Asmahan: Living On the Edge

Asmahan: Living On the Edge

Those who know little about Asmahan would be surprised to learn that she only lived for twenty-seven years. In the few pictures of her, and despite the particular care of the photographers, Asmahan looks quite older. Women during that time matured relatively quicker, but Asmahan’s rich personal and professional history as well as the many mysteries that are yet to be uncovered sure added to the years.

Many aspects of Asmahan’s life and death are subject to speculation and assumptions. The accident that killed her, when the car transporting her and her friend and manager Marie Qelada fell into a ditch, may have been deliberate. Many have been accused of her alleged murder, with conspiracy theories focusing on three possible perpetrators: The British, her last husband, and Umm Kulthum.

The British intelligence allegedly wanted her dead after uncovering her ties to the German secret police. This was supposedly after she flirted with the French and played the role of double agent between the French and the British. Ahmad Sakem, her last husband, who had married four women – Khayrieh Bakri, Amina Baroudi, Tahia Karioka, and Madiha Yusri – ostensibly vacillated between exploitation of, and obsessive love for Asmahan. Their quarrels reached a point where he once apparently fired a gun and threatened to commit suicide. As for Umm Kulthum, it was rumored that she feared Asmahan’s rising stardom would eventually overshadow hers.

Some claim that Asmahan had predicted her own death, at the same place where she ultimately died. The canal had a steam-operated pump, and she once said: “Whenever I hear this sound, I feel death is imminent.”

There are also those among her biographers who like to find patterns in coincidences. For instance, some have drawn parallels between her birth on the boat carrying her family as they fled from Turkey to Beirut, and her death in a canal, to claim that she knew, as someone who was born over water, that she would die over water. If anything, this shows how much Asmahan’s life inspired fertile imaginations to weave all kinds of myths about her.

It is as though Asmahan had lived multiple lives in her short time on Earth, from singing to cinema, to her flirting with different and conflicting secret services, to her personal love life, which was not limited to her three husbands (some say that she had also married Fayed Mohammed Fayed for only ten days to get a visa back to Egypt). In her book Asmahan’s Secrets, Sherifa Zuhur says the singer also married her cousin Prince Hassan al-Atrash twice, in contravention of the traditions in her hometown in Jabal al-Druze.

In her short life, Asmahan went from rags to riches then rags again consistently. Her biographers, who are many, attributed her involvement with various intelligence agencies to her frequent need for money, which she spent with a recklessness that surprised all those who knew her. “She would get close to this side at times and to the other side at other times. When the British did not pay her, the French did.” The British High Commissioner in Lebanon Edward Spears, who was one of her admirers, said: “She asked me and Catroux (General George Catroux, the French High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon) for more money, but we refused after discussing it.” Sherifa Zuhur also states that Asmahan used the money to influence her entourage.

According to accounts by her half brother Munir al-Atrash, Asmahan showed a lot of generosity during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, when she would shower fellow singers and musicians as well as the poor with money and gifts. Munir once recalled that on Bastille Day, perhaps in 1943 or 1944, Asmahan was invited to the ceremony Catroux hosted for the occasion. He said, “she wore a headscarf in the Egyptian style. On that day she gave every soldier 100 Liras. Liras had a golden value at the time.” At that same party, as Asmahan pulled her handkerchief from her purse, Catroux spotted a Browning revolver and told her: “Princess! You came to my quarters carrying a gun? I am only afraid of people like you.”

Asmahan’s extravagance was so bad that it brought her husband Prince Hassan al-Atrash, who later became the Minister of War, to the brink of bankruptcy. She couldn’t bear to stay for too long in one place, and asked her husband to build her a mansion other than the one he built for her in Suweida, Syria, which she only stayed at for a few months.

During one of her stays in Jerusalem, she refused to leave her suite in King David Hotel to make room for Princess Nazli, King Farouk’s mother, even though she badly needed money during that period. Some believe that Asmahan and Princess Nazli had a quarrel because Hassanein Pasha was infatuated with her, and there were rumors of an affair between him and Nazli that embarrassed the Egyptian royal family at the time.

