Inte Omri (You Are My Life) by Umm Khultum

A photo for Umm Kulthum singing on a stage.

Umm Khultum

Umm Khultum, an Egyptian native who lived from the turn of the last century until 1975, and who was considered by many in Egypt, and the Middle East, in general, to be the greatest singer of all time, sang the song, “Inte Omri” (You Are My Life), for the first time in 1964.  In her prime, Umm Khultum, (which means ‘mother of Khultum’), would sing two or three songs on stage, with certain lines repeated over and over again, that could last up to four hours depending on her creative mood and the reaction of the audience.

In 1944 Umm Khultum was decorated with the most prestigious level of orders (nishan el kamal) by King Farouk I, a privilege normally bestowed on royalty and politicians.  It is said that Umm Khultum could sing as low as the second octave and as high as the seventh octave, and that her vocal chords produced around 14,000 vibrations per second.  Reportedly, the power of her voice rendered commercial microphones (for singing) ineffective at close range, requiring Umm Khultum to stand one to three meters away.  Umm Khultum’s orchestra was composed of musicians who played the oud, (pear-shaped Arab guitar), violins, a zither-like instrument (qanun), and small tambourines (riqqs).

The love and admiration for Umm Khultum, “Star of the East,” grew through her first Thursday live radio events in Cairo that began in the 1930’s and ran through 1973 during which time much of the Arab world would be glued to their radios, and was evident at her “sold out” concerts throughout the years.  Even the Egyptian royal family attended her public concerts, and arranged for private events.  Thirty-six years after her death, Umm Khultum’s record sales still continue at around one million copies per year.

Umm Khultum sang countless songs of love and loss but this particular song, Inte Omri, is one of her best known and most romantic.  Like many other Arabs, my husband, Bishara, a native of Lebanon, loves Umm Khultum, and holds special memories of listening to this remarkable singer through the years, first as a young child in Jordan and Lebanon, and later as an adult after he emigrated to the U.S.  I recently sat down with Bishara to listen to the song and to talk with him about what it meant to him as an Arab man.  The English translation of the song is below.

Inte Omri (You Are My Life) – Sung by Umm Khultum  

(from: http://www.shira.net/music/lyrics/inte-omri.htm, Translation by Hani Guirguis, Provided by Yasmina Ramzy)  

Your eyes took me back to my days that are gone.  They taught me to regret the past and its wounds.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?

With your light, the dawn of my life started.  How much of my life before you was lost?  It is a wasted past, my love.

My heart never saw happiness before you.  My heart never saw anything in life other than the taste of pain and suffering.

I started only now to love my life.  And started to worry that my life would run away from me.

Every happiness I was longing for before you.  My dreams they found it in the light of your eyes.

Oh my heart’s life… You are more precious than my life.  Why I didn’t meet your love a long time ago?

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?

You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.  The beautiful nights and the yearning and the great love from a long time ago the heart is holding for you.

Taste the love with me bit from bit from the kindness of my heart that is longing for the kindness of your heart.

Bring your eyes close so that my eyes can get lost in the life of your eyes.  Bring your hands so that my hands will rest in the touch of your hands.

My love, come, and enough.  What we missed is not little, oh love of my soul.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?  You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.

You are more precious than my days.  You are more beautiful than my dreams,

Take me to your sweetness — Take me away from the universe.  Far away, far away.  I and you far away, far away. Alone.

With love, our days will awaken.  We spend the nights longing for each other.

I reconciled with days because of you.  I forgave the time because of you.

With you I forgot the pains.  And I forgot with you my misery.

Your eyes took me back to my days that are gone.  They taught me to regret the past and its wounds.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?  You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.

____________________________________________________________

Interviewing Bishara # 1

Interviewing Bishara # 2

Me:  What are your overall impressions or feelings about this song, Bishara?

