from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Mothers of the Middle East

May 11, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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As I write, Mother’s Day 2015 is coming to a close. It was a special day. Who is better than Mom? I called my mother, made breakfast in bed for my wife, spoke to my mother-in-law, and cheered all the Moms whose photos showed up on my Facebook feed. Yet for all of the celebration of Mom, there remain a few Mothers who—to the best of my knowledge— have gone without recognition this year, which is a bummer for them. So here goes, my favorite Middle Eastern Moms:

  • Umm Kalthoum (Mother of Kalthoum) whose real name was Fatimah Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Biltagi, captivated the heart and souls of Arabs with an astonishingly beautiful voice and often haunting lyrics of love and loss during a five decades-long career. She was born in Egypt’s Nile Delta in 1904 and died in 1975.There is not an Egyptian I know who does not get a broad smile on their face at the mention of Umm Kalthoum. Many Egyptian friends—even the ones born after her death—can recite the lyrics to her songs. I cannot think of any artist in the United States who occupies the place that Umm Kalthoum does in Egypt’s national lore. I would probably offend a lot of Egyptians if I tried. As big as Frank Sinatra was, as devoted and fanatical the fans of Barbara Streisand may be, as much as Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, and Michael Jackson fashioned himself as the King of Pop, none of them can touch Umm Kalthoum.
  • Egyptians often refer to their country as Umm al-Dunya or Mother of the World. Let’s not allow Egypt’s current state of political repression, economic uncertainty, nationalist freak out, decrepit infrastructure, and deteriorating security, to obscure its cultural and historical legacies. I have seen a lot of cool things in my travels, but nothing (still) takes my breath away like the step pyramid of Sakkara, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and many other sights. It is not just ancient Egypt that deserves our respect on Mother’s Day. For (mostly) better or worse, Egypt has long-maintained cultural hegemony in the region, nurturing a world of art, literature, and cinema that policy geeks often over-look. Some of this waned with the stagnation of the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the stifling sway of the Muslim Brotherhood, which often framed cultural debates, but even so Egypt remained a crucial player in the arts despite the fact that it did not have the resources to bankroll outposts of the Louvre, Guggenheim, and a variety of other projects in the region. The Bibliotecha Alexandrina makes the Gulf countries investments in mega-museums seem…well…cheap (despite their enormous price tags) in comparison to what Egypt has given the world.
  • Umm Ahmed was my shaghala (house keeper) when my wife and I lived in Cairo in 1999 and 2000. I wrote a little bit about her for a piece in Slate.com a number of years ago. In that article, I relayed how she saved me from being flattened by a bus as it went the wrong way down an allegedly one-way street in our little edge of Zamalek. I can’t say that I got to know Umm Ahmed all that well. She came and went as she pleased and was always very friendly. I think she got a kick out this khawaga with the goofy Arabic—part Egyptian, part Palestinian, part Modern Standard, all with a distinctly Jordanian accent. Umm Ahmed was just a good egg. I hope she is well.
  • When allied forces began air operations against Saddam Hussein on January 17, 1991, the Iraqi leader predicted the fight would be Umm al-Ma’arik or the Mother of All Battles in which his armies would prevail. Obviously, it did not work out that way, but Saddam unwittingly gave Americans a new idiom. I’ve heard people use “Mother of all…” to refer to everything from traffic and engagement rings to desserts and toddler meltdowns. So despite the despicable and violent life of Umm al Ma’arik’s forebear, it is usefully evocative.

In all seriousness, in the violence that is engulfing four Middle Eastern states, the burden on caring for children, the elderly, the infirm, and wounded falls on who it always falls upon around the world—Moms. Regardless of your views of the origins of these conflicts and how to deal with them, it is hard not to be sympathetic to the brave, self-sacrificing women whose God-given inner strength makes everything a little bit better. Thank you, Mothers…

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