Re­mark­able story of her gift from Sheikh Zayed

▶ Or­nate neck­lace made of nine strands of pearls now on dis­play at Lou­vre Abu Dhabi is in­ter­twined with the story of UAE’s birth, writes James Lang­ton

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE -

Even in the dark­ness of the dis­play cab­i­net at Lou­vre Abu Dhabi, it shines as an ob­ject of re­mark­able beauty and crafts­man­ship.

Some call it the Sat­lada – nine cas­cad­ing strands of nat­u­ral pearls adorned with plaques of white gems and blood-orange and green enamel.

More re­mark­able than the skill of those who made it about 140 years ago in In­dia is the story of how it came to be in Abu Dhabi and put on dis­play at the mu­seum.

This is a neck­lace em­bed­ded in the story of the first days of the UAE.

It was owned by Sheikh Zayed, the Found­ing Father, and then by the queen of Arab song, Umm Kulthum or “Kawkab Al Sharq” (Star of the East), as she was pop­u­larly known.

The neck­lace was a gift from Sheikh Zayed to Umm Kulthum for per­form­ing in Abu

Dhabi days be­fore the Emi­rates united as one coun­try on De­cem­ber 2, 1971, in celebratio­ns that would also mark his fifth an­niver­sary as Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

That Umm Kulthum would sing in Abu Dhabi was a sen­sa­tion. She is ar­guably the greatest fe­male voice the Arab world has ever pro­duced. An imam’s daugh­ter born in Egypt’s Nile Delta, such was her pop­u­lar­ity and the power of her voice that it was said the streets of Cairo emp­tied of traf­fic when she sang live on ra­dio.

Her per­for­mances were a tour de force. Ac­com­pa­nied by her or­ches­tra, each song could last for an hour or longer, fea­tur­ing im­pro­vi­sa­tions and lengthy in­stru­men­tal sec­tions.

Fans in­cluded French leader Charles de Gaulle, who called her “The Lady”. Maria Cal­las, the opera singer, said she was the “In­com­pa­ra­ble Voice”.

Even Bob Dy­lan was in awe, telling an in­ter­viewer in 1978:

“She’s great. She re­ally is. Re­ally great.”

By the time of the first con­cert on Novem­ber 29, 1971, poor health had forced Umm Kulthum to give up all other ap­pear­ances for the year. But, as an ad­mirer of Sheikh Zayed, she agreed to the in­vi­ta­tion pre­sented by a del­e­ga­tion from Abu Dhabi. She would be the biggest head­line act to per­form in Abu Dhabi, much big­ger than Madonna or the Rolling Stones in more re­cent times.

The two con­certs were an­nounced in flow­ery style by Al

It­ti­had news­pa­per: “A grand artis­tic dream is ma­te­ri­al­is­ing th­ese days: the Lady of Ara­bic song will share in the fes­tiv­i­ties of ac­ces­sion day. The Star of the Ori­ent will per­form two evening con­certs.”

But the in­ter­est in the con­certs, along with the size of her or­ches­tra, posed a par­tic­u­lar problem for the city. There was nowhere large enough for the ex­pected au­di­ence.

The so­lu­tion was to build a con­cert hall un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Sheikh Faisal bin Sul­tan Al Qasimi, the chair­man of the of­fi­cial celebratio­ns.

In only two months, a 4,000seat hall with brick walls, a slop­ing floor and steel roof went up near what is now Al Wahda Mall.

“We put on the fi­nal coat of paint the day be­fore Umm Kulthum ar­rived,” Sheikh Faisal re­called in an in­ter­view in 2010. “We were ex­hausted.”

Umm Kulthum ar­rived at Al Ba­teen airport with her or­ches­tra and an en­tourage that in­cluded fam­ily mem­bers.

A ra­dio in­ter­viewer in Cairo said Umm Kulthum told him ‘she had never had such a loyal au­di­ence as the one in the Emi­rates’

Wear­ing her trade­mark scarf and sun­glasses, she was greeted by the of­fi­cial wel­com­ing party of Sheikh Zayed and Pres­i­dent Sheikh Khal­ifa, who was Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi at the time.

She was of­fered the use of a villa, but in­sisted on stay­ing with her mu­si­cians at Al Ain Palace Ho­tel on the Cor­niche. Po­lice con­trolled the crowds around the con­cert hall for the first per­for­mance, which be­gan at 10.30pm on Novem­ber 28 and was at­tended by Sheikh Zayed and other

Al Nahyan fam­ily mem­bers, along with se­nior officials.

It is here that Sheikh Zayed is be­lieved to have pre­sented her with the neck­lace.

Af­ter­wards, a ra­dio in­ter­viewer in Cairo said Umm Kulthum told him “she had never had such a loyal au­di­ence as the one in the Emi­rates”.

Mo­hammed Al Qudsi, a TV jour­nal­ist who was there, es­ti­mated the au­di­ence was dou­ble the hall’s of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity. “It was an un­for­get­table night,” he said. “The at­mos­phere was amaz­ing and happy, and the au­di­ence was mes­merised by her singing.”

A se­cond con­cert fol­lowed on Novem­ber 30 but Umm Kulthum was not quite ready to go home. As Sheikh Zayed jour­neyed to Dubai for the of­fi­cial cer­e­mony of uni­fi­ca­tion, she was a guest of Sheikh Khal­ifa to watch the flag of the UAE be­ing raised for the first time over Al Man­hal Palace. Umm Kulthum stopped per­form­ing in 1973. She died in Fe­bru­ary 1975. About four mil­lion people lined the streets of Cairo for her funeral.

She left be­hind a large col­lec­tion of per­sonal jew­ellery, but lit­tle was more pre­cious than the neck­lace from Sheikh Zayed. In April 2008, it was put up for sale by her fam­ily at auc­tion in Dubai.

The “im­pos­ing an­tique In­dian nat­u­ral pearl nine-row neck­lace”, cer­ti­fied by the Gem Test­ing Lab­o­ra­tory of Great Bri­tain, was given an es­ti­mated price of be­tween $80,000 (Dh293,840) and $120,000.

Two bid­ders ran up the price to $1.385 mil­lion. The iden­tity of the buyer was never re­vealed, but he or she was re­ported to be from Abu Dhabi. It would not be seen in pub­lic again for more than a decade, un­til the open­ing this Oc­to­ber of the 10,000 Years of Lux­ury Ex­hi­bi­tion at Lou­vre Abu Dhabi, where it is one of the high­lights. Ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial de­scrip­tion, the neck­lace is on loan from the Zayed Na­tional Mu­seum, and will pre­sum­ably form part of the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion when it opens on Saadiyat Is­land.

Nearly half a cen­tury af­ter it was pre­sented by Sheikh Zayed, it will find a new home un­der the roof of the build­ing that will carry his name.

Victor Besa; Stephen Lock / The Na­tional

Above, the neck­lace given to Umm Kulthum by Sheikh Zayed, the Found­ing Father, on dis­play at Lou­vre Abu Dhabi; left, Umm Kulthum wear­ing the neck­lace; far left, Umm Kulthum and Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi

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