She's the Lost Jewel of Syria
By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer
Amal al-Atrash, better known by her stage name, Asmahan, was a Syrian singer who lived and rose to fame in Egypt. Having immigrated to Egypt at the age of three, her family knew the composer, Dawood Hosni, and she sang the compositions of Mohamed El Qasabgi and Zakariyya Ahmad. She also sang the compositions of Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
In her life, her voice earned her recognition that earned her a competing position with Umm Kulthum, a legend during her time as a singer.
Journey to Egypt
Asmahan was born to Fahd al-Atrash, a Syrian Druze from Suwayda, and ‘Alia al-Mundhir, a Lebanese Druze from Hasbaya. Her father came from the Druze al-Atrash clan, well known in Syria for its role in fighting against the French occupation. Asmahan’s father supposedly served as governor of the district of Demirci in Turkey during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Asmahan’s father fled the country with his children and pregnant wife. On November 25, 1912, they embarked on a ship from İzmir to Beirut, and Asmahan was born on board. She was named Amal, meaning “hope.” She was also called Emily, but always preferred the name Amal. When the French came to power, the family returned to Jabal al-Druze.
After the French Mandate came into being, some areas were put under danger from French bombers, including Asmahan’s home.
‘Alia and her three children traveled to Beirut, but after discovering that the French were searching for them there, they stopped in Haifa in Palestine – then traveled to Egypt, where she sought political asylum for her and her three children. They were later granted the right of political asylum in 1926, by the Egyptian Government, thus naturalized as Egyptian citizens.
‘Alia chose to immigrate to Cairo, because she knew that Egypt’s then nationalist prime minister, Saad Zaghloul, was in support of Arab independence from foreign intervention. According to family accounts, ‘Alia was permitted to enter Egypt under the sponsorship of Saad Zaghloul, who dedicated his service to many other Lebanese and Syrian refugees.
Asmahan and her family first lived in an apartment in a humble section of Cairo. Her mother did laundry and sewing to support the family. Asmahan had an excellent voice, could play the oud, sang at parties, and made some recordings while she and her brothers attended a French Catholic school. During that time ‘Alia received a monthly stipend from a secret benefactor rumored to be a Baron, according to one Egyptian journalist.
Charles Richard Crane was a wealthy American businessman, heir to a large industrial fortune and connoisseur of Arab culture, a noted Arabist. His widespread business interests gave him entry into domestic and international political affairs where he enjoyed privileged access to many influential power brokers at the top levels of government. His connections were the reason why many suspected his involvement in the support of the al-Atrash family.
Nonetheless, he did not influence Asmahan’s rise to legacy. Amal’s vocal talent was discovered at an early age. Once, when her brother Farid received one of Egypt’s most famous composers, Dawood Hosni. Hosni overheard her singing in her room and insisted on seeing her immediately. Afterward, he asked her to sing again. Impressed by the performance, he suggested the stage name of Asmahan to her due to the harmoney of her name. The name itself indicates bringing pleasure to the ears of the listeners.
Asmahan rose to fame quickly and was not even an adult when she was introduced to the public during a concert at the prestigious Cairo Opera House. She sang and recorded songs composed by Farid Ghosn, Dawood Hosni, Mohamed El Qasabgi, and Zakariyya Ahmad.
At fourteen, Asmahan was invited by an Egyptian record company to make her first album, featuring her first song “Ya Nar Fouadi” by Farid Ghosn. However, her musical career was interrupted when she married and moved to Syria for a few years.
Intrigue in the War
In 1933 Asmahan’s cousin, Hassan al-Atrash came to Cairo and proposed marriage, requesting that she abandon her musical career. She agreed on three conditions: that they live in Damascus rather than Jabal al-Druze; that they spend winter in Cairo; and, that she would never be required to wear the traditional hijab.
They married and moved first to ‘Ara where the al-Atrash retain a large home, and then built their own home in Suwayda. Asmahan gave birth to her daughter, Camellia. Eventually, Asmahan missed her career and her life in Cairo, and in 1939, she and Hassan were divorced. She then returned to Egypt to resume her career in music.
However, in 1941, during World War II, Asmahan returned to the French Mandate of Syria at the request of the British and the Free French. She was on a secret mission to notify her people in Jabal al-Druze that the British and Free French forces would be invading Syria through their territory, and to convince them they should not fight.
The British and Free French had promised the independence of Syria and Lebanon to all inhabitants on the date of the invasion. The Druze agreed. After the allies secured Syria during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, General Charles de Gaulle visited Syria. When the allies failed to carry out their promise for Syrian independence, Asmahan tried to contact the Nazis in Turkey, but was stopped at the border and sent to Lebanon. Her attempt to redeem her people was foiled and she had to abandon her plans.
On July 14, 1944, a car carrying Asmahan and a female friend crashed and went into a canal at the side of the road,after the driver lost control near the city of Mansoura, Egypt. They were presumed to be rendered unconscious and subsequently drowned. The driver, however, managed to escape. The tragic accident caused suspicion towards the British, since they had influence in that region and could have easily orchestrated an assassination due to her attempt to reach the Nazis. This was an unfortunate end to what is an eternal star in both music and history.
Asmahan was buried in Egypt following her wishes. Years later her two brothers, Fouad and Farid al-Atrash, joined her in the Fustat plain in Cairo. This was a place where she and brother Farid, along with Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, had restored to some of its former glory. prior to their deaths.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!