One of the most impactful lyrics she ever sang [to me] is from the song ‘Alf Laila.’ I remember back in the day when my parents would play her music, I remember enjoying the tune but quickly realizing that Um Kultoom seemed too slow for my liking.
Her black & white concert films show a bold woman who gets lost in a musical trance and takes the listener on an emotional roller coaster ride. What would you hear in her words? You would hear your own life and your own story. As a storyteller and an artist of words, I appreciate the creativity. As a grown man who has now wrestled with everything from religion, politics, culture and all things in between, I not only appreciate Um Kultoom anymore. In a broken Middle East with dictators and revolutions, wars and killing, Um Kultoom had captured the Arab world and used her music to bring back life to the people. Why did everyone love her so much? Because she sang OUR songs.
She often sang of heartache, pain, and anguish. She also sang about love, passion and desire. I can see how she hypnotized the Arab world. Would she have ever known that her music would leave a legacy? A legacy is exactly what she left behind for the leaders of tomorrow to be inspired, motivated, and heard- today. We aren’t her contemporaries, but we are STILL inspired to see the Arab world like we saw through the eyes of that old woman on that black and white concert footage.
What did Um Kultoom see through her eyes as she beautifully leads us into her world of music, pain, love and hope? She would see the men in the crowd who had not been taught that women were less than. She would see mesmerized adults- both male and females- together enjoying the music. She would see a culture once moved by the words of poetry and art. Footage of concert halls worldwide will show you that many times Arabs were so VERY WESTERN. She would see more hope for living. Hijab’s back then would be scarce and women were more dolled up. They showed more skin. Men and women were living happier and they were in love and they celebrated life because no matter what happens, love can survive anything.
I connect to this era of Arab culture because it would be the end of a secular Middle East and the gradual decline into an era of a radical Islam. Well, Um Kultoom would go on in history as the star of the East. You can say she was our “Elvis” except she was a girl. Holy Moly. That proves my point even as I’m writing!!!! OUR ELVIS WAS A FEMALE?! Gosh how times have changed. I see the value of what Um Kultoom saw before religious craziness took the Middle East hostage. In her blockbuster song, “Alf Laila,” she sings about how life was before and after love. (Love used to be a thing in the Middle East before Sharia made it’s way around)
Um Kultoom sang about the beauties of living in love with hope for a future but always living in the now. Life was to be enjoyed here- not in Paradise. They lived for the now. They hadn’t really begun to aim for Paradise. Ironically, after leaving Islam and believing what Jesus says about Love, I started to live for the now. Paradise wasn’t so special after all. What changed? I found LOVE, NOW, and it wasn’t for tomorrow- it was mine now and will forever be mine and the truth is it yours as well.
As you know after much heartache and pain, I am realizing something. Times have indeed changed, and they have changed to the point that when we look into the Arab world, we see a different world than what she saw. What do you see when you look into the Middle East? Today there is mostly men in public, less women leaders and way more hijabs AND O- M- G EVEN NIQABS [the black sheet with only eyes showing] which I will never understand nor believe that thing empowers women. . ..
Um Kultoom would roll over in her grave. Consider this: She learns how to sing as her father- AN IMAM- would teach her BROTHER. This different-from-today imam realized that his little girl can sing and he starts to teach her. It is said that her father- the imam- would dress her as a boy because it would be taboo for him to push his daughter to sing -much less perform. So this Islamic imam was open minded enough to give her a fair shot. That little girl, who allegedly memorized the Quran, became the Star of the East. Where are those kinds of Islamic leaders?
I know that many good, respectable leaders aren’t being heard anymore. This is why I will continue onward until I see an Arab world that looks a little bit more like that which Um Kultoom saw, I will continue onward until the ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East begin to bud green again. Um Kiloton’s crescendo in Alf Leila is when she described her life. Her soul was a lonely place, a strange desert before loving. And that desert, because of loving again, flourished into a lush beautiful healthy life giving- orchard.
I don’t know all the answers, as I am no politician, but one thing I do know: WE cannot afford to ignore the plight of the Yazidis for another year. Too many have died. So many are lost. My heart aches that my people carried such a strange idea & belief system, which produced this chaos. Truly, Sinjar Massacre is a crime against all of our humanity. Could this be a test for us Christians too? So, as an Arab American Ex Muslim, and an ‘honest’ Arab man: I vow to bring redemption to this part of the world through my relationships and through my efforts. Want to know what I think when I see Khidhir and Thamer and me working together? I’m not sure that I have ever told them, yet they probably know, but I am horrified that I had NEVER EVER EVER been taught that the Middle East was so richly adorned with layers of civilizations –STILL LIVING IN THE LAND. That’s the part that offended me when it hit home. This is how tribal the Arab world has become. But I vow to change it. What is the plan? Two things I know thus far: 1) Education and learning is a must for me- with the arts. And 2) I will strive for the eventual separation of Mosque & State. Can it be done? Yes. Stop. Nothing else. It can be done. Period.
I fully believe that that is when our gardens will grow. So I ask even right now: where are our orchards? Where are our green pastures and the passions for living? Sadly, and I really mean that- sadly, we haven’t been watering our culture with healthy ideas and beliefs. This is why I will continue further until little girls stop getting married off and not far from where I am writing this, are girls and boys –ACTUALLY- being sold to men who should be ashamed of themselves and thrown into jail forever. Until it is safe for a 15 year old to dis-believe in Islam and embrace anything without fear for his life, I cannot stop. Until the Christian community begins to –ACTUALLY- flourish again and the Yazidi community gets the justice they deserve, and all other ethnic/religious minorities can trust a legal system OTHER THAN ISLAMIC GOVERNMENT INFLUENCE; my heart will not allow me to stop. You wont disagree that the Arab world currently looks more like that strange, lonely, desert Um Kultoom sings about. Do not be discouraged; my fellow concerned Arab brother and sister. Do not be without hope, Yazidi. You have been alone in the past but no longer are you alone. The world is beginning to wake up because of your valiant humility.
For this beautiful sound of Um Kiloton’s crescendo is coming and your orchards on Sinjar will grow again. Nahum’s ruins will also live again. The Kurds will return to their true identity and watch and see the birth of a free Kurdistan. The rich culture and history of the Middle Eastern world will be RE-remembered. So for all of you who hear these words and feel the same way, join me. Where? You’ll see me dreaming with the minorities because our hearts see what Um Kultoom saw and because of that, I have grace for this, my journey. You will see me mourning with my Yazidi’ community on August 3. Until the music plays again, you will see me giving back to those who have been impacted the most. You will see me weep with those who weep, and sing with those who sing- [literally has happened with me and the Yazidis.]
I will leave you with inspiration from Um Kiloton’s song. This will be our future in the Arab world. This is my assignment and this is not just my personal dream. I know so many of us exist so lets plant the seeds of life today so that Yazidis & Christians aren’t forsaken on the altars of false gods and prophets tomorrow. The Arab world will soon and very soon realize that we must stop aiming for a Harem filled Paradise in which flow milk, honey and the blood of our martyrs. So will you remember with me, the Yazidis? The Christians, and all the minorities who aren’t protected by our majestic Constitution. I will change my profile picture to black and you will my cover photo somber, as is the custom to show solidarity and wear black for the day.
May we never drink from the bitter cup of separation!
May love never lose us and always come to us.
May only candles of joy be seen in our evenings. .
Come, my darling. Let’s live through the eyes of the night.
And well say to the sun: Come, come after one year and not a day before.
This, our [only] night of sweet love, compares to 1000 [others].
In all of life, what is living except for nights like this night? – Um Kultoom