A thorough study of the work of the great Arab singer Asmahan, who was the toast of Cairo song and cinema in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Series: No. 13
The great Arab singer Asmahan was the toast of Cairo song and cinema in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as World War II approached. She remained a figure of glamour and intrigue throughout her life and lives on today in legend as one of the shaping forces in the development of Egyptian popular culture. In this biography, author Sherifa Zuhur does a thorough study of the music and film of Asmahan and her historical setting.
A Druze princess actually named Amal al-Atrash, Asmahan came from an important clan in the mountains of Syria but broke free from her traditional family background, left her husband, and became a public performer, a role frowned upon for women of the time.
This unique biography of the controversial Asmahan focuses on her public as well as her private life. She was a much sought-after guest in the homes of Egypt's rich and famous, but she was also rumored to be an agent for the Allied forces during World War II.
Through the story of Asmahan, the reader glimpses not only aspects of the cultural and political history of Egypt and Syria between the two world wars, but also the change in attitude in the Arab world toward women as public performers on stage. Life in wartime Cairo comes alive in this illustrated account of one of the great singers of the Arab world, a woman who played an important role in history.
- Introduction: Disentangling the Diva
- Chapter 1. A Child of Ma'ruf
- Chapter 2. To Quiet the Nightingale
- Chapter 3. The Triumph of Youth
- Chapter 4. Mission of War
- Chapter 5. Passion and Revenge from Jerusalem to the Road of Death
- Chapter 6. Asmahan's Musical Legacy
- Chapter 7. Culture, Politics, and Gender
The singer Asmahan entered my life as a series of unplanned incidents, a sudfa, or a happy accident as one would say in Arabic. These events were linked to my interest in music, both Arabic and Western music, which had been fostered by attendance at countless rehearsals, performances, and concerts (thanks to my mother, a singer) and by my own sixteen years of nightly employment in entertainment.
"You must hear this one," urged jovial, dimpled Mustafa in his small music shop. Silwani's Imports on Hollywood Boulevard in the early 1970s was similar to its counterparts in the Middle East: cramped, lively and filled with audio cassettes, key chains and souvenirs. Men from the Arab-American community dropped in and drank tea and coffee with the owner. Tourists following the trail of stars encased in the Boulevard's sidewalks peeked in and muttered, "Cool, man." I used to visit and browse, adding to my small collection of Arabic records and tapes.
"Her name was Asmahan," said Mustafa, loading the cassette deck. I put the cassette away, not playing it until I was on my way to Sweden, and then going from there to Cairo with a friend, entranced with adventure, seeking and buying certain Arab musical instruments. In the sad early darkness of December in Stockholm, I switched the tape recorder on. Percussion instruments and violins plucked á la pizzicato began with a tango. The singer's clear tones descended and rose, emphasizing the rhythm. Suddenly, the Eastern character of the song became more pronounced, as she began her improvisation (the mawwal) and modulated to another musical mode (maqam). The singer's diction was precise, and she effortlessly executed the wider sliding, trills, and tonal patterns performed by eastern Arab singers. The song was "Ya Habibi Ta 'al al-Haqni," composed by Madhat Assim. "It sounds so ... so old-fashioned. A cartoon tango but sophisticated," I told my friend.
I had made this journey to Cairo after a business trip to Scandinavia with a strange companion—it was not clear if he had romance in mind or simply needed to provide a cover for some shady business deal. After many years of working in Arab nightclubs, I had encountered some of the shadows of that world. Still, he and I shared a love for Arabic music.
In Cairo, I felt I had come home. I experienced the oddest sensation of oneness with the city; odd in that I am not a fan of urban jungles. I wandered around the city by myself. Why was it that I knew just where to turn, and when to retrace my path?
I wanted to see Muhammad 'Ali street where the 'awalim, experienced women instructors of singing and dancing, had held their schools and entertained clients. That street meandered through an older quarter, where peddlers still sold tambourines and drum skins, Arabic lutes, and other instruments. There, music and off-color life had flourished in times past. Wandering into a small music shop, I saw Asmahan's name on a tape. "That? That's such old music!" the man exclaimed. "Don't you want to hear the latest hits? Look here, this one is really something!" But I stubbornly bought only old tapes and wandered back out into the crowded streets.
Asmahan's songs sat silently for some time in my bag. I was distracted by the prospect of hearing Umm Kulthum with her ensemble, but she had fallen ill. Within days, Umm Kulthum died, and mourners through out the region wept. I bought a memorial book of photographs, listened to her songs, and was invited to attend a rehearsal of her ensemble. Then, I listened to the Asmahan tapes. Sounds and words reverberated, having little to do with the bustling feel of contemporary Cairo:
For too long I have said "If only...
My passion overcame me,"
sang Umm Kulthum.
But there were some interruptions—this was Cairo, after all!
"Beep Beep Bee-eep," blasted ninety thousand and ninety-nine horns.
I am afraid to tell you the state I'm in...
Oh come on, let your desire enter into my imagination,
"Ba-ang, bang, bang," beat the hammers of the auto repairmen on Champollion Street.
Far more in tune with the tempo of the city were the radio waves blaring the voice of male singing star, Ahmad al-'Adawiyya. "Zahma, ya dunya, zahma!" (Crowded, the world is crowded), he sang in a near-shout. Listeners couldn't care less about subtlety, diction, or text—rhythm ruled. As Fahd Ballan put it so many years later, "Could the pretty girls dressed in their tight skirts dance to it?" That was the question.
