Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Fadwa Abeid
By: Richard Breaux/Arab America Contributing Writer
What do you do when you find several dozen 78 rpm records all in Arabic and you can neither read, nor speak the language? You research the musicians and record labels and write about them.…at least that’s what Arab America contributing writer, Richard Breaux did. The result is bound to teach you something about Arab American history and heritage in the first half of the 20th Century. Arab America highlights some of the well-known and lesser-known Arab American musicians profiled on this series. This week’s article features Arab American music legend, Fadwa Abeid.
Since we launched Midwest Mahjar, rare has been the opportunity to speak to any of the artists who performed during the 78 RPM era. Most are no longer with us. We’ve communicated with the children of some musicians. Family members we’ve managed to track down include the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of 78-era Arab American musicians. “Fadwa Obeid” is on a Wiki-list of living Lebanese women singers, but with no birthdate or link to additional information. An Arabic-language Wikipedia entry offers information about the height of her career in the 1970s and makes vague reference to her retirement, but says nothing of her early life, early career, or life in retirement. Imagine our surprise when researching Arab American singer Fadwa Abeid, we located contact information for her.
Fadwa Abed, Fadwa Abaid, or Fadwa Obeid (also Ebeid) was born 2 March 1935 in Los Angeles, California to Sadie Alhandy Abed and Joseph Abed. Fadwa was a second-generation US-born American on both sides. Her mother, Sadie Alhandy, was born in Port Huron, Michigan in 1912. Her father, Joe Abed, was born in Detroit the same year. Sadie Alhandy and Joe Abed wed in Los Angeles in January 1934. Joe worked as a candymaker and Fadwa was born a little more than a year after their wedding. On the heels of Fadwa’s birth, the family traveled to Lebanon at the request of her paternal grandfather – the family remained there for approximately ten years.
In the south Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, Fadwa attended a private catholic school girls school for nuns where she learned Arabic and French. It was not in Lebanon, but Cairo, Egypt where Fadwa got her start in music. She maintained a fondness for poetry and the spoken word and met a number of well-known Egyptian composers. Riadh Al Sunbati stands out as one of the composers Fadwa met whose songs she performed. Sunbati was best known for his work with Umm Kulthum and Asmahan. In 1946, at the age of eleven, Fadwa returned to the United States with her mother and moved to Dearborn, Michigan. Fadwa attended and graduated from Fordson High School where she joined the French Club, Drama Club, and Debate Club. Her classmates elected her Vice-President of the French Club.
Fawda emerged as a bit of a child prodigy. She was 17 when her likeness graced ads for the Eastern Star Restaurant in Brooklyn in 1953. In mid-October 1953, Abed sang accompanied by Jalil Azzouz at the United Nations Association of Greater Chicago celebration in recognition of the UN’s eighth year. The Chicago Art Institute hosted the event and Fadwa appeared during the “Songs of Araby” portion of the program.
A month previous to this, a reporter for The Caravan wrote of the Labor Day Mahrajan in New Haven, Connecticut, “The beautiful young singer Fadwa Abed was a knockout. Only 17…. Why couldn’t she have been ten years older? Why couldn’t I have been twenty years younger? Dawn the luck!!!!” This was the same Labor Day mahrajan that Mohammed El-Bakkar kicked off the festivities, Najeeba Morad and Elias Younis performed and Jamil Matouk took the stage in an impromptu performance. Fadwa held her own with these well-known musical veterans and she was not even out of high school.
Abed’s star rose quickly and bookings increased exponentially. In October 1953, Abed joined Joe and Leo Budway, John Fayod, and Clovis Bistany at a Detroit farewell party for Naif Agby. Additional gigs included the Junior Ma-Asser Hafli in Danbury, Connecticut and the annual event hosted by the Saint Nicholas Young Men’s Club in Brooklyn, in November 1953. Other musicians who performed at the Saint Nicholas celebration included Elia Baida, Anton Abdelehad, Philip Solomon, Naim Karacand, Joe Budway and Fatthalla Ayad. Violinist Sami el Shawa attended as a guest, but eventually surrendered to crowd requests to play a few songs.
