Oum Kulthoum’s “Ansak”

"Salem Al-Okali"

The song "Ansak" (I Forget You) still makes me cry, because it is the first song I heard by Oum Kulthoum. Back when I was herding cattle and got my hands on a cassette player, I only had one tape, with this song on it. 

Initially, the tape was just a sound-producing toy; but the song’s poignancy gradually seeped into my soul, and I fell in love with it in my youth. Oum Kulthoum died when I was in the third year of middle school, and to my surprise, our Arabic language teacher Abdel-Qader El-Daqadousi asked us to write essays under the title "Oum Kulthoum." The students turned to look at one another, confused. The tears that welled up in the teacher's eyes compelled me to write about my only relationship with her, and about the song "Ansak." To this day, when I listen to the song, I still smell that place–thyme, wormwood and cattle. I remember that child, wrapped up in the cassette player and that one song he listened to all day until his tears came pouring out. Some of the other students wrote about an old lady in the village, a traveling merchant named Kulthoum. 

On Thursdays, during ISIS's siege over Derna, I missed my friends and our weekly gatherings in Derna. Though I could see Derna's lights from my window, I couldn't visit them, and they couldn't come to me; they had grown very far away. 

These days, my friend Rajab Al-Hunaid is no more than a dark shadow of sadness. He was detained during the monarchy, the republican era, and the populist era. The September revolutionaries killed his sister, the February revolutionaries killed his wife, and now in his 70s, he moves very slowly, desperate for his friends to keep him company. 

As for Ouhiba Al-Shaari, you would only ever see him carrying a basket of jasmine and flowers, which he distributes to everyone he loves. Warm-blooded by nature, he curses everything around him–but the scent of jasmine tames this anger. 


My friend, the caricature artist Fathi Al-Shuwaihdi, somehow managed to turn everything into a joke, and only ever saw the world through the lens of satire, despite the overwhelming fear of war and death. He loved Oum Kulthoum, and every Ramadan–when devout Muslims read the Quran from beginning to end–he would reopen the box where he kept her tapes. When Eid arrived, he would say: "By the grace of God, I have listened to Oum Kulthoum from cover to cover." 

We stayed up every Thursday night at his mother's flat on Al-Bahr Street, and Fathi–who was always easily impressed–was astounded by the Internet's riches; the eastern songs he loved but struggled to find were now at our fingertips. As soon as he asked for a song, I would pull it up on Google, which he came to refer to as "the God who responded instantly." It was like I was hosting some music program, taking requests from only one listener: Fathi. I would end every night with my national anthem, “Ansak.” Fathi would sway as though in the thick of a Sufi ritual, as the smells all came back to me: those small goats, the sumac and wild thyme leaves, and the moist dirt with the first rain of the season. 

Born in Al-Qiqab in the Green Mountain, he is a poet and novelist. He has several poetry collections and novels published, including “Banaat Al-Ghaba” (Daughters of the Forest), “Lali”, and “Al-Lahia” (The Beard). He is also a columnist whose opinion articles are published on the Bawabat Al-Wasat website and in many Arabic newspapers.

Salem Al-Okali
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