We went to hear Fayza Ahmad sing in a nightclub out on the Pyramids Road. She was a star who had been eclipsed by Umm Kulthum's fame, but who had excellent technique and exciting songs. She was not an Egyptian, but a Syrian, as was Najat al-Saghira. I was repelled by the dyed blonde hair, sprayed into an impossible helmet, and by the way she, like other singers and dancers, acknowledged tips from Gulf fans. "Thanks a hundred times to our Arab brother from Sa'udiyya, thanks to our brother from Kuwait," they acknowledged over the microphone, while waving the bills. Ahmad's voice and the orchestra were exciting, however, and I resolved matters by closing my eyes and drinking in this modern wave of song.
Asmahan's name cropped up again in conversation with a master instrument maker, Gaby Tutungi. Tutungi had a small shop in a Coptic area. His nephew was apprenticed to him, as is often the case. Tutungi was missing several fingers of his left hand. He wanted to play for me, and began fingering his violin with the right hand, his bow attached to his left hand with a rubber band. After he played, we listened to Asmahan and to Umm Kulthum, and, after prolonged bargaining, bought a qanun (a zither) with American dollars. Tutungi murmured something about Asmahan's vocal technique, but I was again distracted by the picture of Umm Kulthum playing the qanun hanging in the center of the tiny workshop.
That was in 1975. Within a month of my return, my life and work in Los Angeles was interrupted by violent events both local and Middle Eastern, affecting those I knew and worked for. A move and an introspective hiatus led me to that bourgeois institution, the university—Berkeley first, then UCLA, the American University in Cairo, and a return to UCLA. I supported myself by working in the small family-owned nightclubs and restaurants of the San Francisco and Los Angeles Middle Eastern communities, with ventures to the East Coast, the Middle East, Texas, and other points. My interest in music continued alongside other loftier subjects of study; Asmahan's tango took a backseat to the hundreds of more modern compositions I learned to earn my tuition fees toward degrees in Arabic language and literature, political science, Islamic studies, and a doctorate in Middle Eastern history.
In New York, while writing an MA thesis on Iran, my friend, musician Simon Shaheen taught me Asmahan's song, "Imta Hata'raf Imta?" for inclusion in my own nightclub routine. My curiosity about her life returned. Some of my musical acquaintances knew a lot about other musical personalities, but were surprisingly uninformed when it came to Asmahan. I was intrigued by the conflicting images of the artist their comments indicated: "She was so beautiful, a princess," "A real man-eater," "My father was in love with her," "My mother's chauffeur knew X about her," and so on.
After reading various suggested works, and puzzling over their veracity I was even more intrigued by the disjuncture between historical record and Asmahan's popular mystique. Her story was not known to those of my generation, so I decided to write an account in English. I was also convinced that a journey to Asmahan's territory—her physical and historical territory—would cure my unease with written sources' lacunae and satisfy my own need for connection with the departed singer.
One evening in the Jabal Druze (currently known as the Jabal 'Arab), the hilly, or stony, high plain where the Druze of southern Syria live, some eighteen years after I had first listened to Asmahan's tango, I visited with Asmahan's family. I emerged from the al-Atrash family madhafa (guest hall) with its silent stones and walked past the al-Atrash residence built alongside a massive Nabataean pillar. I had listened to the family as they responded to my queries for hours and hours. At times, I had worried that they also were reliant on versions of the written sources, told and retold many times, yet many of their corrections could be checked.
I was most interested in contacting individuals in Syria who were old enough to have known Asmahan. I hoped to confirm or disprove the rumors of her "espionage" during World War II, and that meant speaking to individuals outside her family, as well as those, however distantly related, who had witnessed the period. These included her younger half-brother, Munir al-Atrash, as well as other relatives from her father's branch in Suwayda; Mansur, the son of Sultan al-Atrash; the Atrash branch in al'Era; and some other relatives who had been close to Asmahan's father.
I also went to speak to Asmahan's brother Fu'ad in Cairo, who was quite elderly at the time and has since passed away, as well as individuals who performed with Asmahan and her brother, Farid, who were involved in the cinema industry during her lifetime. By written sources, I mean books and articles (primarily in Arabic) and investigation into the documents held in the Public Record Office in Kew and those belonging to the Quai d'Orsay on the French side.
I continued to track Asmahan, from the stone house of her family in the village of al-'Era to Damascus, to Jerusalem, and back to Cairo, visiting buildings she had lived in or frequented, trying to gather "the truth" and wondering about the "secrets" she carried to her grave.
This book represents an effort to resuscitate the historical figure Asmahan from the interwoven threads of fame, regional relations, and social mores that strove to define her, and thus to re-examine the meaning of her life. I hoped that in so doing, the life and mystique of a transitional female figure would be accessible outside of the Middle East. For many, the West has focused on the dangers of the Middle East, the threat of holy war and Islamism to "our" oil, supposedly to the spirit of "civilization" itself. Western accounts overlook the culture of the region, demean it, or conflate it into a series of tourist sites of ancient and medieval civilizations.
