Even after the 43rd anniversary of Om Kolthoum’s death, people are still amazed by the late phenomena, and are interested to know more about some of the hidden episodes of her life.
The Story of her Treatment and Recovery
Taken aback by an acute disorder in the goiter that had been disturbing her for a few years, Om Kolthoum had been advised to remove the gland with an operation that threatened the safety of her vocal cords. The gland had grown in size, which caused her tension accompanied by sweating, exhaustion and depression. Her eyes had protruded and she had to hide them with dark eyeglasses.
Surgeons feared that 40% of her voice’s power would be lost as a result of the operation. According to her niece Sadiya El Desouky, when the symptoms increased, Om Kolthoum started to stay away from meeting people, stopped going to the radio station for rehearsals and allocated a special place in her villa to work with the musicians.
At the beginning, she tried to forget her illness through work, but eventually she had to choose between the ongoing suffering or a risky surgery, after which she opted for the surgery, recalled El Desouky.
The British surgeon who was selected to operate on her insisted to hear her voice before he could discuss details of the operation. He was taken aback, for he did not believe anybody could possess such a powerful and resonant voice. This was also the reaction of the second, third and fourth surgeons who examined her, and all denied the operation option.
Traveling to the United States
The final positive step came with the outbreak of the 1952 revolution. After she took part in the celebrations marking the launch of a new era in Egypt, late president Gamal Abdel Nasser was informed that the diva was in pain and had to push herself to be able to sing for the army’s victory.
Nasser then contacted the American Embassy that offered to provide her with treatment at the Naval Hospital in Maryland. Only VIPs received treatment at this hospital, besides members of the American Navy, and Om Kolthoum was the first Arab to receive nuclear medication.
She travelled to the US, where she was prescribed pills to take whenever the symptoms arose. However, this was still a temporary treatment, noted El Desouky.
As it was announced in the Arab media, the diva had arrived in the US a few months earlier in search of medication for her thyroid problem. At that time, nuclear medicine was a new development that many people were unfamiliar with, and so many did not understand that it was a surgery-free treatment. Following a few sessions with the nuclear remedy at the Naval Hospital, the diva began to show signs of improvement.
Entertaining the Expats
On a humid summer night in August of 1953 in building number 15-25 located on K Street in Washington DC, which mostly housed Arab expats, one of the tenants had a gathering for his Egyptian and Palestinian friends. At the same time, the other residents were met with a loud resonant voice that was chanting well-known lyrics. The voice was very individualistic and the lyrics definitely belonged to Om Kolthoum.
When the door opened, they found her sitting before a traditional gramophone, where she sang to the tunes of a record. Her heated interaction with the song was interrupted by the rush of the excited expatriates who expressed their admiration and wished her luck with her treatment.
They knew that she was undergoing treatment in the US, but none could imagine that she resided in the same building, neither had it come to their minds that she was able to sing so flawlessly when it was rumored that she was going through a serious health problem that endangered her career.
Reacting to the good news that she was recovering, she began to comply with the wishes of the Arab expats, who had been asking her repeatedly to sing. Although doctors warned her not to overdo it by singing loudly, she could not resist the temptation of performing to her small audience.
She was hosted by Ahmed Khaki, who was then the head of the Egyptian Embassy’s educational office. Memories of that night have been retained in the shape of photographs taken by Khaki, as well as in stories and anecdotes that continued to be related by the guests. According to their stories, Om Kolthoum was light-hearted, joyful, and fond of making jokes. She was also always grateful for her fame and wealth, which was evident when she would pick up all the breadcrumbs left behind on her carpet at the Windsor Park Hotel, where she later resided, so that no one would step on them.
The Final Cure
The absence of certainty on how she would be cured gave way to many rumors: while many thought that the operation would destroy her voice completely, others were told that she would not be able to sing as powerfully as she did. The Egyptian radio corporation began to look for other talents to replace her, and the circles of interest seekers around her started to disrupt.
Little did they know that across the Atlantic, Om Kolthoum was truly recovering. El Desouky recalled that after the diva was administered the treatment, the doctors asked her to sing after each dose to make sure that the medication did not affect her vocal cords. After several weeks, it became almost confirmed that the remedy was yielding fruit. Shortly, news of her recovery became the highlight of the media, and phone calls from fans to the Windsor Park Hotel continued to inquire about her health.
Returning to Egypt
Crowds of Egyptians from different walks of life, led by elite artists, writers and musicians, welcomed her at Cairo Airport upon her return to Egypt. It was a crowd so large that it almost left no empty space at the airport’s hall.
In 1971, “Akhbar El Youm” reported that prince Abdulla El Faisal, who met Om Kolthoum in Paris on her way back to Cairo after her treatment in Washington, recalled that the diva began to sing “Gadedt Hobak Leih” to the sounds of the taped song. He then stopped the tape and asked her to sing without music. Crooning song after song, she burst into tears, for this was the first time she sang for hours following the treatment.
The newspaper also mentioned that the medication that saved Om Kolthoum had laid the foundations for the “Nuclear Research Institute” in Cairo, as well as the Eisenhower project aimed at using nuclear power for peaceful purposes in Third World countries. It noted that science saved Om Kolthoum twice; when it preserved her art in sound and image and when it spared her voice from the surgeons’ blades.