Bishara (Answer):  I first heard Inte Omri when I was a little boy in Mafraq, Jordan, back in 1964, and did not know what it meant.  At the time, I only liked and appreciated the sound of the music, not the words.  I especially liked it, because my mother liked it.  The first thing that amused and interested me about this song, was watching my Mom in deep thought, her eyes staring far, far away.  But I still did not understand what was so special about this song.  For me, when I was a young person, the meaning of the song was simply wrapped around my deep thoughts about my Mom and where her thoughts travelled when she heard this song.  My Mom would typically listen to Umm Khultum at around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon when she was finished with her housework.  As I became older, and met you, (Michele), I would play the song for you (you were my girlfriend at the time), and you stared at me, as I spaced out like my mother used to do when I was young.  That was the time I figured out that Umm Khultum was not only a legend and the “star of the Middle East,” as many Arabs called her, but that the writers of her songs were simply geniuses.

Me:  Yes, I remember those times and how enthralled you were with the music.  I knew it had to be special, but at the time, the music sounded rather discordant and melancholy, and although I wanted to, it was difficult for me to develop an appreciation for it.  It wasn’t until we were in the Arabian Peninsula years later when I would observe Arab friends listening, discussing, and dancing to the music that I began to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Inte Omri and other Umm Khultum songs. 

__________________________________________________________

Me: Can you tell me in more detail what you think this song means for you and other Arab people

Bishara (Answer):  It’s very romantic, from the title itself, “You Are My Life,” not “My Love,” not “My Friend,” not my “Partner,” but “You are My Life.”

Me: You know, I also think that this sort of song that Umm Khultum was so good at, was, and is, popular, due, at least in part, to the restrictions on mixing between the sexes in the Arab world.  I think maybe this song represents an idealized image of love for those, especially younger people, who were not allowed to socialize or mix with the opposite sex.  And for more mature women it might represent a long lost love, or the feelings of love when they were younger.

________________________________________________________

Me:  Please tell me more about how your own personal experiences relating to this song, and to your own feelings of love as a younger person.

Bishara (Answer):  First of all, I really liked Umm Khultum’s accompanying orchestra music when I was young, because my sisters would belly dance to this music when it played on the radio.  Another reason I suggested we write about this song is because it brings back special memories to me as I became a teenager when I began listening to Inte Omri over and over again, and started to understand the meaning of romance from the words of this song.  I remember at age 15, I wrote some lines of this song on a small piece of paper, wadded it up, and threw it towards a female student who I had a crush on as we were both headed to our separate schools.  Schools at the time were segregated by gender.  Actually, it was a rather common occurrence when I was younger for both boys and girls to write words from Umm Khultum songs on a piece of paper, ball up the piece of paper, and throw it at the object of their desire.

Umm Khultum was really remarkable, because her words could express what you wanted to say but couldn’t find your own words to express.  You felt like Umm Khultum’s songs were written about, and for, you, and her words had a way of hitting you in your deepest core.  A Jordanian friend told me one time that listening to Umm Khultum was like falling in love for the first time.

____________________________________________________

Me:  What about the details of the individual lines of the song?

Bishara (Answer):  Well, in the first four lines itself, the words are very strong.  Umm Khultum is saying “How can you count my life before I met you?”  She is saying before I met you my life was a complete waste.  She continues with saying that ever since you came to my life, I started to enjoy my life, and started to understand the taste of happiness.

Me:  But even with this joy, she is indicating that she is afraid that her happy life will leave her.  It seems that somehow she knows these feelings of love may not last. 

______________________________________________________ 

Me:  Also, she mentions her lover’s eyes several times.  I know that in the Arab world eyes are important.  I remember when you, yourself, used to tell me I had beautiful eyes, like a gypsy’s.

Bishara (Answer):  Maybe it’s because in some parts of Arab societies women can only show their eyes.

Me:  Yes, and for special occasions like women-only events, like weddings, especially, they really show off their eyes with beautiful and heavy makeup. 