On June 17, 1954, Fadwa Abed graduated from Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan – well beyond the city limits and across Arab America, her musical talent preceded her. In this same year, Fadwa recorded seven songs on four 78 RPM discs for Albert Rashid’s Al-Chark record label.
In May 1956, rumors spread in Arab American communities across the United States and then to the Caravan that Fadwa Abed had married. Fadwa quickly put these rumors to rest and assured fans that any wedding or marriage plans she had would be announced by her personally in the Caravan.
According to Fadwa, the person she considered the love of her life was a physician she was engaged to who died in an accident. Another suitor worked for Egyptian Administrative Control Authority, but she never considered him a viable option for marriage. Presumably, Fadwa secreted her way out of Egypt to because he was too possessive. With her career running on all cylinders, Fadwa didn’t marry until the 2000s.
Concert promoters billed Fadwa along with Alamphon star Amer Khaddaj. Both singers performed at the sixth annual convention for Federation of Islamic Associations in August 1956 and were backed by Naim Karacand, Jalil Azzouz, and Mike & George Hamway. Some 1000 American Muslims attended the convention in New York City. At age 18, the Caravan dubbed Fadwa the “the new bulbul of Syrian Lebanese entertainment.” The Knights of Lebanon event in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania stood out as one of her most exciting public performances.
Syrians immigrated to Wilkes Barre mostly between 1887 and 1920 from Wadi-Nasaara and Al-Koura. The community grew slowly, but surely and established Saint Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church in 1904 and the Maronite community split and established Saint George Maronite Church in 1913, and Saint Anthony Maronite Church in 1912. Beginning in the 1930s, Wilkes Barre’s mahrajans became a routine but mandatory stop. Fadwa’s year included concerts at the Midwest SOYO in Akron, Ohio, performances at the Western Federation Convention, an engagement at the Islamic Federation, and several gigs in California.
Only a few weeks after her gig in Pennsylvania, Fadwa played at twenty-third annual Saint Elijah Syrian Orthodox Festival in Ottawa, Canada. Again, Abed performed with Naim Karacand and Mike Hamway. This time oudist Joe Budway joined them. As a result of this engagement her international notoriety expanded.
Amazingly, Fadwa balanced college and a singing, no small feat, to be sure. Over the years, she attended Henry Ford College, Wayne State University, and the newly-opened University of Michigan-Dearborn. When Saint George Orthodox Church in Terre Haute, Indiana held its dedication services in May 1958, a who’s who of Antiochian Orthodox dignitaries from the United States and Canada showed up including Metropolitan Anthony Bashir.
Featured entertainers Fadwa Abed sang, Antoine Hage played violin, Jalil Azzouz played oud, and Charlie Zayed played derbekee. A few months later, the Cedar Rapids Attiyeh Benevolent Society hosted what was billed as the “Largest Gathering of Arabic-Speaking People in the Mid-west” during Labor Day weekend. By January 1959, the Organization of Arab Students celebrated Fadwa with a story in its national newsletter. Highlighting her beauty, love of poetry, singing ability, and brains as a “psychology turned political science major:”
From the very first day at the convention, Fadwa became the center of attraction and admiration. It is a very pleasant surprise to find a top-rated singer like Fadwa combine a very remarkable voice with truly beautiful features. She had the singing and dramatic ability to keep you on the edge of your seat or take you along in a dreamy passionate flight.
Mistakenly, the article claimed that Fadwa was “originally from Beirut.” It was one of the only sources, however, to make note of the multiple spellings of her surname “Abed (Obeid)”.
A series of local and regional SOYO meetings guaranteed Fadwa steady work in 1960 and 1961 as rumors spread that the young singer had gotten engaged. May 21 and 22 she performed at the Washington, DC Hafli to raise funds for the Arab Refugees. Bookings in the United States slowed in 1961 on the mahrajan circuit but Fadwa still played the occasional event. Abed and Joe and Leo Budway appeared as the featured act on the night of the Saint Elias Eastern Region 2nd Delegates Grand Hafla in New Castle, Pennsylvania held from June 3, 4, and 5 in 1960.
