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    Middle East
     Sep 20, 2008
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 Egypt.

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 ex-husband Hasan.

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 Syrian independence.

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 to paradise."

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 music.

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.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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