The Lost Honor of Farid al-Atrash, Egyptian Legend

Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
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Farid al-Atrash, and his sister Asmahan whose life was cut short.Credit: AFP
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

He was a Druze prince who had to make a living selling textiles; the “king of the oud” who dreamed of composing for the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum, but was rebuffed; one of the great singers of the Arab world, who felt he did not receive the esteem he deserved; and an eternal romantic, who fell in love time and again but never married. Farid al-Atrash, the revered musician, composer and singer died 40 years ago, on December 26, 1974.

He was born in 1910 in Jabal Druze (Mountain of the Druze) in the southern Syrian province of Suwayda. His family, local royalty, ruled on the mountain, and led the anti-colonial uprising of 1925-27 against the French authorities. Farid’s father, Fahd al-Atrash, was married three times, the second time to a Lebanese woman, Alia Bint al-Mundhir, Farid’s mother. As tensions between the French and the Druze rose, Alia fled to Cairo with her three children, Fouad, Farid and Amal. A few years later, Fahd died in Syria and the family was left to fend for itself.

Alia and her children were granted Egyptian citizenship, but their initial period in Cairo was an unmitigated ordeal. The four members of the aristocratic family lived in a two-room apartment and took whatever employment they could find. Farid worked in a fabric store and distributed flyers, while his mother, known for her fine voice and skill in playing the oud (Middle Eastern lute), performed in monasteries.

Singing was considered a disreputable profession by the conservative Egyptian society of the time, particularly among the Druze. But to make ends meet, Alia was compelled to perform in local nightclubs as well. Because these were considered dubious venues, she was always accompanied by her two sons. Farid, enchanted by his mother’s singing and deeply affected by her oud playing, enrolled in a music conservatory, even as he continued to take work where he could find it.

Within a few years, Atrash revealed himself to be an extraordinary musician. At first, in the early 1930s, he sang and played on private radio stations, and he became the assistant of the renowned musician and composer Riyad al-Sunbaty. Only later, after being screened, was he accepted as an instrumentalist by Egyptian national radio, then passed another test as a singer. He sang twice a week on the radio, accompanied by the finest musicians of the time. Atrash also began to perform at the legendary nightclub of the belly dancer and actress Badia Masabny.

The musical style of his songs, which he himself composed, was primarily oriental-Arabic. At base, Atrash remained faithful to the Arabic maqam, the system of melodic modes in traditional Arabic music, and to the local sound – slightly modified by a gentle infusion of European instruments and Western rhythms. Though he had realized his dream and was working in the profession he loved most, Atrash did not immediately achieve the popular success he’d longed for. Some blamed his appearance, which was a bit strange; others did not care for his “weepy” singing style (which in the eyes of some was “romantic”).

There were those who thought he was overshadowed by his sister. Amal. For even as Atrash was developing his career in the 1930s, she also began to sing and to accompany him in his performances in the nightclubs of Cairo’s after-hours street, Emad al-Din. On one such occasion, Daoud Hosni, a well-known Jewish composer whom Atrash knew, heard Amal sing. He wanted to write songs for her and make her famous. Hosni also later gave Amal her stage name, Asmahan.

Brief collaboration

Asmahan, however, soon married and moved back to Jabal Druze in Lebanon with her husband, where her only child, Camillia, was born. But a few years later she got a divorce and returned to Cairo, determined to enter the Egyptian music and film industry, to the displeasure of her conservative relatives in Syria.

In 1941, Asmahan and her brother appeared in their first film, “Triumph of Youth,” directed by Ahmed Badrakhan, whom Asmahan later married. The film’s success exceeded all expectations, thanks in part to the songs performed by Farid and Asmahan – all of which he had composed. Still, alongside the beautiful and radiant Asmahan, with her powerful voice and precise vocal ability, Farid came off as somewhat pallid.

From that time on, and for the rest of his life, Farid felt he was not getting the esteem he deserved, particularly in Egypt. Initially it was Asmahan’s glamour that cast a pall on him, though by the same token her fame and glory enhanced his.

In any event, their collaboration was cut off in its prime, in 1944, when Asmahan, who was only 32, died in a mysterious road accident; the car in which she was traveling plunged into a ditch along the Nile. Many believed foul play was involved. Her death had a profound effect on Farid, who felt that none of his friends and acquaintances in Egypt was there to console him and pay tribute to his sister’s memory.

Over the years, Atrash won extraordinary fame, thanks to his songs, the 31 films he starred in – all of them musicals, of course – but mainly because of his virtuosity as an instrumentalist, for which he was dubbed “king of the Oud.” Many of his songs, including “First Whisper,” “Story of My Love” and “My Lost Loves,” have become standards of modern Arabic music and have acquired a place of honor in the Egyptian canon. His immortal hour-long work “Spring,” which was originally offered to – and turned down by – Umm Kulthum, was played annually, in full, on the radio on the evening of Sham el-Nessim (the Spring Festival), a holiday of Coptic-Egyptian origin. Subsequently, and indeed through today, it is part of the annual holiday broadcasts on TV.

