Legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Photograph: via Medium.

Why was legendary Umm Kulthum of interest to German general Rommel?

By Ali Breesha

Umm Kulthum is one of the most famous Arab singers in the 20th century. She has been a star since the beginning of the 1920s and continued to hold the throne of the Arabic song until her death in the mid-seventies.  This Saturday (February 3) marks her death anniversary.

Perhaps no one knows that she was (unknown to her) the focus of a secret war that coincided with the most heated stages of the Second World War since she was seen as a strategic target for both the Germans and the British at one time.

The story is told by the Egyptian dean of journalists Mohammed al-Tabi’i in his memoirs. He talks about a conversation he had with the British press attaché, Donald, in Paris after World War II. The two men were life-long friends and met together for lunch. “We started talking about the superb career of Umm Kulthum and the great musician Mohamed Abdel Wahab. Suddenly, Donald told me that ‘When the ghost of war settled in Europe in 1939, British intelligence agents in the Middle East noticed that the Axis agents were picking vinyl records, especially those of Umm Kulthum from Cairo, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus. This made the British intelligence suspect that the Axis countries were preparing for a propaganda war. Their intelligence services learned that millions of Arabs will listen to news broadcasts in Arabic if Umm Kulthum songs were played before and after the bulletin.”

“In 1942, German general Rommel began his offensive operations in January and took the city of Benghazi from the British. More attacks followed, and he conquered Tobruk and the British were defeated. Rommel and the African Legion headed for the Nile Delta. The British feared that Rommel had a secret plan to arrest Umm Kulthum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab. The British authorities arranged secret procedures in case they had to withdraw from Egypt to Palestine and Sudan.”

Donald carried on: “As an Egyptian journalist you may be aware of the measures that the British authorities intended to take and implement if they had to withdraw from Egypt to Palestine and Sudan, but there is one planned move that has not yet been released to the public yet.”

Al-Tabi’i was curious to learn about this secret plan by the British intelligence planned. Donald finally said: “The British forces planned to take Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab abroad with or without their consent.”

Al-Tabi’i added: “As soon as I heard this, I started laughing hysterically, which provoked my friend who told me: ‘Believe me, the truth is, the British authorities intended to withdraw from Egypt and voluntarily or unwillingly take Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum with them because they were afraid that the Germans would exploit them to ensure a successful propaganda, because the Egyptians and the entire Arab world listen to Cairo Radio, especially if it broadcasts Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum. It would have been the ultimate propaganda’.”

Al Tabi’i interrupted him saying: “How could they be so sure that Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab would agree to sing?” Donald then said: “You cannot be serious; otherwise you do not know the Nazis. It was very possible that Abdel Wahab would sit in front of a microphone at the radio station, being watched by a German soldier who is putting a bayonet to his back, poking him with it if he ever stops singing.”

Published by Al Arabiya

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