Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—The mausoleum’s windswept courtyard lies empty and its large gate, leading into the tomb of the celebrated Egyptian songstress, is chained shut. There are no fans bringing flowers to the grave or sharing memories. The final resting place of Umm Kalthoum, Egypt and the Arab world’s most famous singer, lies abandoned even as its structure dominates the Imam Al-Shafi’i cemetery in Cairo’s El-Basateen district.
Inside the mausoleum’s courtyard, where he has served as a guard for more than half of his sixty years, Khamis Abdulhadi sat, calmly brewing a pot of tea on a small stove.
“Who’s there?” Abdulhadi shouted when he heard footsteps approaching.
Abdulhadi told Asharq Al-Awsat that before the January 25 revolution hundreds of Umm Kalthoum fans from across the Arab world would have visited her tomb every day. But they slowed to a trickle following the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak and the political turmoil that subsequently gripped the country. Since the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi last July, few have been willing to visit this isolated area of Cairo, even to visit the final resting place of the Kawkab Al-Sharq, the Star of the East, as she was known to her fans.
“I have been guarding this cemetery for almost 30 years and have become part of the furniture. Every single night I stand in front of her tomb listening to her songs. It is as if she is singing only to me,” said Abdulhadi.
“None of her fans visit her grave anymore, save for some of her distant relatives who come every year to check her tomb and read the Fatiha for her,” Abdulhadi said.
Almost four decades after her death, Um Kalthoum is still considered one of the best, if not the greatest, Arab singer. Her songs can still be heard on popular radio and have become almost an accompaniment to daily life in Egypt, being heard in taxis and coffee shops alike. Her most popular songs include “Enta Omri” (You are the Love of my Life), “Al-Atlal” (The Ruins) and “Hathehe Laylati” (This is My Night).
Gesturing to the empty courtyard, Abdulhadi says forlornly: “It is as though people have forgotten her artistic contribution to the country.”
Umm Kulthum’s mausoleum stands apart from those of other Egyptian celebrities interred at Cairo’s Imam Al-Shafi’i cemetery. It is one of the largest mausoleums in the area and boasts fences erected on all sides to stop burglars and vandals from trespassing.
Despite the mausoleum’s inherent grandeur, it is easy to see the signs of recent neglect.
“Unfortunately, Umm Kalthoum’s mausoleum and those of other celebrities are facing many dangers,” Abdulhadi said.
According to Abdulhadi, the mausoleum was built just a year after Umm Kalthoum died in 1975 on the request of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture. Several areas across Egypt are named after her, including a square in Dakahlia governorate, her birthplace, and a famous statue in the upscale Zamalek district of Cairo.
Established in 1998, the Umm Kalthoum Museum in Giza is run by the Cultural Development Fund and is considered one of Cairo’s key tourist attractions.