Remembering Asmahan, the woman and the legend

Ashraf Gharib , Friday 14 Jul 2017

Asmahan's life and death remains shrouded in mystery

Asmahan (Photo: Al Ahram)

Asmahan passed away 73 years ago, on 14 July 1944, but her memory remains fresh in the minds of many.

She was born Amal Al-Atrash on 22 November 1912, and was the sister of famed composer and singer Farid Al-Atrash.

In the decades that followed her death, hundreds of pages were written about her, trying to unveil the “true Asmahan”; some writers were driven by emotions, some pitied her, others incriminated her or even mocked her.

Both the sympathisers and the critics were drawn to the mystery surrounding her life and death and have treated her as if they were creating a suspense film in which they exert their utmost to attract our attention until the credits.

Nevertheless, Asmahan remains in our minds, and the mystery surrounding her biography is perhaps one of the reasons behind her being still with us decades later.

But before all that, she was an extraordinary songstress endowed with a voice that combined strength, flexibility, uniqueness, and good training.

Asmahan was also a woman seduced by the game of politics in time where the whole world lived in extreme animosity.
In fact she contributed to changing the map of the Middle East following World War II; she attempted to deal with the members of the British,

French and German intelligence services along with the Jewish Agency in Palestine simultaneously, and thought she could outwit them, paying dearly for her connections.

Equally she knew all the men of politics in Egypt and was capable of – if she wanted to – ruling the country through the most influential two men who fell in love with her: Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, chief of the Royal Diwan, and Murad Mohsen Pasha, director of the Royal Property.

In less than seven years, and before her thirtieth birthday, she had already lived in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem, Amman, Al-Suweida in Jabal Al-Druze, Ankara and London.

Asmahan (Photo: Al Ahram)

Asmahan was married three times while dozens of men, including Egyptians, Arabs and foreigners, fell in love with her. She lived in extremes: a heavy drinker and heavy smoker, she enjoyed a luxurious life while her many relations were intertwined with those that harmed her. 

She tried to commit suicide twice and was subjected to two assassination attempts. She eventually drowned in an accident, the circumstances of which remain unclear to this date.

Asmahan was no ordinary woman, therefore, and it is no wonder that many see in her a legendary heroine, her life the perfect subject for a novel or film.

Although Asmahan’s talent was incomparable, her friend, renowned journalist Mohamed El-Tabie, recounted that she hated to sing in public concerts and didn't like singing in front of women in private parties. She always felt that she was born to be a princess, not a songstress, for indeed she was a princess.

Asmahan's small contribution to both singing and acting confirms that she gave little attention to her talent despite having all the tools to be at the top of the game. Maybe her high ambitions made her unsatisfied with her name being on the cover of newspapers and magazines only, so she went in search of a bigger role behind the scenes in politics and in the theatre of social life at the expense of her artistic interests and her devotion to what she was created for.

Yes, everything in Asmahan confirms that she was born to be a songstress not anything else. She combined voice strength, flexibility, fitness, uniqueness along with good training at the hands of her sibling Farid Al-Atrash then Dawood Hosni, and the nuns at her French Catholic school.

She has succeeded with all the giant composers of the time whether they were traditional ones such as Dawood Hosni and Riyad Al-Sunbati or names such as Mohamed El-Qasabgi, Medhat Assem and Farid Al-Atrash.

Asmahan (Photo: Al Ahram)

In the world of cinema, Asmahan only acted in two films: The Triumph of Youth (1941) and Passion and Revenge, which she didn't complete because she died before the end of filming in 1944.

The first film, directed by Ahmed Badrkhan, featured Farid Al-Atrash and Bishara Wakim while the second, directed by Youssef Wahbi, featured Anwar Wagdi and Mahmoud El-Meligy. It is in the latter film that, according to reports of the time, Asmahan was paid EGP 17,000, the highest wage paid to a female star at the time.

Curiously, Asmahan didn't reveal any extraordinary acting talent, and the films serve mainly as an opportunity to present a number of her songs, which are undeniably her most remarkable legacy.

But, as we have already said, art wasn't Asmahan's prime interest. She was attracted to politics but she didn't know that in this world, the price for crossing the permissible lines is very high.

Many sources point out that Asmahan's chief mission, which the British intelligence assigned her to accomplish in May 1941 through her friend Amina Al-Baroudy, was to change the loyalties of the Druze from the Vichy French collaborationist government to the Allies' side, and to guarantee that the Free France troops led by Charles de Gaulle could pass through the mountains without any resistance from the Al-Atrash clan, the chieftains of the Druze.

