the airwaves over the entire region.

Feted by princes and politicians, clerks and labourers, Umm Kalthoum died in 1975. Two million attended her funeral – more than for Gamal Abdel Nasser five years earlier.

At the heart of Umm Kalthoum’s music was “tarab” or enchantment: she held her audience in wrapt attention, totally absorbed in the poetry of the songs, the sound of her voice, the playing of the orchestra. The concerts lasted for hours, and the audience stayed; cheered; and begged her to repeat phrases, which she did, time and again.

Today, traces remain of this fascination. Young Egyptians have largely moved on to ballads and rap, and social media all but rule the communications universe, but you still hear Umm Kalthoum’s voice from time to time in homes, in taxis and in shops.

So it is fitting that one of the most beautiful public gardens in Cairo, still immaculately kept, is dedicated to the memory of this diva of Egyptian music.

Misdirected in my quest to find the Umm Kalthoum Museum, I happened upon the garden while wandering around Roda Island and stepped into another kind of enchantment on the banks of the river Nile.
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With its wide open spaces, imaginative planting scheme – the cassia trees were in full bloom at the time, and cascades of plumbago intermingled with vinca brought splashes of colour to beds among the lawns – this is a treasure of a garden right in the heart of downtown Cairo. Even the ticket office was hiding beneath a mass of brilliantly coloured bougainvillea:

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Umm Kalthoum’s range of music was wide, from Islamic themes to, late in her career, love songs. She sang the poetry of her era, by outstanding writers including Ahmed Shawqy, Ahmed Ramy, Bayram Tonsi. Famously well trained in Arabic – her background was in Qur’anic recitation and wedding singing – she insisted on critiquing the poems she was to sing and editing them when she felt they would not work. In negotiating a contract to work with her in the ’60s, Mohammed Abdel Wahab insisted that she was not to interfere with the creative process! You can see some of the annotated manuscripts in the Museum dedicated to the singer elsewhere in this part of Cairo.

But back to the garden: down by the river, clearly a favourite haunt of young couples, the inevitable nursery garden was full of young plants waiting their turn to be transplanted. It’s a charming feature of Cairo’s public gardens that they almost always incorporate their own nurseries, as if to guarantee an efficient supply of new plants through the year.
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Completely absorbed, I could hardly tear myself away from the Umm Kalthoum garden. Peaceful and lovely, its atmosphere of miraculous tranquillity filled me with a sense of well-being and calm. Cairo is full of such surprises – you never know what you will find once you step across the threshold into a world of enchantment.

“Here come the moonlit nights” – Ahmed Ramy, sung by Umm Kalthoum (excerpt)

“How wonderful the moon* is by the Nile, the atmosphere tranquil and lovely.
Let’s stay up all night and be joyful. My heart rejoices to have you by my side,
Enjoying your company as the moon ascends in the sky
And the rest of the world sleeps on.
The breeze caresses the water and the waves tell the story of our love.”
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(*The moon is a symbol of beauty in the Arabic tradition of poetry. “Zai al-qamr” or “like the moon” is an expression of admiration.)

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