The great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz compared her to a preacher. Watching her videos, I thought she reminded me of a particularly talented politician, electrifying a crowd with fervent appeals to hope and truth. And over the last few months, as I’ve taken basic classes on Arab music, I’ve watched a lot of videos of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum in the hope that they would help me understand a word that’s difficult to define: tarab.

A multitude of words has been offered up as possible translations, but the various definitions may be combined to vaguely form something like: the sensation of ecstasy and sensual engagement an audience feels when engrossed in the performance.

I got a hint of what tarab might mean as I watched a recording of Kulthum’s performance of Enta Omri (You Are My Life) on a stage in Paris’s Olympia Theatre in 1967.

“Your eyes took me back to my bygone days,” she begins, her quavering voice matched by the music of the tuxedo-clad backing musicians behind her, which rises and falls and trembles as her own vocal expression does. Her shimmering tones are mirrored exactly by the ouds and violins, creating a churning sea of sound that reverberates around the theatre.


The tour de force performance gives a sense of why she captivated listeners her native Egypt and beyond for nearly five decades until her death in 1975. Immortalised in the Arab world and praised by musicians from Bob Dylan to Maria Callas, her appeal transcended boundaries of class and creed, and continues to resonate across the world.

It appears very significant that the Arabic word for singer, mutrib or mutriba, literally means “the one who creates tarab”. This weight of meaning suggests that the role of a singer is bestowed with the responsibility of creating tarab, of transporting his or her audience away from the immediate reality of their situations to a greater realm, where the senses are completely immersed by the emotion of the music.

This all sounds almost spiritual, and indeed the word tarab does carry more than a hint of religious sentiment. So many of the English words we might use to describe the meaning of tarab – ecstasy, enchantment, rapture – are traditionally associated with states of religious or supernatural possession, the creation of a feeling that is elevated beyond the objective reality of the world before us.

Umm Kulthum explicitly ascribed her unique command over her vocal music to her upbringing, which was steeped in intense Quranic study. The constant repetition of the holy verses honed a fine diction and an unwavering voice, able to grasp the wide variety of emotions that underlay the renowned lyrics to her songs.

“She was like a professor of Arabic pronunciation,” marvelled one interviewee in A Voice Like Egypt, a 1996 documentary on Umm Kulthum’s life.


Umm Kulthum’s expert hold over classical Arabic poetry, a critical component of the music she performed, added to her alluring image as Egypt’s national icon of the arts. No doubt this status helped to bolster her towering presence on the stage, underpinned by her limitless musical and lyrical talent, and contributed to tarab, which arises out of the interaction between performer and audience: it would be obvious to any listener that the woman they were watching was a master of her craft, but the lofty, near-divine reputation that her name carried likely served to foment an atmosphere of reverence and musical immersion – that is, conditions perfect for the creation of tarab.

The evident melancholy that colours much of her music is so often offset by soaring, powerful triumph: “Never will your absence change me,” she declares in her Parisian performance of “Baeed Anak” as a young man in the audience pumps his fists enthusiastically, enthralled by the scene before him.


In recordings of Umm Kulthum’s live performances, at times she is almost drowned out by the delirious audience, which, though usually dressed formally and seated in a theatre, is as rambunctious as any wildly approving crowd would be in a street performance or at an open-air festival. It is at moments like this that we are reminded of Umm Kulthum’s immense national appeal, one that later made her music a potent political tool for the Arab world’s burgeoning nationalist fervour.

Her popularity travelled far beyond her homeland: even Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi, sung by Lata Mangeshkar in the iconic 1951 Raj Kapoor film Awara, appears to be inspired by Umm Kulthum’s own Ala Baladi al Mahbub.


Umm Kulthum’s unmatched power on the stage, her ability to send a crowd into raptures with her lilting voice and plaintive lyrics, seems to me to be a defining image of what the word tarab means.

A word like tarab demonstrates the inadequacy of language, particularly across barriers of translation, where words fail to describe a feeling that we can only know from experience. Tarab as an expression is uniquely associated with Arab music, but by watching Umm Kulthum perform, the idea of tarab becomes less confined to the sphere of Arab music.

My study of the term made me think about my own experiences with music, and reflect on whether I had ever felt something like tarab. I have never, unfortunately, been able to attend a live performance of Arab music, but could the moment my favourite rock band started playing my favourite song at a crowded club on a freezing night be called tarab? What about the feeling I get as the bright warmth of Blonde on Blonde fills my ears and my mind as I make coffee on a sunny morning?

Or does tarab have some unknowable quality, specifically rooted in Arab music, that makes other musical genres ill matches for its creation? In that case, would the word be diluted if applied to certain kinds of music?

It was this that fascinated me as I thought about the term tarab. The word seems so untranslatable, with all its English equivalents feeling rather forced and detached from the realm of music. On the other hand – and this is what makes it fascinating – this apparently untranslatable term to specifically define a quality of Arab music seems to represent quite the opposite of something universal.

Any lover of music, or really any human being, will be able to recognize a moment in their lives when music has shaken them to their core, elevated them beyond their own time and place, convinced them of a power that they cannot fully describe. It is from that struggle of definition that we get the term tarab. I am not an Arabic-speaker, but I am a music-lover, and, beyond that, a person who is moved by music. For that reason, I am grateful for the word tarab, and the chasm of meaning that it helps to fill.

Aditya Sharma is a freelance writer and a student at Columbia University, New York. His Twitter handle is @AdityaNSharma