Aside from the general public's interest in tourism and terrorism in the Middle East, the current market in world music finds inspirations in the region, inviting novel experiments in "authentic" sound and culture. Europeans, Americans, and even youthful audiences in urban centers of the Third World listen to bizarre combinations of Middle Eastern folkloric and pop genres with Western rock, pop, and jazz. While raï music of Algeria is one example of hybrid music developed in recent years, some of this experimentation is older and more rooted in Western tastes. One may recall the inclusion of the Indian sitar in bands in the 1960s, and choral adaptations of Balkan music entering the American folk music/ folk dance movement. Recent musical syntheses have featured Americans and Middle Eastern musicians combining flamenco, and the 'ud (the Arabic lute), Moroccan instruments and jazz congas, and so on. Music education has been responsive to these trends, and the students of ethnomusicology are encouraged to gain competence in a loosely defined "world-music" to meet the needs of general education programs in music. As the quest for "authentic" sound continues, audiences and afficionados ask, "Who are the natives?" "Is this truly their 'sound'?" Or sometimes, "Why aren't they the way we imagined?"
Naturally, the process of my investigation led to a questioning of Asmahan's agency as a performer and as a public figure of her era. My colleagues saw my work as being included in the feminist project of recovery and the engendering of history itself. Some scholars have never accepted the validity of these kinds of projects. Even more individuals outside of the academy simply view historical revision as a matter of more subjective (or more objective) detective work. Perhaps the ideas of Hannah Arendt are relevant here; Seyla Benhabib builds on Arendt's work by pointing out that we are all
immersed in "a web of narratives," of which we are both the author and the object. The self is both the teller of tales and that about whom tales are told. The individual with a coherent sense of self identity is the one who succeeds in integrating these tales and perspectives into a meaningful life history.
Asmahan told her tales and her critics told "on" her. The tone of their writings tells its own tale, a story about the formation of popular discourse. I write of her and of myself in the writing. Perhaps I may claim some agency for her, posthumously, and also for myself.
Agency, according to Benhabib, is achieved through the right balance of autonomy and solidarity, or justice and care. Asmahan may indeed have been able to reach the first of these mixtures, "autonomy and solidarity" as far as her artistic persona was concerned but not via her personal life history. Even the former degree of agency is problematic, as it was certainly not Asmahan herself who integrated her stories into a "meaningful life history," but her Arab public, her brothers Fu'ad and Farid, writers concerned with the entertainment industry—and now, myself.
The certitude of her narrative, its believability, is not in the end what mattered the most to those who lived with her through very interesting times. Instead, the narration itself verifies her family's and fans' conception of status and of honor; a discourse about materialism versus nationalism that begins with her mother's exodus to Egypt and makes gender a key determinant. What is evident is that Asmahan was a great singer, but to her Arab community, the claims that she was a princess, a spy, a traitor, a national heroine, or an emotional failure could coexist without dilemma. When details could not be recalled with certitude, they were invented, embellished, and repeated.
The details of her narrative mattered to me—and mattered more strongly than my post-modernist colleagues thought important. "Let her be a symbol!" Or when I toyed with writing a script, "Let her be a bitch!" (The established formula would sell.) Or more cuttingly, "What may I ask, makes you think that you can discover the historical 'truth'?" And, "Surely others have tried and failed." I thought about this for a minute, and realized that some authors had in fact no concern with discovering the historical truth at all.
I gleaned some insights from these exchanges. Perhaps the historians' thirst for accuracy should now be subordinated to the feminists' aim of creating a succession of active transformative symbols? Perhaps my methodology was too outdated, too "male" for history to speak to those in literature or philosophy? Was it too linked to the modernist approach of "inquiry"? No, I decided. Even the image of Asmahan operating in pure self-interest or, worse, in mediocrity would have to be explored, if it might be true.
After focusing for some twenty years on an image the West fears—the Islamists (Muslim fundamentalists) and the language of Islamism, I still hope for the broadening and deepening of cultural portraiture. Communicating the various and shifting currents of Middle Eastern culture is arduous when, as in other aspects of social history, the West assumes it to be static. Yet Asmahan was transitional in a consideration of autonomy, not simply agency. A transitional state implies more than a condition somewhere between Western and Middle Eastern. I was not concerned so much with defining her identity so that Westerners might notice its "difference." Rather, I saw Asmahan as more than an extension of her own history. Benhabib also writes, "The situated and gendered subject is heteronomously determined but still strives toward autonomy." This book concerns the situating and gendering of her life story, and her life story is in turn a part of the process of female and artistic autonomy.
In the Middle East, a whole generation has grown up and is unfamiliar with the period between the world wars, when many in the Middle East experimented with ideas, dreams and occupations never before at tempted in their circles. Students are incredulous when I describe the great changes experienced by women in the region from the 1920s onwards. Some dismiss these pioneering women as elite misfits, or Westernaping do-gooders. They prefer to believe that Middle Eastern women fall into two categories: poor, barefoot, illiterate peasants, or suppressed, urban, would-be professionals. And as for women in music, well, they have read or heard that music, along with pictorial art is suspect, or forbidden (haram) in the Muslim ethos, and they are convinced. They are therefore unfamiliar with several generations of female performers.
Greatest among them, Umm Kulthum, Asmahan's one-time rival is the one exception cited or sometimes known to Westerners. Hers was the Arab voice of the twentieth century, preserved through technology as earlier talents were not—on records, cassettes, and now CDs. Umm Kulthum was born in Egypt's delta and learned to recite and sing religious songs from her father. As she had a remarkably strong voice for a child, she soon became a local attraction to be hired at festivals and weddings. Eventually, she moved with her family to Cairo and embarked upon a tremendous, professional musical career.
