From Oum Kalthoum to Warda al-Djazaïria, from Asmahan to Fayrouz, from Laila Mourad to Samia Gamal, via Souad Hosni, Sabah without forgetting the very young Dalida, these are the women who have shaped our shared collective -- the Divas of the Arab world.
In fact, they have influenced not only several generations of younger women who have then gone on to become icons of their own, these Divas have created a bridge across cultures. Step into any sophisticated novelty shoppe in the Western world and you'll find Oum Kalthoum's likeness on a cup or silkscreened on a bag or a t-shirt, just as Dalida's music plays in the background. Asmahan's song of unrequited love ya habibi taala elhaani has been a soundtrack to many a heartbreak around the world, from New York City, to London and back to her native Syria.
And of course, Oum Kalthoum is to the music world what Frida Kahlo is to the art world -- legendary and eternal.
The Arab World Institute in Paris has dedicated an exhibition to these Divas and in their description of the show which opened finally on the 19 May, 2021, they say point out that "the exhibition is intended to be a fabulous journey into the heart of lives and of the art of these legendary singers and actresses, but also an exploration of the profound changes they have brought about." Feminism in the MENA region moves in a very different way than in the Western world and sometimes the biggest changes are brought about by the slightest actions. Think of someone like Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour, who never shouted about women's rights and yet has been responsible for so much change in her native Saudi Arabia.
The exhibit, which was slated to open in January of 2021 but was postponed due to the pandemic, "paints epic and astonishing portraits of divas of the "golden age" of Arab song and cinema, through a journey richly nourished with period photographs, often unpublished, of extracts from films or legendary concerts, cinematographic posters with glamorous graphics, magnificent stage dresses, personal items and rare interviews," as the IMA website points out.
"Timeless icons, powerful women, symbols worshiped in post-war Arab societies, these divas with exceptional careers have established themselves from Cairo to Beirut, from the Maghreb to Paris, embodying a period of artistic and intellectual effervescence, a new image of women, as well as the national political renewal which was expressed from the beginning of the 1920s, particularly in Egypt, until the 1970s." The IMA site goes on to explain that, "the exhibition thus highlights, through these divas, the social history of Arab women and the birth of feminism within these patriarchal societies, their participation in pan-Arabism and in the struggles for independence in the contexts of colonization and decolonization, and - above all - their central role in the various artistic fields that they have helped to revolutionize."
In conjunction with the exhibtion, there is also a Divas capsule collection designed by Raphaëlle Macaron for the Arab World Institute. From Pocket mirrors, to bags, notebooks, posters, badges, the Lebanese illustrator has created exclusive works representing three great divas of the Arab world: Oum Kalthoum, Fayrouz and Warda.
For all information and to book tickets, as well as a virtual tour if you can't attend in person, do visit the IMA site devoted to the exhibit.
"Divas: From Oum Kalthoum to Dalida" is on display at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris through the 26 September, 2021.