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Farid Al Atrash
 (1915-1974)

 

Farid ibn Fahd ibn Farhan ibn Ibrahim ibn Ismacil ibn Muhammad al-Atrash, a native of Syria, emigrated to Egypt in 1924 with his mother, ‘Alia al-Mundhir and siblings, Fu’ad and Amal.  He became one of the best-known Arab male solo performers and composers of the twentieth century.   His renown, as a singer, composer, and ‘awwadi (lutist) was so widespread that to Arabs cognizant of their musical tradition, the mere mention of his given name “Farid” is still sufficient to signal this musical giant and his accomplishments.  His sobriquet was “amir al-‘ud” (prince of the Arab lute).  While his sister, Amal, a highly accomplished vocalist gained fame under the stage-name, Asmahan, she died relatively young, and Farid’s musical career continued for another thirty years.

       As with many individuals born early in the twentieth century, the sources disagree on the year and place of Farid’s birth.  He was born on ‘Id al-Adha in 1915, but other dates are given, 1910 or 1911that do not reconcile with details of his family’s history.    One Egyptian source writes that he was born in “a village,” probably a misunderstanding of the small town al-Qrayya in the Jabal Druze, although his father came from the Suwayda’ branch of the Druze al-Atrash clan, and they may have been residing there at that time.  The Turshan were a prominent clan of the Druze, and Farid’s famous cousin, Sultan al-Atrash was a leader of the 1925 revolution against the French. 

            Farid, starred in thirty-one films, producing nine of them, and succeeded shaping a positive image for the Arab male romantic protagonist in such musical productions.  This formula paved the way for other artists, notably, cAbd al-Halim Hafiz.  His productions and subsequent films emphasized Farid’s commitment to his “art” – that music was not merely a trade, it was an avocation.  He and his orchestra members performed in tuxedos in elegant, modern settings.  As for his musical output, over three hundred compositions exist, including, it is said, a (missing) anthem for the Palestinian nation.    His recordings were made with Sono Cairo and Cairophone/Graphophone of Greece.  Some of these have been re-recorded on audiotape or CD.   The musical notation of many of these compositions was copied and included in two volumes by Jabaqji. 

       If Farid had grown up in the home area of his clan, he might not have become such an  influential figure in entertainment.    A musical career, earlier in the twentieth century could carry a certain stigma, though it is true that many members of the elite composed both poetry and music at that time – for example, Fakhri al-Barudi.  

         Farid, however, was separated from the traditional life-style of his father’s family, and encountered harsh circumstances in Cairo.   Perhaps for this reason, the characters he played in film, reflected a novel avenue for ambitious and talented men -- success born of inherent talent and hard work.

         His father, Fahd was educated in Istanbul, and after a first marriage to Tarfah al-Atrash in 1905, he “eloped” with his mother cAlia of Hasbayeh (now part of  Lebanon)  in  about 1910 according to living family members.  Some have said that his father served as a  qa'im maqam either in the Jabal or elsewhere, and one source has it that Fahd was posted to Dmeirji in Anatolia, as a "governor"), leaving only during the fighting between the Greeks and the Turkish forces.  Eventually he served as a qadi in Suwaida, the provincial capital of the Jabal Druze.   Some journalistic sources wrote that Fahd was artistically inclined, but most attribute musicality to Farid's mother ‘Alia, who sang and played the ‘ud, and made several recordings after fleeing the Jabal for Cairo.   She apparently left the region, out of fear during the French bombardments that followed the Adham Khanjar incident.  There were also apparently marital tensions.  When ‘Alia refused to return from Egypt to the Jabal, Fahd divorced her, and remarried.       

            Of the five children born to cAlia, two died in early childhood, and she was apparently  very protective of Farid in consequence, locking him in the house on occasion when he was a youngster.   Without family support or funds in Cairo, ‘Alia made ends meet by sewing, doing laundry and  singing at private parties.  She masked her sons’ identities using a false name, Kusa (zucchini) for their school enrollment.  She had obtained tuition assistance at their parochial school, and was afraid that she might lose this if her real identity was known.  That was because Sultan al-Atrash’s name had appeared in the Egyptian newspapers as a leader of the Revolution.  