Umm Kulthum consciously maintained a circumspect profile, emphasizing her modesty and the Arab-Islamic character of the Egyptian musical tradition. In so doing, she gained public respect as well as adulation. Part of her success in achieving such an untainted reputation may be due to the fact that she was no longer so very young when the gap between her and other female competitors appeared. In her youth, in the 1920s and 1930s, her name was linked with quite a few men, including a member of the royal family, yet rumors concerning these liaisons never overshadowed her achievements. Some wondered why she did not marry until much later in her life (and then to a younger man). In her memoirs she de-emphasized her conflicts with her family and her own good business sense, thus contributing to the picture of a great artist whose mores and family values were shared with her people.
Asmahan, on the other hand, was known only in the Middle East and in certain circles in England, and among emigrants. She was described as a glorious voice, a wanton woman, a daredevil, the mistress of many, and a self-destructive force. A scholar, who wrote of women's participation in many areas of public life, said of Asmahan that "lurid rumors" circulated about her." Raising eyebrows on the one hand, Asmahan was simultaneously described to a more limited readership of musical history as a crucial vehicle for contemporary musical development in the Arab world. Perhaps she was even more essential to this process than her rival, the great singer Umm Kulthum. Her life and times, as well as her artistic contributions represent a flux, fusion, and conflict.
It would be logical to perceive of Asmahan as an unconventional Middle Eastern woman, if one were less familiar with the region in the twentieth century. The Hollywood star system, with its morals clauses and control over marriages and liaisons, might have penalized or hidden some of her antics. Certainly, the denizens of her conservative Syrian Druze town and villages were horrified (thus confirming the West's view of Middle Eastern gender rules). In Egypt, the new opportunities afforded female members of the entertainment industry were not so far out of the range of "normal" female activity as many today would have us believe. Social mores and gender ideology were rigid in the ideal and malleable in practice, as I have tried to show elsewhere.
Umm Kulthum, whose career spanned five decades, followed her family's rules regarding the dress and comportment of a female, first dressing as a boy, and later appearing with her head covered appropriately. However, she also acted outside of the most conservative gender standards. She was an entertainer who convinced her conservative family that she could direct her career independently. She eventually bought out her relatives, a prudent and independent move, and ceased performing with them. She made exceedingly canny business decisions on her own, and adopted the fashionable and more revealing garments of the 1930s and 1940s.
In contrast, Asmahan's family members—male and female—controlled her life and her memory more closely than anyone might have assumed. They interfered financially, politically, artistically, and emotionally with her life. Yet they loved her and believed that their interference and subsequent condemnation of her life style was rational and necessary. A public mythology of "bad" women, and "questionable" women musicians in Arab-Islamic society led to the popular portrait of Asmahan. But, unlike Umm Kulthum who rose up from relative poverty, Asmahan possessed a respected lineage.
Through the intervention of events such as the decline of Ottoman authority, the failure of Faysal and his followers in the Arab revolt (which included Asmahan's Druze family), and the Syrian revolution against the French, the terms of a "normal life" for Asmahan were abruptly changed after her mother's flight to Egypt. In Egypt she was an outsider; she received an education but was as poor as Umm Kulthum in her early days in Cairo, perhaps worse off, since her mother lacked affinal ties. However, her origins in a Syrian notable family eventually provided Asmahan with another option: to live the life of an elite "princess" sheltered away from the entertainment world. When she ultimately rejected a return to "respectability" or appeared to reject it by returning to Egypt and her singing career, she was reviled by her family and Syrian society.
In Egypt, where her Syrian social status was meaningless, 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. Asmahan was seen not as a young woman of a particular historical period, but as a moral and cultural warning to other women. Even when glorified, she was incarcerated in her screen persona as a tragic heroine, a femme fatale. Thus, the aim of this book is to describe the life of this Middle Eastern woman, the highlights of her career, and their meaning in the context of her era.
Gossip, stories, and hearsay formed the basis of much information about Asmahan. Some of the scurrilous nature of this information was unavoidable due to the linkage of entertainment with illicit behavior and
to its origins in hearsay and in the popular media, where music criticism combined promotion with actual critiques and chronicles of the lives of the stars. The star system that emerged in Egypt of the 1940s was the first of its kind in modern entertainment history of the region. Curiosity about these larger-than-life figures sold tickets, magazines, and records. Industry heads knew that journalists could whip up public interest in a star, even if they wrote little of substance.
Slowly, as I studied Asmahan, I realized that the star system and its gossip machine were related to the nature of performance and women's roles in society. While the narratives of Arab men in a rural setting, as Michael Gilsenan has shown us, provide important commentary on status, violence, danger, and heroism, the narratives of these unusual women provided a paradigm that included romance, seduction, punishment, resistance, repression, and sometimes social mobility.
Women, particularly younger women in entertainment, have often been subject to social restrictions in many geographical locations and eras. In the Islamic and Arab context, there are problems with musical performance itself that are compounded when women perform. Music has been held to be dangerous to the faithful for it could unleash passion and sensuality if played skillfully. The pious might forget their prayers, and the not-so-pious might also imbibe alcohol along with their music and spend their money rewarding performers in fits of enthusiasm.
