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Remembering Sabah: Iconic Lebanese-Egyptian singer and actress

Often referred to as 'The Blackbird', the Lebanese diva will continue to be one of the big names in the world of singing and acting from the 20th century

Ashraf Gharib, Friday 9 Nov 2018
Sabah (Photo: Al Ahram)
Views: 4099
Views: 4099

It isn’t fair to reduce the career of the Lebanese-Egyptian songstress Sabah to the fact of her having had ten husbands, which definitely reflects a case of psychological and social disturbance.

It also isn’t fair to view her only as one of the most fashionable and most attractive of the actresses of Arab cinema, and by noting that even after reaching an advanced stage in her life she remained life-loving and keen on being in full splendour and brilliance.

Whether we approve or disapprove her lifestyle, Sabah will certainly continue to be one of the big names in the world of singing and acting from the 20th century.

She was born Janette Georges Feghali on 10 November 1927 in Lebanon to a family headed by a barber father.

Her uncle was the poet Asaad Feghali, dubbed “Blackbird of the Valley”, and she was also dubbed “the Blackbird” at the launch of her artistic career.

Sabah (Photo: Al Ahram)

Her artistic talents began to appear at an early age, when she sung in school.

She went on to start her singing career despite her father’s initial objections.

Participating in concerts all over Syria and Lebanon, she was discovered by well-known film producer Asia Dagher, who had migrated to Egypt in the mid-1920s and achieved major success in the field of film production and acting.

During a trip to Lebanon in 1944, Asia got to know the seventeen-year-old girl and realised that she had a voice and a face that would suit the big screen.

In the light of the increase in demand for musicals as World War II came to end, there was a need for new voices.

Asia took Sabah with her upon her return to Cairo, invited her to live in her house, and brought big-name musicians to train her to sing and proficient actors to teach her acting skills.

As a result, when Sabah starred in The Heart has Only but One Love (1945, directed by Henri Barakat), she was fully ready to attract the audience’s attention: they saw a promising actor with a bright future.

This was enhanced by the fact that the filmmaker chose to present a modern-day, Egyptian version of the Cinderella myth, which heightened the sympathies of the mid-40s audience, and provided the new actor with a strong start.

Sabah (Photo: Al Ahram)

In the three subsequent years, Sabah participated in a number of films, through which she became more sure-footed, and began to leave an unforgettable mark in the audience’s minds.

Perhaps the most significant of these films were A Lebanese in the University (1947, directed by Hussein Fawzi) and her two films co-starring the singer Mohamed Fawzi: Enemy of Women (1946, directed by Abel-Fattah Hassan) and Good Morning (1947, also directed by Fawzi).

However, in 1948 she starred along with the famous singer Farid Al-Atrash in one of her most important and successful films at this period, Bulbul Effendi, directed by Ahmed Badrkhan.

The film’s importance isn’t confined to Farid Al-Atrash’s status or to the duets it features, but also to the fact that she played two different characters. She was therefore allowed to present herself as an able actress, not just a pretty face that had entered the cinema world via her sweet voice.

Despite her long periods of absence abroad due to multiple marriages, she was capable of imposing herself as an essential part of musical comedies which prevailed at the time.

She starred in six films with Mohamed Fawzi and three with Farid Al-Atrash, and co-starred with the singers Saad Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Ghani El-Sayed, Abdel-Halim Hafez, and others.

Sabah (Photo: Al Ahram)

However, her classic films were those produced in the late 50s; between 1958 and 1959 she starred in eight films which were the most famous in her entire career, among them The Street of Love with Abdel-Halim Hafez (directed by Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar), The Second Man with Rushdy Abaza (also directed by Zulfikar), A Criminal on a Vacation with Farid Shawqi (directed by Salah Abu-Seif) and Ataba Square with Ismail Yassin and Ahmed Mazhar (directed by Fateen Abdel-Wahab).

By the 1960s Sabah had become a more mature performer, and she made a number of satisfactory but not especially good films. The most significant of these were Holy Matrimony (1960, directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar), The Path of Tears (1961, directed by Helmy Halim) and Soft Hands (1963, also directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar).

Amid this artistic brilliance, Sabah was obliged to suddenly leave Cairo and move to Beirut. She encountered political problems in Egypt which drove President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to revoke her Egyptian nationality (she had gained it after marrying the violinist Anwar Mansi in 1952).

This began a new artistic period in her life, during which she starred in more than 20 Lebanese films, in spite of their mediocre standards.

These roles contributed to a great extent in enhancing the film industry in Lebanon, which was non-existent before Sabah and Abdel-Salam Al-Nabulsi moved to Beirut in 1963.

This coincided with a collective migration of Egyptian cinematic talents following the defeat in the Six Day War of 1967.

Sabah (Photo: Al Ahram)

She did take a few roles in Egyptian films in this period, such as Three Women (1968, directed by Henri Barakat) and Fire of Longing (1970, directed by Mohamed Salem) but these films were filmed in Beirut not in Cairo.

Regaining Egyptian nationality due to a decision by President Anwar El-Sadat, Sabah was able to return to Egypt in 1970.

These moves from Cairo to Beirut and back again proved artistically disruptive, and her return coincided with a number of attempts at marriage, which failed. Consequently, she made one film only on her return to Egypt, A Night the Moon Cried (1980, directed by Ahmed Yehia), as well as acting in a few films in Lebanon.

But because she wasn’t just a film songstress like Leila Mourad, her artistic activity had widened to include the stage, especially in the Baalbek Festival from the 60s, and she also acted in musicals such as Too Sweet and The Legend.

She also gave concerts in Lebanon, Europe and the USA. Her musical output exceeded a thousand songs and she collaborated with several generations of composers, starting with Mohamed El-Qasabgi, Riyad Al-Sunbati, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Gamal Salama.

In her final years, Sabah suffered from senility, and suffered repeated rumours of her death and sarcastic comments on social media targeting her for her advanced age. She died on 26 November 2014 at a hotel in Beirut at the age of 87.

Sabah (Photo: Al Ahram)

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