        At this school, Farid sang in the choir, which exposed him to the repertoire of Western sacred music as well as religious songs in Arabic.   One story that explains the lamenting tone in Farid al-Atrash’s voice, credits this to the choir director who told Farid that he needed to sing more expressively.  Muhammad abd al-Wahhab, however, wrote that the lamenting quality of Farid’s voice was a feature of his vocal production.  Some of the Egyptian critics disliked Farid’s vocal timbre, but it should be noted that this tonal quality, breathy, and slightly nasal, was one of the Syro-Lebanese aesthetics for male voices, especially in folk genres

        Many stories about the poverty of the family exist; some may be apocryphal.   Farid is supposed to have lingered at a coffee shop to hear a favorite recording being played.  An attendant dumped cold water on him to chase him away, and after sleeping in his wet clothes he became ill with fever, wrapping himself with newspaper to ease the chills.   His sister, Amal, apparently gave the rent money away one month, leading to near disaster.   Farid’s early experiences as a poor and fatherless émigré probably spurred him on to strive for professional success, and material comforts. 

            Farid's talent was discovered by talented musicians who had become family friends.   Some stories credit  Farid Ghusn, others Riyad al-Sunbati, the composer, or Madhat 'Assim, pianist, composer, and director of the Egyptian Radio.[i]        Farid became a member of the Nadi al-Musiqa al-Sharqi (the Oriental Music Club).  This group helped to support the formation of the Macahad al-Musiqa (the Music Institute) in Cairo.   In these years, Farid was greatly overshadowed by other talents, like the composer Muhammad cabd al-Wahhab, and there was even more interest in his sister, Asmahan as a performer than in his own potential.

            His first true job was as an instrumentalist in the orchestra that supported his sister, at Mary Mansur's salon -- a nightclub.  He was later hired by Badica Masabni, an entrepreneur and promoter of new talent in Cairo, and as a member of the orchestra of Ibrahim Hamudah.  When his sister Asmahan left Egypt to marry Hasan al-Atrash back in Syria, Farid continued working as a musician in other ensembles.  He composed songs, among his earliest hits were  “Ya Zahratan fi Khayali” and “Ya Raytni Tayr" Through performances and broadcasts on the Egyptian Radio and he began to make a name for himself.    His weekly salary was only four Egyptian pounds.  Then,  after his debut in cinema, he began to obtain higher fees, and eventually he became a wealthy man.  

            His distributor, (also a producer) Aziz Sadiq, urged him to team up with his sister again, when she returned to performing life in Egypt in the late 1930s.   Farid’s appearance as co-star in  Asmahan's first film, Intisar al-Shabab (The Triumph of Youth, 1941) was crucial to his subsequent renown, because of its success, but also since he composed the film's songs.  The film mirrors Farid and Asmahan’s own biographies, as young émigrés seeking fame and fortune in Egypt.   The lead character, a composer and singer, is named Wahid (the lonely one) a name that Farid would return to in other films. 

         The film’s songs  "Yali Hawak Shaaghil Baali" (lyrics, Ahmad Rami),  "Ya Layali al-Bashar" (Yusuf Badrus) and "Kana Li Amal" (Ahmad Rami),  "Ya Badca al-Ward" (Hilmy al-Hakim) "Idi fi Idak (Ahmad Rami) and "Shams Ghabit Anwarha" (Ahmad Rami) became popular.  Viewers were thrilled with the young Farid singing to his lady-love over the telephone and with the beauty and talent of his sister, Asmahan. 

         Brother and sister apparently fought constantly during the film’s production.  Asmahan married the film’s director, Ahmad Badr Khan, but older brother Fu’ad vowed to break it up, and succeeded.  Farid tried stay neutral, but his sister then left Cairo, suddenly as part of a British-concocted plot to warn the Druze of an invasion.  He remained, but wrote a beautiful song for his sister in that year, "Rajacat Laka."

            Farid’s compositional talents enlivened the film Gharam wa Intiqam  in the songs, “Layali al-Ans fi Fienna,” “Ana Ahwa,” (and in setting the mawwal) "Ya Dairati Malak 'Alaina Lawm,” which commemorates Syrian, and Druze bravery. 

         When his sister died in an automobile accident in 1944, Farid was devastated.   Subsequently, he sought another singing star to perform with, and two comedies with the singer Nur al-Huda resulted.    He gambled on the importance of cinema, deciding to produce and star in his own film, and showcasing the graceful dancer, Samia Gamal.    Following these films, which were enormous commercial successes, Farid performed in many others.  Perhaps the best-known was Lahn al-Khulud, directed by Henri Barakat and co-starring the young Fatin Hammama. 

