Blogs > Cliopatria > “She is Iraq’s Um Kulthoum”

Jun 14, 2004

“She is Iraq’s Um Kulthoum”

Many years ago, a Jordanian visitor to Iraq was invited to a women’s only party at a lavish Baghdad estate. This was in the late fifties, when the monarchy was still in existence, and the rumblings of revolution had yet to be heard. A graceful young woman in a cream dress got up and began to sing. Surprised that she had been invited to an afternoon of entertainment for which she had been unprepared, the Jordanian looked around at her hosts and asked who the young woman was. The Iraqi matriarch sitting next to her sniffed, then said icily, “My dear, this is Iraq’s Um Kulthoum, Afifa Iskander”.

Um Kulthoum, for those who don’t know of her, was an Egyptian phenomenon, a singer with an amazing voice and an even more amazing following. Every Thursday night, Arabs from the Nile to the Euphrates would tune into Egypt’s state radio to listen to her newest song, which would go on for several enthralling hours. It is said that her funeral brought out so many thousands of weeping Egyptians in 1975 that it upstaged that of Jamal Abdul-Nasser’s, the deceased President of Egypt.

To compare any singer to Um Kulthoum was the biggest compliment a singer could receive, especially in the fifties (this is before Arab rock had been invented). Afifa Iskander deserved it, not because of her overpowering voice nor her magnetic presence (factors which had made Um Kulthoum a star) but because of the warmth of her personality and the astonishing way she sang Iraqi ballads and made them her own. She was Iraq’s Um Kulthoum because she sang Iraqi songs that spoke to Iraqis everywhere in the same way that Um Kulthoum, despite her great Arab following, sang primarily to Egyptians; and she became a national icon precisely because she was able to sing songs that did not imitate the style of Egyptian or Lebanese chanteuses, but were profoundly, natively Iraqi.

In March 2004, I accompanied two elderly men on a visit to Afifa Iskander’s apartment, overlooking the Tigris river. The woman who received us at the door was getting on in years and obviously not well, but she was warm and amiable and quickly made us comfortable. Of course, the past came alive again under our questioning. She told us that she had taken early retirement after Saddam Hussein had come to power because she sensed she never wanted to sing for this man, as she had sung for all of Iraq’s past monarchs and Prime Ministers. He had tried to entice her with money and presents but she refused them all. And so for thirty-five years, she had kept a low profile, seeing friends and paying private visits to people whom she had kept up a close relationship with over the years, but she never undertook any public recitals.

While we were there, a neighbor came in and read our fortunes in our coffee cups; Afifa sang a medley of her old songs, and the river, spread out before us like glass, turned grayer and darker as the evening wore on. I thought about the visit later. Here was a woman whose livelihood was singing, and yet she had willingly circumscribed her own source of revenue so as not to sing for a dictator. How many of Iraq’s Baathist-connected oligarchs, the new rich in Iraq, could have said the same thing?

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More Comments:

fatin khalaf - 5/31/2005

How can I find cd's or music of the great iraqi singer
Afifa Iskander
thank you

Hala Fattah - 6/23/2004

Dear Aseel,
Thank you so much for your comments. Afifa is a woman of dignity which is why so many people haven't forgotten her, even though she does not leave home much anymore.
Thanks again,

Aseel Nasir Dyck - 6/23/2004

Dear Hala,
I'm thrilled with your blogs --- a breath of intelligent musings on Iraqi topics!

As for Afifa Iskandar, I've been told that she was not only a talented singer, but that she hosted literary salons at her home in Baghdad frequented by her friends, admirers, poets, and other literati.

Best wishes,

Hala Fattah - 6/21/2004

Dear Ed,
Thanks so much for your comment. To continue with your metaphor,yes, surgery is needed but at least the body isn't dead yet!
Actually, I think I have the book that you mentioned. Or maybe its at my father's house. Anyway, Afifa was a phenomenon in the fifties and sixties but I guess lots of people of the younger generation don't know of her.
Merci, mon pote

Edouard M?t?nier - 6/21/2004

Hi Hala,
Thanks for introducing Afifa Iskandar, of whom I had not heard of before. Historical research is like specialized surgery, and Iraq's society and culture is at least as complex as a human body, and borderless... The sin is over now. But my attention could have been caught sooner: you'll find a nice picture of the master of Iraqi historical sociology Ali Al-Wardi flirting with Afifa in the following book: Hamîd Al-Matba'î, 'Alî Al-Wardî yudâfi' 'an nafsihi, Bagdad, 1987, p. 184.

Hala Fattah - 6/17/2004

Dear Samuel,
You can fly back on Royal Jordanian Airlines but it'll cost you an arm and a leg (because of flight insurance, they claim). You can go by land but its more dangerous because you go directly past Fallujah and other scary places. You can rent a house once you get into Baghdad but its not advisable for a Westerner to do that unless you have security.
Afifa Iskander is a wonderful and resourceful woman. I only wish she was in better health.

Samuel Adam - 6/17/2004

How do you get back into Iraq? Can you just drive across the border and rent an apartment in Bagdad, like flying into New York or London? It seems incredible that a middle-age woman who has been in exile for thirty-five years. What a powerful woman.