Elite women were gradually set apart from Middle Eastern society due to Byzantine and Sassanian influences upon the growing Arab domain. Ideally, women were to venture from their homes only if suitably covered and chaperoned. Much of the early freedom of Arab tribal women was subsequently restricted. The process of seclusion intensified in certain periods, in urban contexts, and among the elites.
From the Abbasid period onward, elite women or slave women possessed by the wealthy, were the most likely to be trained musically or play an instrument. Elite women musicians included 'Ulayya, the sister of the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, a superior composer who sang and played the 'ud as well. Medieval sources tell us that once her song affected Harun with such tarab (enchantment) that "he drank on it the rest of the day." Music intoxicated the soul. Poets, writers, philosophers, and the 'ulama, the religious scholars, were also competing for the soul.
The harems of the rulers were filled with slave women who might gain free status upon giving birth, so the linkage of elite and slave status is not as unusual as it might sound. A courtesan trained in poetic composition, playing an instrument or singing, commanded a far higher price than an ordinary girl. With her talent she might enrapture her master more thoroughly than with sexual appeal alone. Consequently, music was not only associated with the court but with the courtesan, correctly or incorrectly, for centuries. This was the case not only in the Arab Muslim world, but outside it as well, in India, Afghanistan, and further to the East in the courts of China and Japan.
Islamic law became more conservative in its approaches to women and gender issues, and after the first century of Islam, seclusion from public places was often demanded of most urban elite women, not only those in the royal harems. Although musical performance retained its importance in rites of passage and in Sufi practice, conservative male scholars condemned it as well as female artists, from medieval times to the present. Leila Ahmed explains that Ibn al-Hajj's objections were based on his belief that women's voices are 'awra, "pudendal," as indeed are their whole bodies. Their bodies must not be seen, and their voices should not be heard by unrelated men. He recommended a strict segregation of the sexes and that women stay in their homes. Religious musical practice was frowned on as well. Ibn al-Hajj felt that the singing and practices of the shaykhas (female leaders of religious groups) in his city implied their independence from male guidance, a shocking and un-Islamic state of affairs.
In later years, female performers were suspicious creatures for several reasons. Folk performances by older women were often tolerated; after all, these women were invariably married grandmothers and moth ers and beyond the procreative period. However, musical mourners were occasionally harassed because they made a wage, in money or in kind. Certain cities in the Ottoman empire passed laws against public performances by females. These were intended to allow officials to control the prostitutes in these areas, and to extract taxes from their guilds and those of singers and dancers. Therefore, female public performances came to be associated with prostitution, transvestism (boys dressed as women could perform in public), and lower social status.
In the modern period, when the old Ottoman standards demanding segregated female entertainment were gradually dropped, and the recording industry contemplated the profit potential for female artists, the history of women in the entertainment world remained in the hands of male writers, male agents, male critics. The narratives of female divas were constructed in male voices, and Asmahan's story, such as it was, indeed primarily shaped by men. Most of these men viewed themselves in relationship to Asmahan the woman rather than Asmahan the artist. Whereas a musicologist of our own period, Samim al-Sharif, wrote solely about her musical career and the compositions she sang, those who considered themselves personal biographers often claimed an intense personal proximity to Asmahan. Even her own brother Fu'ad excluded any mention of her musical achievements other than her appearance at the Opera, the titles of her films, and romantic allusions to the lyrics of certain Syrian-inspired songs for which she was known. Could these men really understand the life of a woman of their era, or of their mother's or grandmother's era? And if they understood her, how could they explain her experience given their perceptions of societal norms?
To some degree, Asmahan was sexualized by her fans and her foes. She was aware of this process and responded by acknowledging her femininity, instead of denying it. In doing so, she confirms a trend that Fedwa Malti-Douglas has explored. Malti-Douglas notes the pre-eminence of woman's body as focus from the classical literary corpus into the modern and tells us,
Woman's body is indeed problematic. The medieval Arabic male-generated text assures us of this. The literary narratives deal with this physicality, often permitting the female to participate in the discourse. Yet her speech remains tied to the seductive power of her body.
Malti-Douglas cites many examples of male efforts to equate woman with her body, and women's ability to wittingly subvert their efforts. Women subvert their efforts, speaking a body language that still utilizes a discourse of gender.
We cannot de-gender the female singer. In the middle of the twentieth century, she was never simply an individual, but also, and always, a female body emitting poetic text through song. In the private, segre gated setting of elite functions given by and for women (common in the nineteenth-century Middle East as well as the contemporary Gulf region), the performers' female sexuality remained an important feature of their appeal, though sexual tension was diminished in the absence of men. But, in any other setting the singer had to struggle with history and cultural interpretations of gender as well as musical technique and poetic interpretation in order to be heard.
Syrian or Egyptian?
In one of the awkward moments of my quest for Asmahan, I sat outdoors in the courtyard of an Ottoman Damascene house that had been converted into a restaurant and was frequented by young and progressive diners, mainly on the correct side of the 'Alawi regime. I had agreed to come only at the invitation of an art historian with whom I had crossed paths in Cairo years earlier. A young writer in our group sipped beer while we chatted. After I had explained the general subject of my research, the young man remarked, "Oh, you mean you are working on those Egyptian singers—Farid and Asmahan." "No, no," I responded, "they were Syrian." Somewhat sharply, he retorted, "No, not really. After all, Farid always sang in Egyptian dialect." And our prickly conversation (the subtext of which involved Syrian identity in the present era) moved to the prevalence of Egyptian dialect in lyrics, but also in films, in modern literature, and in the musalsalat (the television soap operas).