Despite Asmahan’s success in her mission, thanks to the huge sums of money the British sent to the Druze leaders, she wasn’t satisfied with this role.

She used all her charms in order to gain the favour, money and influence of all those who had interests in the region whether they were British, French or Jewish, to the extent that when she sensed the British miserliness and their intention to dispense with her services she didn’t hesitate to contact Franz von Papen, Hitler’s ambassador to Turkey.

Then she betrayed her American journalist friend named Ford, who was the Germans’ agent in the Levant, handing him to the British on the Syrian-Turkish borders after she was certain that the British knew of her intention to travel to Ankara.

Asmahan (Photo: Al Ahram)

The late Egyptian director Nasser Hussein wrote in his papers about Asmahan that the German intelligence issued on that very day an order to dispatch her, in revenge for their agent who she had betrayed.

An attempt was made to assassinate Asmahan in Beirut but luckily the bullet missed her, and on her way to Jerusalem the car she was riding in was almost overturned due to a malfunction in the brakes.

In both cases the incident was regarded as orchestrated by an unknown person because the authorities knew quite well who was interested in getting rid of her and didn’t follow up with investigations.

As for her own attempts to commit suicide, Mohamed El-Tabie mentioned that he and her maid saved her from killing herself in September 1941 in her apartment in Zamalek.

In order to avoid scandal, this incident was recorded in the official ambulance records under the name Amal Hussein.

Her brother Farid spoke about a second attempt in the Mena House Hotel; her intimate friend Marie Qelada saved her that time.

Asmahan’s life was moving towards its fateful destiny and it seems that she had a visceral feeling that her end was near.

Farid recounted that a friend of his brought a fortune-teller to their house, before Asmahan’s first trip to the Levant accompanied by her cousin Hassan Al-Atrash in 1939.

The fortune-teller startled those present by telling her: “You will rise to the top and rule the people. You will give birth to three daughters and only one will live. You will die in the water in the prime of your youth.”

In the last months of Asmahan’s life, events came quickly one after another; she was living in Jerusalem after the Egyptian authorities refused to permit her to reside in Cairo, when she had found in marriage to actor and director Ahmed Salem a golden opportunity to re-enter Egypt. 

It was Asmahan’s third marriage, after her cousin Prince Hassan and the director Ahmed Badrkhan.

The married couple returned from Jerusalem as Asmahan had to begin filming Passion and Revenge. But her relationship with Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, chief of the Royal Diwan, was the gossip of the time, to the extent that Ahmed Salem, according to El-Tabie, asked Hassanein to stay away from his wife and when this failed he tried to commit suicide and was rescued.

Asmahan and Mohamed El-Tabie (Photo: Al Ahram)

Things escalated to the point that Ahmed Salem aimed his pistol at Asmahan’s face at three in the morning one day in July 1944.
El-Tabie said that Salem was sure that his wife had lied about why she was late; she escaped from the house and called the police. A police officer came and quarrelled with Salem and both were injured by stray bullets.

However, Farid Al-Atrash recounted the same incident differently. He said that Marie Qelada escaped from the couple’s house and called the police when Ahmed Salem threatened to kill Asmahan if she tried to go out with Qelada.

The police officer, who was a friend of Salem’s, attacked him in order to prevent him from shooting Asmahan, who was hiding under the sheets.

What’s important is that Asmahan escaped death also this time and stayed beside Salem in the hospital, at the same time that she was filming Passion and Revenge.

On the morning of 14 July, 1944, Asmahan decided to take a short vacation from the shooting and go to Ras El-Bar with Marie Qelada, who had now saved her life twice.

When the car was close to a ditch filled with water, according to Nicholas Faith, the driver looked right and left after making sure that the rear doors were locked, opened his door and threw himself on the grass, leaving the car to sink to the bottom of the ditch.

Many stories circulated regarding the accident. However, the big question remained unanswered to this day: Who killed Asmahan? 

Was it her ex-husband, Prince Hassan Al-Atrash, who was hurt when Asmahan refused to be under his control and stay with him in Damascus?

Was it Queen Nazli, who saw in Asmahan her only rival in winning Ahmed Hassanein’s heart?

Was it German intelligence, seeking revenge after Asmahan handed their agent to the British? Did the British and the French believe that Asmahan should be disposed of?

It is certain that all the aforementioned had something to gain from killing her.

She died in the water, just as she had been born in the water, aboard a ship.

She remained an enigma that sprang out of legend to live in our world, fraught with perturbation and tension until she returned to legend once again.

Asmahan (Amal Al-Atrash) with her bother Farid Al-Atrash (Photo: Al Ahram)

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