On Friday the 14th of July, 1944, the singer and actress Amal Al Atrash took a break from filming in Cairo and headed to the seaside resort of Ras El Barr. A talented and beautiful Druze princess, she travelled northwards in the backseat of a two-door sedan with her friend (and sometime secretary) Marie Qelada towards the tranquility of the Mediterranean coast. For the journey, Al Atrash wore a yellow dress, and carried with her an unfinished French novel. At around noon, not far from the city of Mansoura – and with a suddenness that would shock the Arab world – Al Atrash and Qelada were both killed. The two women, trapped in the back as the driver lost control and careered into a canal, were unable to escape, and drowned. Al Atrash, better known by her stage name of ‘Asmahan’, was just 26 years old.
Asmahan’s premature death would cement her status as a cultural icon. Highly sexualised, provocative, and divisive, she was a ‘glorious voice, a wanton woman, a daredevil, the mistress of many, and a self-destructive force’, says scholar Sherifa Zuhur. Her death only acted to compound her already controversial reputation, with the conspiracy theories surrounding it multiplying as days and weeks turned into years. In the immediate aftermath of her death, she left behind an incomplete film – Youssef Wahbi’s Gharam wa Intiqam (Love and Vengeance), which featured a stunt double. The changing of the film’s ending to mirror Asmahan’s passing only added to the intrigue that enveloped her.
Throughout her life, Asmahan had been shadowed by lurid rumours, and had married and divorced her cousin, Prince Hassan Al Atrash, twice. She had, however, ultimately rejected the life of a princess, and in doing so, alienated her family in Syria. ‘In Egypt, where her Syrian social status was meaningless,’ writes Sherifa Zuhur in her book, Asmahan’s Secrets, ‘she became a diva, and controversy swirled around her. She appeared utterly feminine and tasteful on screen, but fast and daring in her private life … Even when glorified, she was incarcerated in her screen persona as a tragic heroine, a femme fatale’.
Much of Asmahan’s life remains a mystery; even her date of birth is uncertain. In contrast, however, her legacy endures. She is revered as a cultural icon now more than ever before, with her representation in the arts manifesting itself in all forms of expression. Her vocal range, her formidable character, her glamour, her alleged espionage, and her onscreen persona resonate loudly as the Middle East continues to descend further into chaos.
Why? Why does she inspire such devotion? Why does she feature so prominently in the work of Lebanese artist, writer, and cultural activist Zena El Khalil, or in the murals of graffiti artist Yazan Halwani? What is it about her voice that encourages singer Yasmine Hamdan to dream? Does her vision, her voice, and her art go beyond life itself? Or is such talk cheap? Is her iconic status simply the result of a stunning, unorthodox woman dying young? After all, few things are more poignant than the untimely death of a beautiful woman; such events haunt the collective imagination. As Edgar Allan Poe wrote, ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’.
What does it mean to die young and to be a star? What does it mean to be Druze, and a princess, at that? To belong to a faith that few really understand, and be a woman regarded as a reincarnation? Why is she still capable of touching people so deeply that she changes their lives?
‘It’s chemistry, not something we can rationally talk about’, says Yasmine Hamdan. “My heart stirs when I hear her voice. She has an incredible voice, a very melancholic one, too, that carries elegance – something that I care for in the Arab world. She was a rebellious and strong woman, [but] she was also very fragile, and you can hear that in her voice and see it in her eyes.”
Hamdan always says that she met Asmahan in a bar. Maybe it was crowded and dark, maybe Beirut was still delicate after years of civil war, maybe she was in love, and perhaps she was alone. ‘Her voice made me dream’, she says. ‘For years she became a shelter and her art inspired me. Her music was edgy and challenging for her time. She was a diva.’
Asmahan’s voice was powerful – extraordinary even – and she was blessed with an exceptional range. She was also in the vanguard of change, influential in bringing elements of Western music to the Arab world. ‘Perhaps she was even more essential to this process than her rival, the great singer Umm Kulthum’, Zuhur writes. As such, her music has seductively weaved its way into the lives of others for more than 70 years. Even mine. Combined with her beauty and its immortality within iconic photography, concepts of honour and society, and her untimely and mysterious death, she becomes ever more alluring.
‘Growing up, I didn’t really have a role model until I discovered Asmahan’, says Zena El Khalil. ‘When I learned of her story – about how she was young, how she started her career through the push of her mother, how [she] practically had to run away to Cairo to pursue [her] artistic career – that kind of resonated with me.’ In Asmahan’s life and story, El Khalil saw a parallel. ‘Because I also come from a conservative family, I could relate to the idea of fighting to be able to do what I do, to produce my work the way I want to.’ El Khalil not only looks to Asmahan for inspiration, however, but also guidance. ‘She’s the person I call upon when I need advice … I think, what would Asmahan do? I see her full of pride and strength, and I try to draw upon her energy.’
Asmahan’s physique, eyes, and face are indelibly etched in the life of El Khalil, just as they are in those of thousands of others. The effect of her visual appearance can be striking. She often appeared bathed in a white glow, and embraced her sexuality and femininity rather than deny it. It was such imagery, perhaps, that led Beirut-based graffiti artist Yazan Halwani to produce a mixed media work on canvas of Asmahan for the 2013 Beirut Art Fair. ‘Let’s praise our cultural icons instead of our war criminals’, the artist says; ‘Maybe we [could] move forward, then.’
It’s late in the evening in Beirut, and El Khalil is sitting across the table from me. She’s ordering mezze and sipping drinks with a friend as they immerse themselves deep in conversation. El Khalil’s hands hint at the labours of the day, while the large, luminous eyes of her friend shine and dance before me.
