Farid al-Atrash and Asmahan
The Heart and Soul of Syrian Music
Ali Jihad Racy
Farid al-A(rash (1916-1976) and his sister Amal (later known by her stage name, Asmahan) (1917-1944) were bom into the famous al-Atrash clan of Suwayda’, which held the position of authority in the Jabal since the mid-eighteenth century until the present day. Farid and Amal were raised in Egypt by their mother, who had fled there following the events leading up to the 1925 Revolt against the French . Their mother sang and played the ‘oud, and as a result Farid and Amal were exposed to music from an early age. While Farid was able to pursue a musical career without much trouble, it was almost unheard of for a Druze woman to do so. They were both extremely talented and influenced future generations of Druze youth. Farid, a composer, singer, and virtuosic player of the ‘oud, was single-handedly responsible for the introduction and popularity of the ‘oud in the Jabal. According to some, Asmahan’s vocal abilities were rivaled only by those of Umm Kulthum. Indeed, Victor Sahhab named Asmahan as one of the seven most influential Arab musicians in the modem era in his book, The Seven Greats of Modem Arabic Music (1987), along with Sayyid Darwish. Muhammad al-Qasabji, Zakariyyi Ahmad, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Umm Kulthum, Riyad al-Sunbati.
Both Farid and Asmahan received training on the ‘oud and in musicianship, including the system of maqamat. Asmahan received training in vocal technique from composer and musician Zakariyya Ahmad . They learned all the styles popular in Egypt at the time, as well as Lebanese and Syrian folk song forms, which they learned from their mother, a Lebanese Druze woman. Farid studied ‘oud with Lebanese musician Farid Ghusn, who, along with composer Riyad al-Sunbafi and composer and later director of the Egyptian Radio Madhat ‘Assim, claimed to have discovered his talent . Farid began his career by accompanying his sister Asmahan in her singing engagements and eventually started making recordings for the Egyptian Radio. Asmahan was also developing as a singer, and in 1930, when she was about fourteen years old, she signed a contract with Columbia Records to produce fifteen recordings.
Although she sang on recordings, in live performances at private and public parties, and even in nightclubs in Cairo, her family refused to let her perform in the movies. Their decision was motivated by the Druze code of honor, designed to protect the reputations of young unmarried women, and the thought of her appearing on screen was more than they could bear. Efforts to preserve the family honor resulted in her early marriage in 1933 to a distant cousin, the Druze prince (amir) Hasan al-Atrash (who had already been married and divorced five times). She left Egypt, living for a while in Damascus, finally settling in the Jabal.
Hasan eventually became governor of the Jabal and Asmahan, as his wife, was consulted occasionally as a mediator. After only four years in the Jabal, she became restless and eventually returned to Egypt, where she resumed her musical career. This move ultimately caused Hasan to divorce her. The date is unclear, but her family claims that he did not divorce her until her first movie came out in 1941. In the interim, he had married another woman. Although Hasan had been married many times (nine in all), he considered Asmahan the love of his life, and he convinced her to remarry him in July of 1941.
Asmahan made her first film appearance, along with her brother Farid, who composed all the songs, in Intisar al-Shabab (The Triumph of Youth) released in 1941. As Zuhur points out in Asmahan’ s Secrets, the film, imitating their life story in some respects, reflects the traditional Arab ambivalence toward performer loved, yet scorned.
Asmahan led a controversial life, surrounded by mystery and rumors. After her first divorce from Hasan, she had her own apartment in Cairo, an almost unheard-of state of affairs at that time. She led a wild life; she drank in public and gambled. Rumors still abound that she had been an agent for the Allied Powers during World War II. Other rumors claimed that after spying for the Allies, she became a double agent, working for Germany after the Allied Powers went back on their promise of Syrian independence. These rumors remain unsubstantiated, but what does seem certain is that she played a role, at the very least, as a courier between the British and the Syrian Druzes. Her alleged role was to carry a message to the Druze chieftains requesting assurances that the Druzes would not attack the Allied troops as they made their way north through Druze territory.
Her tragic death in a car accident in 1944, like the details of her life, is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it was just an accident, or, as the rumors have it, she may have been murdered. Various theories about her death have yet to be proven. At the time of her death, she was filming her last motion picture, Gharam wa Intiqam (Love and Revenge). The producers decided that her character in the movie would also die a tragic death in a car accident, to resolve problems ending the movie without its main heroine.