Though assured of a place in the pantheon of the amalaqa, the titans of Arabic song, Atrash never felt that he was treated as an equal among equals in Egypt. Umm Kulthum, a villager, was embraced by the societal elite and important, local musical artists. The iconic actor-singer-composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, of urban lower-class birth, was warmly received by the Egyptian national poet, Ahmed Shawqi.

In contrast, Atrash, from a princely family whose social status had declined, felt he acquired his fame only with great effort and completely on his own, and was never achieved the status of other musicians. Throughout his life, he was hampered by the feeling that even if he was loved, he was not considered a native son or accorded the same honor and esteem as Egyptian-born singers and musicians. All his life he dreamed of having his music sung by Umm Kulthum. Although she expressed readiness, she rejected the compositions he sent her time after time, on various grounds.

Atrash was especially upset that he was not considered to be of the same status as the young Abdel Halim Hafez, who launched his musical career years later and was not a composer. A competition gradually developed between the two.

Egyptian actress Lobna Abdel Aziz, who appeared in a number of films alongside Atrash, related once in an interview that Halim Hafez had tried to prevent her from taking part in films with the older singer. The rivalry erupted into a nasty exchange between the two men, following which a historic joint interview with them took place on Lebanese television and a sulha – reconciliation – took place.

Movie-theater pogrom

Outside Egypt, the picture was different: Farid al-Atrash enjoyed boundless admiration across the Arab world. In the same interview, for example, Abdel Aziz recalled that when she went with Atrash to shoot a film in Lebanon during the 1960s, she was astounded to see the magnitude of the adoration for him and his unrivaled star status.

Atrash had fans in Israel, too, of course: Jews from Arab lands and Palestinian Israelis alike revered him, and none more than the Druze. In 1962, Yusuf Azaz, a devoted admirer of Atrash from Daliat al-Carmel, a Druze town near Haifa, decided he had to meet his idol in Egypt. As Azaz related in a 1990s’ program on Israel’s Arabic-language television, he knew full well that he might be caught. He crossed the border – and was in fact caught, tried in Cairo and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, which he served in full.

After 18 months in prison, Azaz asked his warders to write a letter to the singer. Now, after suspicions about his motivations had abated, the warders, themselves fans of Atrash, were overjoyed at the opportunity that had befallen them. They sent the letter, and after a time were “forced” to accompany the prisoner to a moving encounter with the singer.

It wasn’t only the Druze who were wild about and because of Atrash. In September 1962, the Edison Theater in Jerusalem screened the film “Eternal Melody,” in which he starred. The audience was shocked to discover that their idol’s songs were not presented there in full. The crowd went on a rampage, smashing seats, breaking windows in the theater lobby and demanding their money back. The Jerusalem police received a complaint that a crowd of more than a thousand was “perpetrating a pogrom in a movie theater.”

In fact, this reaction reflected a sense of frustration that had reached a peak. As David Shalit relates in his 2006 book, "Makrinim Koach," about Israeli movie theaters, the Mizrahi public – referring to Jews from Islamic countries – was demanding films in its native tongue, even as governmental authorities made it very difficult to get permits to screen Arabic-language films. Although various goods arrived in Israel from Arab countries, usually via a third country, it was claimed that the films were from enemy states and that the day might come when they would come and demand their rights to royalties – a truly unlikely scenario.

This situation reflected the generally discriminatory attitude toward the Mizrahim at the time, part of a cultural revulsion that was given expression in the Israeli press, among other venues. Thus, Shalit quotes the film critic Shlomo Shamgar, who wrote in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth: “Patently, we have to fight against the importation of this garbage even if there are masses of people in Israel who flock to Arabic movies, because they are close to them in terms of language and mentality These inferior Levantine movies are like opium for the masses of new immigrants from the countries of the orient”

In his films Atrash often reenacted his own love stories, which he also sang about in his songs. He never married, and his love affairs were studded with disappointment, heartbreak and difficulties related to class, tradition or simply to the fact that his beloved was married to someone else.

Among the women with whom he had affairs were Egypt’s former, and last queen, Nariman (who divorced King Farouk, who abdicated in 1952); the singer and actress Shadia; the well-known belly dancer Samia Gamal, who appeared in many of his films; and the Moroccan-born Israeli-French singer Maya Casabianca.

Atrash once spelled out his credo in an interview: “An artist is not born for marriage. An artist is married to his creative work, and he engenders tunes and songs and films.”

In fact, Atrash hoped to marry one day, and late in his life he was engaged to Salwa al-Qudsi. However, shortly before the wedding date, he died of heart failure, at age 64. In a last interview with Lebanese radio, he said that because his life had been laced with tragedies, his songs, too, are filled with pain and tears. The station chose to end the interview with lyrics from his song “My Birth Day Returns”: “I live a life without youth, a life that knows no spring / I buy love with torments, buy but there are no sellers.”

Atrash had suffered from heart problems for decades. His way of life, the many heartbreaks and his addiction to gambling did not allow his defective heart to recover between one crisis and the next. He was often hospitalized and went abroad for treatment. Still, the news of his death, on December 26, 1974, came as a shock to many, and men and women throughout the Arab world mourned him. Residents of Israel’s mixed cities, Jews and Arabs alike, recall that for a moment they could feel united in grieving for the singer they adored.