Another such moment arrived when I asked Fu'ad al-Atrash, Asmahan's elderly brother who had inherited Farid's and Asmahan's estates, if I could speak to him about "Asmahan." He corrected me loudly (his hearing after all reflecting his ninety-three years) saying, "You mean you want to speak about the Princess Amal al-Atrash!" Yes, I had forgotten to employ her title, Princess. The contemporary Turshan (the collective form of the al-Atrash family name) in the Jabal Druze never spoke of her in this way, for her "title" belonged to her husband and had passed on to a younger relative, Salim of al-'Era. The "Princess" ironically owned a private name, Amal, which was never the property of the masses who idolized her pretty face.
Asmahan experienced a number of repercussions from her dual identity. Her family fled her homeland, Syria, and she grew so accustomed to Cairo that she longed for it after her marriage and return to Syria. She understood that options were open to her in Egypt, as a familiar stranger, that Druze identity in Syria would prohibit. Yet she was proud of her origins and patriotic enough to sacrifice her ambitions and her musical ranking in a time of crisis when she believed "her people" needed her. The other side of her patriotism was to her adopted country, Egypt. That loyalty is hard to measure, since she and other singers were dependent upon the Egyptian elites, as were the recording studios. They were required to sing songs of praise for the king and his line and other songs with republican themes. Arabic poetry and song have long possessed this specific genre, panegyrics—or art in the service of empire.
Egyptian officials harassed her during the war, particularly so after Hassanayn Pasha, King Faruq's former tutor and chamberlain, became personally interested in her, and that interest became known outside the Palace. Syrians insist that Queen Nazli hated Asmahan, and one presumes some trickle-down to various officials. She fought deportation after the passage of new laws controlling foreign nationals. Some of her fans and foes were certain that she married twice simply to remain in Egypt. Those who understood what an affront it was for a Druze woman to marry outside of her community had reason to emphasize this point more emphatically than writers or fans who attached little importance to her origins.
The film industry exploited Asmahan's foreign allure in the creation of her film persona. That strange amalgamation of Eastern beauty in Western packaging persists; indeed, a large proportion of young Egyptians actively aspire to a "Western" look. Her exterior, her beauty, was an essential part of the artist, but journalists also enjoyed her impulsive behavior, since it allowed them to manipulate her image into the mold of the ultramodern daring female.
How did Asmahan feel about all this? One suspects from her remarks that she resented the rather rigid social stratification in Egypt—except when it worked to her advantage. Here is the pitfall of the artist to this day: reliance upon a public and a social system that she or he must work assiduously to cultivate. The put-downs, the drunken catcalls, the requests for banal songs, the whispers must all be ignored. The entertainer strives to hit the right balance in treating fans as close friends, but not so intimately as to exclude the making of new and potentially generous friends.
Those who had a more cynical view of her felt that this whole process had hardened her and made her fixated upon success. And if it were not success she sought, then influence, and expensive clothes, and perfumes, and accolades from those who mattered.
Another problem in understanding Asmahan's position concerns a flattening of the Middle Eastern experience into a monolith. Sources did not differentiate the Levantine perspective from the Egyptian. A siz able Syrian community had contributed to intellectual activity and commerce in Egypt with a primary wave of immigration taking place from 1730 to 1780, and with a second wave entering from the 1850s until the onset of World War I. Syrian importance in business and trade continued, as did a myth that Syrians arrived hungry, enriched themselves at the Egyptians' expense, and then stayed aloof from them.
There were proportionally a large number of Syrian Christians in entertainment and among instrument makers (although Muslims actually dominated both industries). The al-Atrash family was distinct, of course, as Druzes (not Christians), but during their early years in Egypt, 'Alia (Asmahan's mother) concealed the family's Druze identity in order to enroll her sons in a Catholic school. Unlike some other Syrians, 'Alia apparently did not apply for Egyptian citizenship under Law 19 of 1929, nor did Asmahan herself.
Egyptians downplayed Asmahan's other world, as a Druze from a respected lineage, except to glamorize her. They knew little about that world, as the Syrians knew relatively little about theirs. Few Egyptians were very familiar with Syrian musical tradition or even the specificity of Syrian politics. The traditions of a provincial and unfamiliar area had noresonance in Cairo, thus the particularly shami (Eastern Arab) aspects of Asmahan's heritage were not considered by most Egyptian sources.
Other emigrants from Syria mentioned various problems of discrimination and competitiveness in the Egypt of Asmahan's lifetime. Legal, political, and economic considerations had reshaped the Egyptian view of Syrians. The development of a specifically Egyptian consciousness and national goals alienated Syrian supporters of an Ottoman revival or an Arab-Ottoman solution. It also disturbed Arab nationalists who would eventually propose actions of Arab unity. The events of World War I temporarily slowed down immigration, although there was a wave of migration at the end of the War due to harsh conditions and famine. Most Syrians were or became Egyptian citizens, but their status was less and less certain after World War II. After the Revolution of 1952, some with large commercial and land holdings were attacked as "foreigners" and faced sequestrations, exile, and difficult years until a lengthy reparation process was eventually initiated.