_____________________________________________________

Bishara (Answer):  I always enjoy listening to this song, however, there is something more special about it when I hear it in the evening.  I think because I am fully relaxed and feel most at home, and can absorb the words and their meaning.  I actually feel intoxicated by both her voice and words at these times.

Me:  Yes, I notice that you especially enjoy listening to Umm Khultum’s music at full volume while smoking sheesha. . . . You always tell me you’re reminiscing about Jordan and Lebanon.

_____________________________________________________ 

Me:  At one point in the song, Inte Omri, Umm Khultum is saying that she was in love with her lover long before she met him.  Are all of Umm Khultum’s songs romantic like this one?  If not, what are the subjects of some of her other songs?

Bishara (Answer):  When she was a young girl most of her songs were about religion/Islam, but as she became more popular she became the romantic singer for the Eastern world.  During this time she became as well known in non-Arab countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Turkey, as she was in the Arab world and her home country of Egypt.   

________________________________________________

Me:  How do Umm Khultum’s songs compare to the popular Arab songs of today? 

Bishara (Answer):  You just feel as though Umm Khultum’s songs are more genuine; simple but with depth and meaning.  Also, what makes Umm Khultum more special is she was for a period of time, one of the few female singers in the Arab world.  These days, many of the female Arab singers have the same sound and similar lyrics about flirting and falling in love; but you can tell there’s not really a lot of depth like Umm Khultum.  Unlike many of the current popular Arab singers, Umm Khultum’s voice and music is so unique you always know it’s her singing.  Also, while there is great importance placed on the attractiveness and sexiness of Arab female singers nowadays, Umm Khultum was not attractive but her voice, the words of her songs, and her charisma outshone her physical appearance.  I’ve always thought that Umm Khultum was the woman who made three out of four Arab women drop a tear, and perhaps one out of four Arab men, as well.  Another thing about her style of singing is that she never, ever, sang a song without a scarf in her hands, which she pulled on so hard that many times the scarf would be torn to pieces while she was singing.

________________________________________________________

Me:  Umm Khultum is saying that now when she looks at her lover’s eyes she remembers the past and all its wounds.  You know, Bishara, when I first met you I remember you saying my eyes were like the stars and my face like the moon.  At the time, I thought it sounded sweet, but wasn’t really sure why you were comparing my face to the heavens.  When you began explaining the words to Umm Khultum, though, it became clearer that Arab people are very romantic and use a lot of symbolism when they speak of love.  And it became even more clear when we moved to Saudi Arabia, and later Qatar, and I started to hear (and absorb) Arab music from more of a cultural perspective, which added another layer of understanding.

Bishara (Answer):  Remember I would even call you tueberny (bury me), ounie (my eyes), hayatee (my life), albee (my heart), ghalieh (my expensive one), and, of course omri (my life).  As you know, the Lebanese are known to be some of the most romantic people in the Arab world!

_________________________________________________________

Me: Why do Arab people use these sorts of expressions to convey their love?  And is it only from man to woman, or could it also be from woman/man to child, or woman to woman, or man to man?

Bishara (Answer):   Because we are very emotional people, like the Italians.  These words of endearment can be to and from anybody, not only man to woman, but a woman to a man, a woman or man to a child, or woman to woman, or man to man (as in the case of habeebi or habeeptie).

Me:  Oh, yes, like when men call each other habeebie (“sweetheart” to male), and women call each other habeeptie (“sweetheart” to female).  I remember how strange I thought it was when I first heard you call other men, relatives and friends alike, “habeebie,” or “my sweetheart.”  . . . Now it seems like second nature!

_________________________________________________

View videos of Umm Khultum’s Inte Omri at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjfH8a8wDOU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4OYXOv8U8c&feature=share

Related articles

Advertisements

2 comments on “Inte Omri (You Are My Life) by Umm Khultum

  1. Hi Michele,

    Will read more of your blog, however this is very insightful. thank you. I liked the exchange between you and Bishara. The more we understand each other the better this world can function.

    thanks Priscilla

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s