Less than a month later the Midwest SOYO sponsored its 13th Annual Convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan during the longer period of June 29-July 3. Fadwa, Naif Agby, and M. El Ekkad supplied the entertainment. Abed spent Labor Day the Lebanese Mahrajan in Trenton, New Jersey. Sacred Heart Church in Caldwell, New Jersey hosted its July festival featuring the regular cast of musicians Fadwa, Tony Abdelahad, Naim Karacand, and Mike and George Hamway.
The year 1961 closed with a New Year’s Eve party sponsored by Saint Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church. This was a rather small, important affair where Fadwa and Jalil Azzouz provided the entertainment. As Abed’s popularity decreased in the United States, she increasingly became a highly sought-after singer in Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, and Syria.
Through Albert Rashid in the United States and other musicians in Lebanon, Fadwa came to work with Farid al Atrash. In 1967, she and Farid al Atrash recorded Biladi Ya Biladi on a 7”, 45 RMP record on Parlophone Records. As early as 1957, Parlophone had entered into a business partnership with EMI (Electrical & Music Industries), which managed a host of labels including Abdullah Chahine’s Voix De L’Orient label. Most of Fadwa’s singles and LP collaborations appeared as a result of this larger partnership with a few exceptions. A performance with Yousef Azar, Duryad Lahem, Abou Sayah at the 1971 Byblos Festival Ya Leil appeared as an LP on Morico Records. Three years later, the singles “Aktar Ma Baddo Baddi” / “Ala Wayn” sold on Vox De L’Orient 45 RPM
With her increased popularity, Fadwa appeared on television talk shows, in dramatic television series, and movies as she continued to release songs\ on 45 RPM and for LP compilations. In 1976, Fadwa appeared on the television series I Am You. The following year, she starred opposite Mahmoud Saeed in Alia & Issam in the role of Alia. Fawda, additional, had two songs on a compilation LP which that included music by Sabah and Farid al Atrash.
The outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and its continuance for fifteen years, complicated travel to and from Lebanon to such a degree that international commercial flights all but ceased (with the exception of Middle East Airlines and Tran Mediterranean Airways flights). Fadwa performed in Jordan, Syria, Morocco, and Egypt. Recording dates or appearances in Lebanon required travel to Syria to get to Jordan and other locations. Eventually, the war made travel so burdensome that Fadwa’s concert tours suffered serious setbacks and restricted her ability to visit family enough that she cut her career short. Fadwa returned to the United States.
As the Civil War waged on back in Lebanon, Fadwa disappeared from the public eye living comfortably in Dearborn, home to over 60,000 people of Lebanese descent. Nineteen hundred ninety saw an end to the Lebanese Civil War. Six years later, Lebanese Prime Minster Rafic Al-Hariri visited Detroit and Dearborn to encourage Lebanese Americans to do four things to help Lebanon: 1) pray for the country’s wellbeing; 2) financially and culturally invest in the country; 3) send money to family still in Lebanon and buy Lebanese produced goods; and 4) encourage the US to lift the eleven-year travel ban on travel to Lebanon.
Fadwa Abed was among the few Dearborn residents who commented on the impact of the war and subsequent US travel restrictions, “It’s quite unpleasant if we want to go see our relatives, we can’t go, even if you have an ailing grandmother. It’s very sad.”
In the early 2000s, Fadwa Abeid met and married Ford Motors engineer and physicist Tahir Mansour. Both Tahir and Fadwa battled cancer in their later lives. Tahir died in September 2018. Fadwa is a cancer survivor and lives in Michigan. She and Leila Mazloom are two of the only Arab American singers left from the period that ethnomusicologist Anne Rasmussen has labeled the “middle period” of Arab American music.
Richard M. Breaux is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse from Oakland, California. His courses and research explore the social and cultural histories of African Americans and Arab Americans in the 20th Century.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!