Cairo: Sabah, considered by many as one of the icons of the Arab world, has died. The Lebanese superstar, who celebrated her 87th birthday earlier this month, passed away on Wednesday morning at her Beirut residence.
During her impressive six-decade long career, Sabah – real name Jeanette Gergis Al Feghali – released a record number of albums, performed across the world, and starred opposite some of the biggest names in Arab cinema.
Nicknamed Al Shahrourah – which means ‘the singing bird’ in Arabic – Sabah received numerous accolades in her lifetime, including the UAE’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
Speaking to Gulf News, DIFF Chairman Abdul Hamid Jomaa paid tribute to the star: “It is very sad to hear of Sabah’s passing. She is a treasure of Arabian cinema.”
Born on November 10, 1927, in Bdadoun, Lebanon, Sabah’s journey to stardom wasn’t a happy one. She suffered abuse at the hands of her father, who used to beat her, and even take the money she made from small acting jobs.
Sabah also reportedly witnessed the tragic death of her mother, who died as a result of domestic abuse. The singer’s brother killed her after hearing that she was cheating on her husband.
Later on in her life, Sabah recalled: “I married early because I wanted to escape.”
Sabah began to sing and act in minor roles in the 1940s, before being discovered by Egyptian filmmaker Henry Barakat. Her first feature film was Al Alb Laho Wahed (The Heart Belongs to One). With Egypt being at the forefront of the film industry at the time, Sabah made the majority of her appearances in those productions, even adopting the Egyptian dialect. She has starred opposite some of the biggest names from the golden years of cinema, including Abdul Halim Hafez, Kamal Al Shennawi, Ahmad Mazhar and Hussain Fahmy.
During her 60 years in show business, Sabah released an impressive 3,500 songs and 50 albums, and acted in 20 plays and 98 movies. She was the first Arab singer to perform at the Olympia in Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York, Piccadilly Theatre in London, and the Sydney Opera House.
She also made one European TV appearance – which in the 1980s wasn’t common for an Arab singer – on the French programme, Le Grand Echiquier. She sang a duet with French singer Enrico Macias, which actually resulted in her being banned from several Arab countries, due to Macias’ outspoken support of Israel.
Some of her greatest hits are here:
Colourful love live
The star also grabbed a lot of media attention with her nine marriages. She wed her first husband, Najib Shammas at the age of 18, and the couple stayed married for five years, having a son together.
She then received a proposal from former Saudi King Khaled Bin Saud Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, but it ended in divorce a few months later due to his family not approving of the marriage.
Her second child, daughter Howaida, came from her third marriage to Egyptian violinist Anwar Mansi. But that ended four years later due to Mansi’s addiction to gambling.
Her fourth husband was Ahmad Farraj (that lasted three years), and her shortest lived marriage was to her fifth spouse, Egyptian acting legend Rushdi Abaza. She filed for divorce 48 hours later, although she never revealed the reason behind it.
Another Egyptian acting legend, Youssef Shaaban became her sixth husband, with that union lasting for a month. This was followed by a two-year marriage to Lebanese MP Youssef Hammoud.
Her longest relationships came later on in life. She stayed with Lebanese comedian and director Waseem Tabara for five years, while her marriage to the much younger Fadi Kuntar, AKA Fadi Lebnan lasted for 18 years.
Two years ago, it was reported that Sabah married her personal hairdresser, Joseph Gharib. However, it was just a stunt that saw her enter the Guinness World Records as the oldest bride of the year (age 85).
A TV drama based on Sabah’s life, aptly titled Al Shahrourah, aired during Ramadan 2011. She was portrayed by Lebanese actress/singer Carole Samaha, who paid tribute to the star on Twitter.
“I personally lived her feelings, joys and sorrows… Today she has departed, leaving a huge gap in my life. Goodbye Sabouhty,” she posted.
Fellow Lebanese stars Nancy Ajram and Elissa also expressed their sadness, with Ajram posting: “Today Lebanon lost a legend. Sending my deepest condolences to the friends and family of Sabah. Her memory will remain in the hearts and minds of millions.”
Elissa said: “She was ‘life’ with all what it holds in beautiful meanings, and this is how she will always be remembered. With nothing but a smile.”
Rachel McArthur is a journalist based in Cairo