W.War II singing spy tales

September 29, 2008 12:00 am

, BEIRUT, September 29 – Sixty years after her death in a mysterious car crash, a television series about Arab singing diva and spy Asmahan is captivating audiences with details of her short but racy life.

Born a princess to Syrian Druze nobles, Asmahan, whose real name was Amal al-Atrash, challenged her family and shocked her conservative Arab and Muslim community by breaking a string of taboos.

The woman known as the "golden voice" drank, smoked, had numerous love affairs and even an abortion, and she also filed for divorce from her husband Hassan so she could devote herself to singing.

Her links with the British intelligence services during World War II when she spied on Nazi Germany and Vichy France, and her work with the Free French forces, added further intrigue to a life which ended when she was just 26.

Now she has come back to delight aficionados and woo a new generation of fans thanks to the controversial series "Asmahan" being broadcast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Night after night Arab television audiences are introduced to more and more intimate details about the life of the melancholic singer with a unique fluid, crystal voice.

The series reveals she also had an affair with Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, the multi-talented tutor and head of Egyptian King Farouk’s royal household.

Asmahan’s untimely death in 1944 in a mysterious and never resolved traffic accident triggered wild rumours.

Some suggested she was the victim of her spying, while others even claimed her Egyptian rival Om Kalthoum was involved.

"This is a courageous series. It touches upon a taboo subject concerning Asmahan’s life," said Nejib Ayed, the Tunisian producer who deliberately chose to broadcast the series during Ramadan, when television ratings soar.

Student Rabab al-Mansuri, 18, said she likes "the revelations about the tumultuous life of the adored diva… This is unprecedented for Arab television."

Najla Saab, an 80-year-old Lebanese Druze woman, said: "It’s bold to show the details of the life of the Atrash family. The Druze are a reserved, secretive society. They don’t like to reveal much."

Asmahan was only six when she emmigrated to Egypt with her mother and two brothers, after the death of her father, to escape a rebellion against French colonial rulers in what is now Syria and Lebanon.

Along with her brother Farid al-Atrash, who rose to become a crooner in his own right as well as being a composer and a musician, Asmahan was spurred by her mother to sing.

"She was only 14 when she sang in the Cairo Opera House," said Saab.

Asmahan’s unique voice and talent bewitched the greatest musicians of the time.

Even composers writing for her rival Om Kalthoum, the singer known as the "Star of the East", fell at Asmahan’s feet and helped her to develop a rich repertoire of classical Arab songs with undertones of modern Western music.

But not everyone is delighted with the television production. Despite its success among Arab audiences, the series has also triggered the ire of some members of Asmahan’s family.

Two nephews filed a lawsuit in Egypt, which was rejected, claiming that the soap undermined the family’s reputation.

Family members in Syria also urged the authorities there to ban the series in which Asmahan is played by Syrian actress Sulaf Fawakhirji. Their request was also turned down.

The series presents an unflattering portrait of Asmahan’s eldest brother Fuad, who beat her up because he believed that her singing career dishonoured the family.

And her other brother Farid is portrayed as a sensitive musician with no real influence over his sister, an attitude which is unacceptable in Arab male-dominated societies.

Controversy apart, viewers appreciate the series.

"Her story is fantastic. Asmahan is neither an angel nor a devil, she is human," said Haya, 27, a Syrian journalist.


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