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Mona Khashoggi Immortalizes Umm Kulthum

Embark on Khashoggi’s success in reproducing a musical journey

Image courtesy Natasha Wilde

In a world that spent countless years being falsely labeled as a “man’s world,” a world where a woman is forced to uphold herself thrice as much as her counterpart, Umm Kulthum spent her years breaking through the barriers of conformity and adversity. The icon’s name forever leaves its traces within the very fabric of the global music industry, an eternal legacy. Years following her passing, the arts continue to honor and showcase her work.

When it comes to displaying and recounting the powerful makings of Umm Kulthum and her grandeur ability to astonish an audience, it only makes sense to have equal power back such a display. Much like Umm Kulthum and other fascinating women who had to pave their way through an industry filled with men, Mona Khashoggi, Saudi Arabian theater producer, and playwright, has proved to the continental stages her ability to successfully emulate the very art of which Umm Kulthum spent years building, both leaving a mark in her industry and audiences reminiscence.


Working as a patron of the arts for a couple of decades, Khashoggi utilizes her skill and expertise in transforming prominent tales into a beautiful production of intricate cultural Middle Eastern and North African narratives. The producer aims to revive said stories, translating them to the West, and showcasing the tellings we know and love to an unacquainted global audience.

Growing up in Beirut and England, being an on-looker of West End productions, Khashoggi’s appreciation for the arts began at a young age, specifically her enthusiasm and love for Umm Kulthum, which later on blossomed into a production, “This show is a passion project born out of my nostalgic love for the iconic singer, the 4th pyramid.”

Inspired by her father’s keen interest in the arts, Umm Kulthum’s music became the default soundtrack of a childhood that would lead to a desire to share the very essence of a confident woman’s drive. Producing a play that embodies Umm Kulthum’s story, Khashoggi shares her very own soundtrack with the world. “The play is about the great lady who came from humble beginnings and became the most important woman in the Arab world. It’s also about the era of other powerful women. It is all about women’s empowerment and all of us women who looked up to Umm Kulthum from a very young age. Her music is timeless and speaks to us all.”


After being in the works for two years and showcasing her opening show at the renowned London Palladium in 2020, Khashoggi recounts her production timeline, recounting the milestones and challenges encountered in the process “It was bumpy at the beginning, I didn’t know where to start and I had the wrong team and writer. With time and experience, I gained confidence, wrote it myself, and raised the finances. It was not easy but I noticed that all my experiences of the past projects benefitted me.”

Having previously curated several shows at museums, such as the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as being a gallery promoter within the Middle East, and experience dancing with the Debke folklore team in her youth, the producer gained the expertise to aid her work for the play. “Now I have the right director Bronagh Lagan, set and costume designer Gregor Donnelley and music director Mostafa Fahmy and his orchestra and cast. After 4 years, they know what my vision is and they know the show well. I am happy.”


When having to acknowledge the heavy responsibility of showcasing the legacy of a global icon such as Umm Kulthum, the ambitious vision will have its fair share of hurdles that would require overcoming. Although finding joy in the writing of the script, song choices, and the several experiences behind the detailing of what is shown on stage, nothing good comes easy. “It was difficult because I wanted to work with a British West End team but they had a different mentality and culture. The dialogue is in English and the singing is in Arabic. It was difficult to find English-speaking Arab actors who acted, danced, and sang. Trying to find an Arab musical director was a challenge. Many musicians and conductors do not understand musicals in the Arab world. This is a specialty by itself.”


The casting of any production is just as crucial as writing the script itself, after all, if the written word isn’t effectively transferred as spoken word, the power and prevalence dissipates. The embodiment of Umm Kulthum is no easy shoe to fill, finding the right talent to take on the challenge of mimicking the characters is an essential process, especially considering that the play is a live trilingual production.


