Peer Review Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat pays homage to the iconic Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum.

Peer Review Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat pays homage to the iconic Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum.

  • Photograph Bettmann / Getty Images

Oum Kulthum appeals to the activist in me. She was an unconventional woman  who became the most important artist of the 20th century in the Middle East. Having risen in the male-dominated society of 1920s Egypt, she had a five-decade career and died beloved—a mythical figure. Her music’s power in bringing people to truly primal emotions, like weeping, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. She also broke through taboos—between men and women, the religious  and the secular. In Israel, Algeria, Iran, there may have been fighting, but they agreed on Oum Kulthum.

My love for her grew from childhood. My parents listened to her music, but back then, it felt too classical. It was only in my 30s, when I was in the US, that I started paying attention. I don’t understand Arabic, except in...

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