Page 2 of 2 The saga of the rebel princess
By Sami Moubayed
Mountain in Syria. Hasan al-Atrash, who had previously married, fell madly in
love with her and agreed to all of her conditions, which were: refusal to wear
the veil, to live in Damascus rather than the Druze Mountain, as well as to
spend winters in Cairo with her mother and brothers. His only condition was
that she give up her singing career, which she did. She lived with Hasan
al-Atrash for six years, but longed for the artistic life she once enjoyed in
She eventually left Damascus and went to live in Suwayda, the capital of the
Druze Mountain. Asmahan drank a lot and gambled frequently, causing disgrace at
times for the conservative and notable Atrash family in Syria. They preferred
to see her as a
princess rather than a singer that everyone knew and loved. Despite the Atrash
family's attempts at protecting her and dislocating her from fame, Asmahan
eventually began to despise married life. She pressured Hasan al-Atrash into a
divorce and returned to Cairo where she recorded her classic operetta Majnoun
Layla in 1940.
Also in 1940, she made the movie Intisar al-Shabab (Victory of Youth)
with her brother Farid al-Atrash. It was directed by the prominent director
Ahmad Badr Khan and starred Mary Munir, Thuraya Fakhri and Samia Gamal, the
dancer and future mistress of her brother Farid. The movie, which became a
classic in Egyptian cinema, mirrored real life for Asmahan and Farid al-Atrash.
In it, she plays a girl called Nadia, who comes with her brother Wahid (Farid)
to Egypt in search of fame and stardom.
They find employment at a nightclub in Cairo where Nadia becomes popular due to
her face and figure. When asked to engage with a rich customer, she refuses and
is fired by the nightclub manager. The rich man feels sorry for her and guilty
for her unemployment, inviting her to sing at his villa then proposing to marry
her. His mother objects to the marriage, saying that she will not have a singer
in the family, and forces Nadia to leave the house. She returns to sing with
Wahid, who makes it big in show business (just as Farid did in real life).
After the movie, she made headlines in the Cairo press for her romance with the
director Ahmad Badr Khan, and even married him briefly for 40 days.
In May 1941, Asmahan got involved in politics through her connections with the
Allies, who were striving to liberate Syria from the pro-Vichy regime of
General Henri Dentz. Contrary to what was written in many Arabic books, there
was no spying involved. However, Asmahan was asked to go to Syria on the behalf
of the Allies to speak with the Druze leaders and obtain a promise from them to
facilitate the entry of the Allied forces to Syria. As a member of the Atrash
family, the Allies believed, she would be able to convince prominent Druze
leaders of their cause, like Sultan al-Atrash, Abd al-Ghaffar al-Atrash and her
They were asked to resist the Vichy forces that were opposed to the Allies and
prevent reinforcements coming to the Druze Mountain. Hasan agreed to her
request but conditioned that she marry him once again, which she accepted. Some
claimed that she was rewarded with 40,000 pounds (roughly US$72,000) for her
service to the Allies, but there is no evidence in any of the sources on her
life, or the British documents on the period, to show that she actually
received money for the mission. Her family later claimed that she worked with
the Allies out of patriotism, believing that this would advance the cause of
As planned, the Druze leaders permitted the Allies to move into the Syrian
heartland, and they managed to expel the Vichy forces from Syria. While staying
at the Orient Palace Hotel in Damascus, Asmahan received death threats from
unknown people, who were believed to be pro-Vichy Druze. She escaped by night
on horseback, leaving her luggage behind. She disguised herself as a male
horseman and rode all the way to the Syrian-Palestinian border.
There, she used documents given to her by the British and crossed into
Palestine, where the Allies protected her. Edward Spears, the British
ambassador to Syria, expressed intense admiration for Asmahan saying: "She was
and will always be to me one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Her
eyes were immense, green as the color of the sea you have to cross on the way
After the invasion, she returned to Damascus where she paraded through the
streets with her husband Hasan and sat behind General Charles de Gaulle during
the celebrations held when he visited Syria and promised independence. Her
husband was rewarded for his service by becoming minister of war in the cabinet
of prime minister Husni al-Barazi in 1942.
The Free French reneged on their promise of independence and a disgruntled
Asmahan shifted her allegiance to the Nazis in revenge. She boarded a train and
headed to Ankara, where she wanted to meet Franz von Papen, Hitler's ambassador
to Turkey and master of Nazi espionage in the Middle East. British officials at
the border refused to let her pass, and she was deported to Beirut, where she
would be unable to cause them any harm nor contact the Nazis.
She began to want financial freedom and divorced Hasan once again, heading to
Jerusalem. She then married Ahmad Salim, an Egyptian, to return to Egypt
because authorities refused to give her a visa due to her attempted
collaboration with the Nazis. Once back in Cairo, she began work on her last
film Gharam wa Intikam with Yusuf Wehbi, but died before it was
completed. In it, she sang her classic Layali al-Uns fi Vienna that
Mohammad Abd al-Wahab composed. Asmahan died when her car crashed into a
water-filled ditch and she drowned, on July 14, 1944.
As the car was falling into the ditch, the driver jumped out and Asmahan tried
to grab the wheel, but failed to rescue herself or a friend who was with her.
It was generally believed that she was killed by one of the many enemies that
she made in Egypt during the years 1939-1941. 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
Lawrence of Arabia, another legendary figure from the 20th century, once said
that all people dream, but not equally. "Those who dream by night in the dusty
recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the
dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open
eyes, to make it possible."
The high approval ratings of the 2008 series Asmahan are testimony; she
was a woman who dreamt by day, with eyes wide open.