Although her life story was tragic and fascinating, it is her musical talents and output that have assured Asmahan’s place in history. She collaborated with a number of different composers and lyricists at the same time, including Muhammad al-Qasabji, Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and her brother Farid. As a result, despite her brief career, these are a wide variety of styles and themes in her work. Asmahan became famous for combining an Arab vocal style with operatic vocalizations, as can be head on the song “Ya Tuyur” (Oh Birds; also known as ‘Taghrid al-Balabil”), composed by Muhammad al-Qasabji, with text by Ahmad Fathi. Zuhur, however, cautions against overemphasizing Asmahan’s Western qualities, noting that the larger part of her musical output was firmly rooted in the classical Arab music tradition. Zuhur sums up Asmahan’s musical importance:
Asmahan’s command of the classical elements in her repertoire included stylistic elements of delivery, mastery of the maqamat system and incorporation of that mastery into vocal improvisation, utilisation of the poetic aspects of the Arabic language in order to create dynamism and emphasis, and musical and emotional communication with her audience. Not one, but all of these elements, in combination with her ability to interpret musical themes in a creative manner, allowed audiences to recognize her (arab, the unique musical “art” wielded by a superior performer.
Many non-Druzes think of Farid and Asmahan as being Egyptian, because they lived most of their lives in that country, and because they often sang in the Egyptian dialect Egypt in the twentieth century, however, was the movie and music capital of the Arab worid. The thirties and the forties were the zenith of the song film, and Asmahan and Farid rode the crest of this wave to fame. These movies were shown all over the Arab world. Thus, the Egyptian dialect became a sort of Arab lingua franca. The Druzes saw Farid and Asmahan not as Egyptian, but as Druzes. Farid was the Syrian Druzes’ musical link to the pan-Arab world. In addition to his song “Busat al-rih” (Flying Carpet), which was a sort of musical tour of Arab capital cities, it was rumored that he wrote a national anthem in anticipation of Palestine’s independence.
Asmahan and Farid were also connected to their Syrian origins by virtue of their inclusion of Syrian and Lebanese song forms into their repertoire and Films. The most Druze of these songs was “Ya Dirati (Oh, My Village), which she performed in her last movie, Ghardm wa Intiqam. The song is based on a qasida by Asmahan’s uncle, Zayd al-Atrash (1905-1997; some of his poetry was discussed previously in Chapter Five), m the Jabal, it is sometimes performed as a shuruqi by a poet-singer accompanied by a rdbaba. Farid composed the music for this song, and in keeping with the non-metric character of the shuruqi, set the lyrics as a mawwal (a non-metric vocal improvisation). It is a war song that features love of homeland—in this case, love of the village. The lyrics of the following verse invoke Asmahan’s relative, Sultan al-Atrash, the heroic leader of the 1925 Revolt. The following is an excerpt from “Ya Dirati”:
We must mount the steeds of the night of evil, And strengthen the heat of Sultan’s leadership.
I claim our trampled rights for us. Oh my village, we are your guiding force.
The lyrics, while specifically recalling the Druzes’ struggles against oppression by the Ottomans, and then by the French, also resonated with other Arab groups recalling their own oppression. As (he Egyptians and other Arabs could relate to the lyrics of “Ya Dirati,” the Dmzes back in the Jabal had no trouble accepting the Egyptian style Farid and Asmahan presented. According to one
Farid and Asmahan affected the Druzes very much. Most Druzes are very proud of them; the power of art can overcome the differences and limits of religion, because art—songs, and poems—speaks to our human aspects. Love, complaining, hopes—(hey are non-sectarian emotions. So it was easy for their songs to go to die Druze people. We feel love like the other Arabs feel. Poems and songs can enter our consciousness freely.
The same authority proposed that Asmahan was subconsciously presenting a Druze aspect to the world through her music via the Druzes’ male-centered value system.
If a man doesn’t have nakhwa [a complex term, partially meaning the readiness to help people whether they ask or not], we say “he is not a man” but if a woman has nakhwa, we don’t say she is a good woman, but we say, “she is the sister of men (ukht al-rijal).” That is a great honor for a woman. How does Asmahan relate to this issue? Almost all of her songs are men’s songs, like “Ya Dirati.” Just her face, her eyes, her body are full of femininity, but her songs, the words and the way she sang, it would be like a sad man. And she knows that a sad man could affect the people more than a sad woman could.17 Maybe subconsciously she is expressing Druze values. If you don’t know her, and you change the voice, you would think she was a man.
Asmahan, because she defied conventional gender roles in many facets other life, and because of the liberties afforded to her as a performer, was able to successfully represent Druze values, which are predominantly male-centered values, by singing songs, such as “Ya Dirati,” that men would ordinarily sing back in the Jabai While in Egypt, she lived in the outward, exterior world that is the domain of men in the Jabal, and she even portrayed that most masculine of values, courage, when she agreed to be a courier for the British.