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Asmahan
(1912-1944)

Amal al-Atrash was born and raised to a notable family in the Druze Mountain. Her father died in 1924 and she was left in the care of her mother, Princess Alia. In July 1925, a military uprising took place against the French Mandate in Syria, launched from the mountain by her uncle Sultan al-Atrash. Many members of the Atrash family fled from Syria to avoid persecution by French authorities. Her mother went to Egypt where in order to earn a living, she began to sing with her daughter Amal. In 1936, Amal started working at local nightclubs with her brother Farid al-Atrash, a saloon crooner who was rising to stardom in Egypt. The lady Atrash changed her name to Asmahan, a catchy yet classy art name, and like Farid, became an instant success. She was young, beautiful, had a strong voice, and a very confident performance. She attracted the attention of the royal family in Cairo, most notably King Farouk, who endorsed her career. By the mid-1930s, Asmahan was performing before international dignitaries and was a popular name in Egypt. In 1937, she recorded her first song Aleik Salat Allah (For you is the prayer of God), which her brother composed for the film Al-Mahfal al-Sharif (The Holy Lodge). In 1941, she quit her career to marry the Druze chief Prince Hasan al-Atrash, who had been her husband in the 1930s, but they divorced, and she returned to Cairo to devote her life to singing.

 

In the 1940s, Asmahan performed her masterpiece Ya Habibi Ta'ala Lhakni (My Love Come Follow Me) and earned a wide audience in the Arab world. The Egyptian diva Um Kalthum tried to obstruct her career because she felt threatened by her dramatic rise to fame. Asmahan collaborated with renowned Egyptian composers like Mohammad al-Qassabji and Mohammad Abd al-Wahab, who composed the tune to her operetta Majnoun Layla (Layla Fanatic) in the film Yawm Sa’id (Happy Day). Abd al-Wahab also composed the classic song Layali al-Uns fi Vienna (Nights of Companionship in Vienna). In 1942, she started to co-star with her brother Farid in Egyptian feature films like Intisar al-Shabab (Victory of Youth) and Gharam Wa Intikam (Love and Revenge). Asmahan died in a car accident when her car crashed into a water-filled ditch and drowned on July 14, 1944. During the years 1935-1940, the young star made more enemies than friends in Egypt. Um Kalthum and other Egyptian singers lobbied to bring her down, claiming that she was not an Egyptian performer, and belonged in Syria. Asmahan developed a serious drinking problem towards the end of her life and was often short of money. According to one of her biographers Sa’id al-Jaza’iri, who wrote the book Asmahan in 1990, she lost her desire to perform on stage, believing that she was too noble to work as a saloon artist. Jaza'iri adds that reportedly, towards the end of her life, Asmahan worked with the British Intelligence during World War II. Using her connections in the Druze Mountain, she even facilitated the entry of Allied forces into Syria, through the mountain, to expel the pro-German regime of General Henri Dentz. Some biographers of Asmahan argue that she was not a regular employee but got paid for one mission, which was to warn her family in the Druze Mountain from the Anglo-British invasion of Syria. She was also involved in a relationship with Hasanein Pasha, a prominent royal in King Farouk’s Egypt. In future years, when World War II ended, the Arab media accused her of channeling information on the daily lives of Arab officials to British Intelligence. Despite the numerous rumors regarding her death, Asmahan is still regarded as one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. She is an established symbol of glamour and intrigue in the Arab World and a legend in modern Arabic music


 

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