Seeing as Umm Kulthum is an icon of her time and ours still, it is expected that there will be several homages, all showcased in several different formats. What sets Khashoggi’s production apart from all of its parallels is the grandness of its nature, a live musical with a massive cast of actors, singers, dancers, and a live orchestra. “It is not a show of just one lady singing Umm Kulthum. It is not a concert like the million great concerts we watch. It is a unique west-end musical with all its techniques.”


Premiering at the Palladium means men in tuxedos and women in prim garments, it means media attention and commitment to attendance. “It was truly a magical night and the reaction of the audience was unforgettable.” Unfortunately having to close down for COVID, the temporary pause was only an opportunity to savor the magic of the opening leg prior to the opening at the Dubai Opera in 2022, Ithra Cultural Center in 2023, and Bahrain National Theatre in 2024.


With hopes of going back to where it began, in London, Khashoggi presents her skill and production across the Arab world, and a desire to expand across the globe, performing in Paris, Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, Jordan, Riyadh, Morocco, and most significantly, Cairo. “I recently was in Cairo to meet the Minister of Culture, Dr Al Kilani, who praised my show and invited us to perform at the opera house. Dates are yet to be set.” The Arabic version of the play is set to be showcased in Jordan on June 27th & 28th and will be making its way back to Dubai once again during the month of October of this year. The success of the play reached its Paris audience and will also be performed in French in Paris as well as its translations across the globe. 


Setting the scene for cultural revivalism, Khashoggi’s play sees nothing but good reviews. Often one can question the choice of translation rather than the play being in Arabic, considering that it is the mother tongue, but the producer highlights the importance surrounding exposure of greatness to the ears that haven’t heard it and the minds that have yet to acknowledge it, “We all know who our legends are but not the international world or the young generation.”


It is often seen that plays and screen adaptations go hand-in-hand, that being said, the Umm Kulthum show is in the works, starring Egyptian actress, Mona Zaki. The feature film ‘El Sitt’ is set to be directed by Marwan Hamad and Synergy Productions.


Beyond the realm of Umm Kulthum, Khashoggi secretly works on an additional film from the Golden Era. The playwright also published a book called Jaffa Orange Groves and hopes to write another. Additionally and rightfully so, the producer was awarded ‘best script for a short play,’ “that encouraged me to finish the screenplay for a movie that I hope to produce with Jordan.”


To hold such appreciation for Kulthum’s art would mean a consequent appreciation for Egypt itself. Having friends and relatives from there helped establish several fond memories of the country, “The only films we watched as kids in London were the Egyptian black and white films, hence, my infatuation with that era and style. My shows are inspired by these classic films. Now my work brings me to Egypt often.”


As a woman of many talents, Mona Khashoggi juggles a busy schedule encompassing the musical tour, involvement in art fairs, foundation work, and literary pursuits, offering insights into her time management strategies. Besides touring her show, Khashoggi aims to introduce a ballet show called Sinbad The Sailor. “I am working with a classical western composer introducing Arabic instruments, the dances are fused together and the costumes.”

Additionally, a concert with the Abdel Wahab family and a famous soprano in London is set for next Fall, and touring the show, as well as a concert in Paris during the month of May called Voyage Symphonique: Exploring New Horizons, starring vocalist Lena Chamamyan, directed by maestro Mostafa Fahmy and music arranged by the composer Ahmed El Mogy. “I hope to be working with Sharjah Performing Art College’s wonderful students and team producing shows. I want to go into the academic field. They are interested in my scripts. Regarding Mansoojat, we take projects as they come. My colleagues are the designers for some items that we sell in my daughter’s store: Homegrown Market.” Voyage Symphonique: Exploring New Horizons is set to be booked in fall.


Building a legacy requires time, effort, and dedication, elements that come together to produce the essence of Mona Khashoggi, an ambassador of Cultural revivalism. In aiming to showcase another’s legacy, Khashoggi left her own, a trace and mark to be left within the realm of time, “if there is a will, there is a way. Just persist, dream, have passion, perform, and surround yourself with positive people who have the same dream and respect, not people who pull you down.”

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