Some of these problems are rooted in foreign commercial exploitation of the Egyptian markets; the entertainment industry was after all merely another marketplace. Many immigrants did very well for them selves in Egypt. Other Eastern musicians and artists preceded and followed Asmahan to Egypt. Among them were Shafiq Shabib (1897-1982), Jamil 'Uways (1890-1955), Mary Jibran (1911-1952), and Fayza Ahmad (1934-1981). It was not so much the provincial climate of Syria, but Egypt's position as music maker and cinema producer for the region that determined this migratory pattern. Music was important but less commercially significant in Syria, and Syro-Lebanese music was unimportant commercially in Egypt (with the possible exception of the Lebanese singer Fairuz many years later). Also, the Turshan were not the only link between nationalism and entertainment. Which Egyptian knew that the nationalist leader Fakhri al-Barudi was an ardent musician and supporter of Arabic music? And that he had established an Institute for Syrian Oriental Music with Tawfiq al-Sabagh in 1928, which the French had closed? On the other hand, Syrians knew relatively little about Egyptian entertainers and their world apart from their recordings and films. However, Egypt was the dominant figure in this relationship, and ambitious Syrian entertainers considered going to Cairo unless their music catered to local patronage. When, because of political tensions, the borders became less permeable, some, like the great Syrian singing star of the traditional Aleppine style, Sabah Fakhri, chose not to pursue a career centered in Cairo.
Those who moved to Egypt found the competitive environment challenging and troubling. Much has been made of Asmahan's and Farid's struggles as outsiders. Were these the insecurities of the immigrant speak ing, or sensitivity to a social dynamic that restricted the mobility of certain social classes?
Mervat Hatem has discussed the interaction of European, EgyptianLevantine, and Egyptian women in the era before Asmahan's arrival in Egypt.' But given the fact that Asmahan and her family came from the East, one might also consider the conservative Levantine perspective of Egypt and of the entertainment world there. Syria was somewhat more rigid than Egypt of the late 1920s and 1930s. Women's entry into public life, as with the symbolic discarding of the Ottoman veil, was delayed there until after World War II. The Druze were not the only conservative community in Syria; Damascenes prided themselves on their control over their women, and the men of Hama and Homs were stricter still. A young girl in Hashim al-Atassi's family whose honor was blemished was assassinated by her brother in 1934. And in the same summer there was an uproar over special soirées arranged for women at the movie theaters in Damascus and in Hama. When the mutasharrif of Hama followed the Damascene lead and decided to issue an edict permitting film showings with female attendance, forty religious leaders and merchants tried to force the mutasharrif to back down and pressured him and the French with a strike in the market. When the next soirée was held in Damascus, only French intervention prevented a riot. The distribution of Egyptian films was further complicated by the public appearances of unassailable elite women as well as the cinematic appearances of suspect females—actresses and singers. Although Egyptians often confused the social mores of Syria with those of Beirut, to conservative Syrians urban Egypt represented the veritable "flesh pots" of the region.
On the other hand, it was commonly believed in Egypt that the members of the entertainment class were Levantines, and Jews and Christians more often than not. In a review of early female singers, Danielson points out that most were in fact native Muslim Egyptians, though the public liked to think they were "foreign" and unbelievers. A popular stereotype existed of the mustachioed, shami club owner, or entrepreneur, who took advantage of his female stars (as depicted by the great comedian Bishara Wakim in Asmahan's first film, Intisar al-Shabab (The Triumph of Youth, 1941). Perhaps economic competition is too simple an explanation for these reflexive stereotypes. Instead, we may wish to remember Egypt's historical ventures into Syria and vice-versa. Whether for commercial or strategic reasons, or both, these exchanges took place for centuries. We can think of the invasions of the Hyksos under the Fatimids, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, the Mamluks, Ibrahim Pasha, and more recently, the failed Nasserist union with Syria from 1958-1961.
In the early decades of the century, national identity was being transformed, and at the same time the dream of Arab unity was conceived and longed for, from Faysal's movement onward. Differences could si multaneously be accentuated or downplayed. And the mandate powers had a hand in fundamentally splitting the Syrian-Egyptian dynamic.
To Asmahan's Syrian relatives, her Egyptian years were the result of fate and cruel circumstances that had foiled Syrian nationalists' dreams. Though they claimed ownership of this lively woman and her past, they admitted that she was unlike any normal Druze bride of her era. The stimulating aspects of life in faraway Egypt were subordinated to an imagined country filled with beggars, temptations, and imminent calamities. Syrian entertainers who had ventured into the musical field in Egypt confirmed the cutthroat games and machinations there and the vices (like alcohol and drugs) bedeviling those who weren't up to the struggle. So, it was difficult for some of the Syrian Druze to imagine a daughter, a niece, or a cousin who felt at home in the burgeoning, heterogeneous Egyptian social scene. The clearly-defined confessionalism (divisions according to religious origins) of the Syrian countryside did not operate in Egypt, and could not prevent that niece, daughter or cousin from associating with all sorts of people and ideas.
Of course, other members of her own family had more contact with Egypt, visiting, studying, living in the country in the 1950s and later. These relatives included her uncle 'Abdullah al Attrache, a well-read political figure who declaimed in rhymed fusha and quoted passages from memory from Patrick Seale's book on Syria; his wife Mimi, dressed in authentic Druze garb, who could speak in Egyptian dialect; Munir, Asmahan's halfbrother who provided many important details of her story; and fellow Druze, the late Fahd Ballan who happened to be in the Jabal at that time. These individuals viewed Egypt as having been the intellectual and cultural capital of the Arab world, and had no difficulty identifying Asmahan's entrancement with the world she found there.