‘She’s in my film, too,’ says her friend. ‘She’s become part of the film with my mother. And the green eyes of Asmahan are very similar to [those] of my mother.’ ‘What does she remind you of?’ I ask her. ‘She reminds me of my grandmother. She reminds me of the beautiful women of Nazareth in the 40s and 50s’, she says. ‘They were beautifully dressed, extremely proper [and] glamorous, and bought their clothes in Paris. They transcended time and space, and were part of a bourgeois community that doesn’t exist anymore.’
On Rue Clémenceau I play a scuffed and crackly copy of Emta Hataraf that I found in the Souk Al Ahad on an old Vestax portable turntable. The sound is tinny and bounces off the walls, but the torment remains intact. ‘I’m searching for another song’, I say. ‘It’s called Ya Habibi Taala. I’ve been looking for it for years, but can’t find it.’ When will you realise I love you? sings the girl with the dancing eyes. She is smiling now. When will you realise? she sings in Arabic, and the words are lost on me.
‘She was a stubborn, gifted, and strong woman – one of the first to be recorded and documented’, says El Khalil. ‘Her personality is what really comes across. When you look at her photos, she’s just a beautiful woman’, she remarks, ‘but when you know about her life story – the fact that she was married, then separated, then … had other lovers, went back to her husband, had a child she barely took care of, the rumours that spread of her being promiscuous – you know, all these things add up.’
El Khalil continues to explain her fascination with the legend: “I’m not just attracted to her because she was this sort of iconic rock star figure; she was also respectful, and she was humble. And above all, she believed in love: love over everything … I learned she genuinely loved [her husband], even after all those years in Cairo.”
At the centre of El Khalil’s new exhibition is a poem. Ya Dirati (My Home) was written by Asmahan’s uncle, Zayd Al Atrash, and El Khalil’s great grandfather, Fadlallah Al Atrash, and was later turned into a song by Asmahan. El Khalil’s grandmother sang it to her as a child. ‘It’s not so much about the lyrics, but rather the ancestral heritage,’ El Khalil remarks. ‘The Druze are a strong and [proud] people of the mountains. For them, land and honour are an extremely important part of their cultural values.’
The next day in Beirut I find a copy of Ya Habibi Taala by accident. It’s the final song on the sole album owned by a close friend of the girl with the dancing eyes. He’s never listened to it, never played it, never heard the occasional crackle and pop; he doesn’t even own a record player. By chance, Ya Dirati is on there, too, on the B-side of Asmahan: Les Chansons Eternelles, released on the Baidaphon label in 1973. It is not, unfortunately, for sale.
I drift and remember the night before: an antique bed, laughter, the muezzin’s call to prayer. I think of stories, and of Asmahan. How had the driver of the car in which she was killed escaped? Why did he mysteriously disappear? Was she working for the British secret service? Had they killed her? Had the Germans killed her? Had Umm Kulthum, jealous of Asmahan’s voice, had her murdered?
Later on, the director Azza El Hassan tells me stories too. One is of an Iraqi man who shot himself outside a cinema after watching Love and Vengeance, while the other is of a woman who died whilst trying to catch a glimpse of the star, and has ever since been known as ‘the Martyr of Asmahan’. “In 2010 I began researching a film inspired by Asmahan,” she El Hassan. “It wasn’t really Asmahan herself that attracted me to the project, but more the individuals whom I met and who were absolutely inspired and guided by Asmahan that attracted me. It was the fact that even after 70 years following Asmahan’s death she is somehow still capable of touching people deeply enough that they would choose to change their life paths.”
When El Hassan visited a refugee camp for asylum seekers in Vienna, she discovered that many of the refugees had known nothing about Vienna before they arrived. The only image and fantasy they had of the city – and which encouraged them to travel there in the first place – was from Asmahan’s song Euphoric Nights in Vienna. It was Asmahan, as one of the film’s protagonists told El-Hassan, that “allows us to dream. We need dreams because without them we cease to be human”.
“What is so meaningful about Asmahan – and makes her so different from the others – is that she is not perfect,” says El Hassan. “She is a star but also an alcoholic. She is a princess and a concubine. She is simply a bundle of contradictions, which makes her just like you and I. Someone who is far from being perfect. Her imperfection makes it easy to relate to her and to sympathise with her downfalls.”
El Hassan tells me of the motivations behind her film. “I wanted to do something that captures Asmahan’s presence in our life today, as Arabs or as a group of people who are living in a world that is dominated by uncertainty and who long for figures, or icons, who can hold our hand and lead us to safety. I decided that I wanted to make a film about the present but which has a memory. Asmahan was the memory of my protagonists. It is through her that they recalled Cairo in the 30s and it is through her that women longed for their emancipation. Doing this was not an easy task and it made me try and redefine my approach to filmmaking.
“Asmahan is not your traditional heroine. People who look up to her are searching for something different. Something that doesn’t resemble any proposed reality in our current political spectrum. But because my understanding of the ‘Asmahan effect’ comes from the notion that people are looking for heroes, that’s why in the end of The Unbearable Presence of Asmahan I had to get rid of her. After all, to move forward we need to get over our heroes. Don’t you think so?”
A week later Ya Habibi Taala finds its way to me. The girl with the dancing eyes carries Les Chansons Eternelles from Beirut to Dubai as a mother would carry a child. It is a gift from her friend, she says. Asmahan’s voice, soaked with divine range, has sewn itself into the fabric of my life.
* First published in Reorient, March 2015
Artwork: Zena el Khalil