         Farid’s mastery of the ‘ud and his compositional genius were praised by his peers.  In my opinion, one reason for his popularity was his incorporation of folk melodies and popular themes along with classical forms.  Secondly, his songs contained multiple sections with changes in rhythm and color.   Thirdly, many of pieces sounded lively and full  whether played by a small group of performers, or a full-sized orchestra.   While his “Sa’alni Layl” is an example of lawn tarab, the theme song from the film “Lahn al-Khulud” is modernist and shows Western influences.  Most Farid fans are enamored with the lyrics of his songs, which address the turbulent emotions of the lover, as well as the music, as in “Awwal Hamsah.” And, although some of his vocal performances could not be matched by lesser singers, they could replicate some of his popular songs like "Ya Habaybi Ya Ghayibin," "Gamil Gamal,"  "Nura ya Nur" "Ya Gamil[i] Ya Gamil," "Ala Bali" "Habbina," "It[q]al, It[q]al" "Hizzi Ya Nawacim", or “Wayak.”  His compositions for dancers like “Raqsat Gamal,” "Tutah," “Zanubah,” and "Zainah” also live on in contemporary repertoire.  No Arab wedding is complete without a rendition of his "Zaffat al-cArusah" (also known as "Du[qq[uh al-Mazahir") still played as a processional.   Other pieces were particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s before the dream of Arab nationalism began to fade.  For instance, “Busat al-Rih” is really an anthem to pan-Arabism, and Farid elicited wild responses from his audiences in performances of this song.    I have written elsewhere of Farid that, he was an innovator in the broader struggle between taqlid (imitation of past forms) and tajdid (renewal) in the arts.[1]  And like Muhammad cAbd al-Wahhab, he was also a brilliant borrower and adaptor of musical ideas.  

            Farid did suffer from some competitive aspects of the entertainment world.  Although his songs were performed by many great singers, Umm Kulthum rejected a piece that he wrote for her, and any collaboration with him.   As if to memorialize this disappointment, and because this song showcased his skills, he used to perform this song, “Al-Rabica” on a yearly basis. 

         The gossip columnists wrote a great deal about Farid’s failure to marry.  This was a part of his cinematic image;  and he often claimed that he had married his art.   He came close to marrying Samia Gamal, Najat ‘Ali, and Shadia, and at the end of his life, he was romantically linked to Salwa al-Qudsi.   Gossip had it that his break-up with Samia Gamal was stormy, and caused by her involvement with King Farouk.  However, others speculated that he waited too long to ask her, and then she feared he would not accept her.  It seems that he also wavered over a marriage with Shadia, but procrastinated, and in the meantime she married Imad Hamdi.  There were also family pressures that the public may not have been aware of.  Farid’s Druze relatives followed tradition in marrying others from their own family.    Asmahan and Fouad were pressured, or agreed to marry relatives.   It is also said that Farid, aware of his cardiac condition, did not want to marry and leave his wife a widow. 

             Farid, having created the role of a modern movie and musical star, lived a glamorous life, and gambling was one of his pastimes.   Among his best-known photographic images is a shot by the renowned Van Leo (Levon Alexander Boyadjian).  He was probably the most famous resident of the Lebon building in Zamalek, designed by architect Antoine Selim Nahhas.  Farid later commissioned  Nahhas to build a similar style modern apartment building for him in Giza, facing the Nile. 

         It seems that his career shifted after the collapse of the union between Egypt and Syria (glorified in his song “Min al-Muski ila al-Suq al-Hamidiyya”).  At that historical moment, Farid was a natural representative of Egyptian-Syrian harmony, and he visited his family and home region.  Later on when nationalizations began in Egypt, and strong propaganda and specific actions against the Levantine and other foreign (Italian, Maltese, Greek, etc.) communities forced them into exile, Farid’s position became more difficult.  Although a much more experienced performer than the young singing star ‘Abd al-Halim Hafez, the latter could claim a “native” and very humble Egyptian background.  By then,  Farid had already established a second base in Lebanon, and performed in regional tours, and at parties and concerts, often outside of Egypt. 

        He died on Thursday, the 26 of Kanun al-Awal (December), 1974 in a Beirut hospital. A death ceremony took place in Suwaida, although like his sister, Asmahan, Farid had pre-planned his burial in Cairo.   Some inaccurate reports claimed that the Druze refused to bury him "on their mountain," the implication being that it was dishonorable for him to have been an entertainer.   Recent Egyptian writings on  Farid al-Atrash once again disparage his vocal talents, failing to mention his other musical achievements, and claim that he is totally out of fashion today.  The true fans of Arabic music know better.  Farid al-Atrash, like Umm Kulthum will never go out of style. 


 

[1] Zuhur, Colors of Enchantment:  Theater, Dance, Music and Visual Arts of the Middle East (Cairo and New York:  American University in Cairo Press, 2001). 


 

[i]al-Sharif, 1981 and in interview, and Sahhab, al-Sabac, 274

Biography by Dr. Sherifa Zuhur

 

 

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