But for other members of the family and the Syrian public in general, the centrality of Egypt was less clear. In contemporary Syria, curious perceptions of Egypt, past and present, appeared in the media and interacted with political tensions between the two countries. Television broadcasted "Egyptian" soaps not of the highest quality and other series which used an imagined Egypt for a backdrop. Characters wore hilarious "Egyptian" costumes and spoke in Syrian-inflected Egyptian Arabic. The primitive Sa'idi of Upper Egypt was of more interest than the urban and urbane professional.
The essence of Syria was even less known in Cairo; the two countries, after the end of the Union in 1961 moved gradually toward very different political stances, regionally and domestically, in the 1970s. Egypt opened to the world, while Syria remained closed for many years. Also, whereas Egyptians once summered in Lebanon and sometimes visited Damascus by train or car, political divisions and then the Lebanese Civil War stopped tourist interchange. Rising costs and visa difficulties continued to make travel out of reach for many in the region. The interchangeable "Arab" coloring of the region—its music and its attitudes—was more asserted than observable.
The Shocking Diva
Later in her life, sensational aspects of Asmahan's story were released willy-nilly to the public. Her status as a divorcée gave rise to many rumors about her amorous attachments. She reputedly drank, gambled, and "lived high" when she had the means. Most intriguing were the stories about her patrons and friends and their political import.
Asmahan's involvement in the Allied and Axis activities is one reason for her special place in public memory. That public memory has neither checked the "facts" nor ascertained their meaning. Nor did many otherwise responsible chroniclers of the period. One meaning of Asmahan's adventure relates to her patriotism. Another may have had to do with greed combined with adventurism. Egyptian patriots were not inclined toward the British during the war, since the British were impeding their movement toward full autonomy. But the Syrian Druze appraisal of Allied forces, coming from their own experience and the Vichy occupation, was quite different. Asmahan played her part in the events of World War II as an effort on behalf of her country, Syria. I thought these accounts deserved some scrutiny, considering the part they represented in her public image and in her dual and unclear loyalties. For when Asmahan sang of her emotional ties, she sang of her Druze townspeople, but when asked to sing of cultural patriotism and love, she sang of Egypt.
Asmahan's story may tell us a good deal more than the facts of a particular life. Did she understand the ways in which she reflected society? Did she understand the manner in which she took on the attributes of her screen persona, Nadia, heroine of Intisar al-Shabab? Throughout his musical and cinematic career, her brother Farid mirrored the tale of his screen persona, Wahid (which signifies "the lonely one"). His sister was likewise an immigrant, a singer with a brave but fatalistic nature. Her screen persona is both alien and alienated, though her biography insinuates that she was happier in her Egyptian incarnation than in her Syrian homeland.
Her story illuminates Middle Eastern perceptions of sexuality, power, patronage, and entertainment, and how these views developed in the 1930s and early 1940s. Her career experience took place in the context of rising nationalisms and frustrations. Tensions between the West and the East, and between the social classes reverberate in her own epic. The curious collision of honor and fame, of mobility and convention, continue as we consider the woman, her music, and a world war.
Fifty-odd years after her death, it is the sound of her vocal skill that remains, recorded in a whispering approximation of her powerful talent. It is the suggestive sound of her offstage personality that resounds in the minds of those who remember her fame (or infamy) in an era that transported Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner to the East, and encapsulated Asmahan within a debate about female comportment.
Some of that debate is created by the voices of Asmahan's own family, acquaintances, or biographers, and I have commented on the tone of these sources through translations of biographical materials, or interview material. The Turshan, Asmahan's own family, understood the popular appeal but objected to certain aspects of Asmahan's public coverage. I cannot thank them sufficiently for their graciousness, and for sensing an opportunity (in my interest) to correct, or at least question some of the details of her life, and to reconsider her importance as an artist. They will no doubt disagree with many of my own conclusions; and that is, in my opinion, a beneficial aspect of our differing perceptions.
The writing style of the journalists who "covered" Asmahan is romantic, chatty, familiar, and quite different than the approach taken by Western biographers or academics, although each genre aims to locate and claim particular facts in the lives of individuals. I referred to other biographies and autobiographies of women in the arts: Martha Graham, Lotte Lehmann, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe, and Nadia Boulanger. I looked also at academic biographies of Middle Eastern figures to learn how these historical figures were represented, in contrast to the popular or journalistic materials available in Arabic written since the late 1940s concerning Asmahan. I found that scholars describing Middle Eastern characters and Boulanger's biographer dealt with lineage and social placement to describe the social setting of a historical figure, and also as a key device underscoring the weight of family ties. This key focus in the biographical materials of the Arab world does not always involve the psychological interactions of the family, as is more often the case in Western materials. The overwhelming emphasis on questions of honor and gender, as opposed to a more abstract treatment of sexuality in entertainment, is also a major divergence when one compares the Middle Eastern and Western conceptions of women in the public eye.
Let us therefore consider Asmahan's life as the convergence of many sources, a narrative that could itself be set to music and provide important and familiar moral observations, or performed as a song with theme and variations.