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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2002, page 104


Loss of Liberty

By Tito Howard, Howard Films, 2002. Video. AET: $25.

Reviewed by Andrew I. Killgore

A new 52-minute video, “Loss of Liberty,” dramatically proves, beyond any doubt, that the attack by Israel on June 8, 1967 against the U.S. naval intelligence gathering ship USS Liberty, in which 34 Americans were killed and 171 wounded, was deliberate. Produced by Howard Films (Tito Howard), the video first lets Israeli officers make their totally unconvincing case that the attack was a “tragic accident” when the Israelis mistook the much larger and differently configured USS Liberty for the totally unlike Egyptian ship El Quseir.

This filmed testimony by dozens of USS Liberty survivors of the agony they suffered during and after the Israeli attack, even unto this day, has gut-wrenching emotional power. The testimony of many heroic Americans, including dozens of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, demolishes Israel’s “tragic accident” claim. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer are representative of the honored high-ranking Americans supporting the condemnation of deliberate aggression against the United States by “ally” Israel.

“Loss of Liberty” makes clear that then-President Lyndon Johnson conspired with Israel and its Israel-First supporters inside the U.S. government to support the “tragic accident” scheme. Johnson was bogged down at the time in the Vietnam war, and thought he needed Israel Lobby support. Still, Johnson’s behavior is as unforgivable now as it was then.

Body of Secrets author James Bamford, whose research on the National Security Agency contains quotes of the Hebrew language recorded during the attacks, adds his authoritative voice to the compelling tale in “Loss of Liberty.” At only $25 cash, “Loss of Liberty” will enlighten the viewers, and hopefully lend support for a real investigation, after 35 years, of this shameful aggression against the United States.

Andrew I. Killgore is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.

Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt

By Michal Goldman, Arab Film Distribution, 1996. Video. List: $24.99; AET: $20.

Reviewed by Hugh S. Galford

This captivating video explores the life of Umm Kulthum, the Arab world’s best-known and best-loved female singer. Born into a poor peasant family, Umm Kulthum became a powerful symbol both of Egypt and later of the Arab world. Today, more than 25 years after her death, her music still outsells every other female performer’s in the Middle East.

Umm Kulthum’s father, Ibrahim al-Baltaji, was a poor peasant, but he also was a sheikh, having had some formal training in Islamic sciences. At age five, Umm Kulthum attended the local kuttab, or Qur’anic school, where she was taught the proper recitation of the Qur’anic text. This attention to diction was of immense use to her, as many of her later songs were poems in Classical Arabic. Amal Fahmy, a radio commentator, says that Umm Kulthum was “like a professor of Arabic pronunciation.” There was never a point in any of Umm Kulthum’s songs, Fahmy says, where the listener was unsure of any word.

Her singing career started early, singing with her father at mawlids (feasts for holy men and women in Islam) around Egypt. Tawfik Badawi, a musician who heard her sing in 1919, described her as the little girl with the powerful voice. Umm Kulthum recalls that she and her father would travel by third-class train to the site of the mawlid. Before it arrived, however, her father would walk all the way forward to the front of the train and descend from the first-class car, making those who hired him believe they had hired someone important.

Despite her obvious talents, her father was uneasy having his daughter sing before men he did not know, so he dressed her in boy’s clothes. Umm Kulthum said she realized much later “that he wanted to convince himself, and the audience too, that the singer was a young boy and not a young woman.”

In the early 1920s, Umm Kulthum’s family moved to Cairo in search of work and a better life. There, her professional singing career began. The 1920s were a time of great upheaval in Egyptian society. The Egyptians had staged an unsuccessful revolt against British occupation in 1919. The Egyptian monarchy was fully under British control, the police were British-led, and police excesses could not be countered by the monarchy. At the same time, there was a massive influx of peasants from the countryside to the cities. A debate was raging in Egypt as to how best to become a modern nation and what new technologies to embrace.

Umm Kulthum’s music, disseminated by three of these new technologies—phonograph, radio and movies—spoke to the desire for “Egypt for the Egyptians.” Journalist Mohamed Ouda says that her voice was strong, and that she spoke for all the people. Her humble background may have been ridiculed early on, but her talent could not be denied. Umm Kulthum said that “Music must represent our Eastern spirit.” Those who learned European music, she thought, learned it as a foreign language; one could not expect it to speak to its listeners as classical Arabic music could.

Umm Kulthum was the consummate performer. The best composers of the day wrote for her, and she learned the traditional musical ornamentations that drove audiences to the point of tarab—ecstasy. In Naguib Mahfouz’s words, she “behaved as a preacher who becomes inspired by his congregation. When he sees what moves them, he gives them more, works it, embellishes it.”

She needed the audience as much as they needed her, a fact obvious from the footage of a number of her concerts shown in the film. When she sang “You are my life,” a short song composed by her greatest rival, Muhammad Abdel-Wahhab, the audience demanded to hear each verse numerous times. It took her two hours to sing it.

Umm Kulthum was also attuned to Egypt’s social needs and the issues of the day. She gave benefit concerts so poor students could attend Cairo University. She gave a reception for the Faluga Brigade, the only army division to distinguish itself in the 1948 Palestine war, and traveled the Arab world following the 1967 defeat to raise money for Egypt (and helping to restore Egyptian-Tunisian diplomatic relations). She was a strong supporter of the Free Officers’ Revolution, saying, “We must fill the revolutionary society with everything that is beautiful.”

When she died, four million people lined the streets of Cairo. Today, old men and teenage girls alike know her music by heart. What makes her music still so compelling? As Fahmy says, “Whenever she sang of love, she was never the heroine. People heard their own story in her songs.” And of course there was her voice, “a voice like Egypt.”

This film does a wonderful job telling Umm Kulthum’s story, the issues she was passionate about, and why people still are passionate about her.

Hugh S. Galford is director of the AET Book Club.