Asmahan could not tolerate being idle for too long either. One time, without telling any of her acquaintances or her closest friends, she left her home in Cairo to Syria, carrying a message from the British to her people in Jabal al-Druze. This was her first mission in what was seen as the beginning of her involvement in the world of espionage, while she and some of her relatives believed what she did was a patriotic undertaking.

Some say she was paid 4,000 pounds as a reward for her mission. However this amount was much less than she could have earned from singing and acting if she had stayed in Egypt. Indeed, when she returned, Asmahan asked for 13,000 pounds in advance for starring in a film.

It is her inability to be content with what she has, and with her fame and glory, that always pushed her to make non-calculated, unplanned moves. No other Arab female star, before or after her, saw that stardom in cinema or music was a stepping stone to what is more important. It was as though it was not enough for her, as a singer, to be seen as Umm Kulthum’s equal, something that she had achieved even in her young age. In film, she was the highest paid actress at the time, earning on average 20,000 pounds.

Anxiety and the desire for change always accompanied Asmahan in all aspects of her life. When she was in Syria or Lebanon, she would want to go to Egypt, and when she got bored of all three places, she would want to go to Jerusalem. The same goes for men in general, and with her husbands, as she could not stay for too long with any one of them.

Hassan al-Atrash, whom Asmahan would remarry, suffered the most from her volatile mood. In one of General Spears’ accounts about his encounters with Asmahan, he said: “One night, near the end of my mission in Beirut, I was having dinner when the Arab butler told me that Prince Atrash wanted to see me immediately. I was tired. I knew that traveling through the narrow streets of the Lebanese capital would take half an hour. An hour later, the (prince) arrived without an interpreter, which made his visit pointless because he spoke neither French nor English, and I did not understand Arabic. I asked the butler to query the prince about the reason for his urgent visit. He explained that his wife told him I had called asking him to come immediately to the embassy. That was it then: she needed her husband to be absent for reasons that she knows very well, and the result was that she tricked us both, and we gave her time that she without any doubt put to good use.”

General Spears most probably admired her as well, and may have even had a relationship with her beyond political contact, and beyond their meetings during diplomatic events. How could he have otherwise known so much about Asmahan’s private life? In his memoirs, he once described her as a wild cat. Spears wrote: “I had seen the princess for the first time in the grand ceremony when she remarried her husband. She was gorgeous that evening, wearing European garments. And yet, I would see later that she looked much more beautiful in Arab garments, which hid her somewhat short legs. But no matter what she was wearing, she was, and always will be, one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She had huge eyes, green like the color of the sea that you would have to sail through on your way to paradise. I would learn later that she had an amazing voice when she sang Arabic songs, and of course, she always needed money. But she spent it like a rainy cloud sprinkled water.”

Asmahan had a casual attitude about playing with the major players, in arts as well as in politics. She did not care much for the deceit that characterized people in high places. But it appears from the account of her short life that the only person who was most loyal to her, and the only one who put up with her fickleness, volatility, and the rumors as well as the realities that surrounded her, was her husband and cousin Prince Hassan al-Atrash.

Atrash always behaved as a “son of a family,” as the known expression in Syria and Lebanon describes a gentleman, should. This despite the fact that times had changed and things would no longer remain confined to families and in line with their values.

In Asmahan’s time, there was a lot of intrigue involving the English, the French, the German, the Turks, and others, before and after the Second World War. It was the most turbulent era of the twentieth century. Yet Asmahan rode those fierce waves without knowing that many things should have been taken into account before making any moves like the ones she threw herself into.

We should perhaps remember these stories about Asmahan’s life as we listen to her songs today. It might give us a sense of what her life was, and how it ended. We can’t really know what the viewers of the biographical television series about her thought, as they listened to those songs, and saw the tragedies that haunted the singer’s life. Did they realize that Asmahan’s existence, short as it was, was much richer than any life most Arab women could have?


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