general interest

Umm Kulthum’s «ألف ليلة وليلة» (A Thousand and One Nights)

Though she died in 1975, Umm Kulthum is undisputably the Arab world’s most renowned and beloved singer. If you would like to learn more about this Egyptian icon, take a look at this Wikipedia page. (If you have some Arabic reading skills, you could also look at her page on the Arabic Wikipedia page.) There is also an hour-long documentary entitled Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt narrated by Omar Sharif! If you can understand French, you may also enjoy the more modern documentary Oum Kalthoum: la voix du Caire.

Many students may be familiar with this singer’s name (which in Western languages can be spelled in many different ways, such as also “Oum Kalthoum”) but have never actually heard her sing. The intention of this page is to let you listen to what is my favorite song by her: ألف ليلة وليلة ’alf leela w leela ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. (The song title is the Arabic title of the book best known in English as “The Arabian Nights”.) This is a very romantic song, one in which the singer hopes that the night with her sweetheart never comes to an end and in which she implores the sun not to come back until a whole year has gone by.

To get a feel for this song and for Omm Kalthum’s singing style and stage presence, take a look at this short exerpt of her in concert:

Did I say that this was only an excerpt? Umm Kalthum’s songs are extremely long. Not only are the texts fairly long, but there are usually long instrumental introductions and interludes. Furthermore, entire sections are often repeated. However, don’t think that this makes a song particularly repetitive; each individual section generally has its own melody, rather than being organized into different verses that each follow the same tune. Here is a performance of the entire song:

I’ll give you two links that will help you understand the song:

  • The page for this song on the website presents the text in side-by-side Arabic transliteration and English translation in a table. The transliteration is rather dreadful, but it will make the text easy to follow for those with limited Arabic skills.
  • If you can handle Arabic script, then take a look at the page for this song on the website, where you can look at the English translation alongside the original in Arabic script. (You’ll have to click on a button to display the Arabic.)

Do bear in mind that this song is in Egyptian Arabic, not in Modern Standard Arabic.

If you like this song, you may also be interested listening to another one of her greatest hits: إنتَ عمري ’inta ʕumri ‘You Are My Life’. You can read the text on and on also has a long list of songs by her. The individual pages have the lyrics, the translation, and often embedded video or audio.

The short text in Arabic in Unit 1 of Mastering Arabic 2 mentions that Umm Kulthum’s funeral was attended by six million people. Here is a clip with footage from her funeral on Youtube.


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