Lebanese singer and actress, Sabah, died last November at 87 years of age. She was known by many different names, her birth name Jeanette Feghali, her stage name Sabah (as well as the diminutive variation Sabbuha), her common nickname Shahroura, meaning songbird, and Ustoura, meaning legend. Regardless of what her fans called her, they knew that her popular song titled "I love Life" captured her true essence.
Born in 1927 in the Christian Lebanese mountain village of Bdadoun, just outside the capital, Sabah would become one of the most prominent Arab stars in modern history. Her incredible signing talent, especially in the so-called mountain folk style, was discovered at a young age and she released her first song at age 13. With beauty and pleasant personality to go with the voice, this winning formula caught the eye of producer Asia Dagher, who encouraged Sabah’s family to bring her to Cairo for a three-film contract. Her family agreed and the young woman never looked back.
Sabah would go on to make nearly 90 films over seven decades. From the very first film, she took her character’s name, Sabah, as a permanent stage name, a popular choice with her fans. Later, inspired by her famous folk poet uncle, Asaad Feghali, who published under the pen name Shahrour al-Wadi, or songbird of the valley, Sabah adopted her nickname, Shahroura. Having written the zajal poetry which his niece sang as a child, Asaad had exercised a significant influence on Sabah.
The best leading men of the time wanted to work with her, and renowned composers offered to write her songs. The list of her producers and co-stars constitutes a who’s who in the history of Arab cinema, while the list of composers proves more diverse than that of Um Kulthum’s or Fairuz’s. In Egypt, Sabah collaborated with the legendary composer Riyad al-Sunbati (her first voice coach who reportedly honed her lusty voice but failed to remove the mountain flare), as well as the famed Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al-Qasabgi, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, Baligh Hamdi, and Farid al-Atrash. In Lebanon, she worked with Filimon Wehbe, Walid Ghilmieh, Zaki Nasif, the Rahbani Brothers and Elias Rahbani. She co-starred in Rahbani musicals with Wadi al-Safi, Nasri Shamseddine, and Fairuz. This diversity proved a key to her artistic success, as she willingly explored different genres, which kept her style fresh for audiences, leading to the release of 50 albums and a reported 3000 songs.
Sabah broke many records and became the first Arab star to perform at various elite venues and opera houses in Paris, London, New York, and Sydney. When she died, leading American and European news agencies carried special reports on her. In addition to breaking records, Sabah broke many taboos. She spoke ininhibitedly on numerous talk shows about raising children, her sex life, marriages, and betrayal by husbands, as well as her failures in some of those areas. She also admirably stood out for never bad-mouthing fellow artists in the press, and staying above religious differences and political intrigues.
Sabah loved the spotlight and proved a prolific worker, despite, or possibly because, of surviving many adversities, which starting at a young age with the murder of her mother for alleged infidelity at the hands of her older brother. She also apparently loved to get married, holding a record of nine husbands from different backgrounds, including politicians and her co-stars, such as the famous heart throb, actor Rushdi Abaza. Along the way, she had two children. Her son, Sabah Najib Shammas, works as a medical doctor in the U.S., while daughter Hwaida Anwar Mansi acted in films prior to moving to the U.S. Sabah obtained American citizenship through them and, in addition to her Lebanese passport, received passports from Egypt and Jordan, with the latter serving as an expression of the high regard in which the former Jordanian King held her.
Sabah’s designer outfits, hairstyles, and numerous plastic surgeries became her trademarks as she aged. Even late in her life, her priority went to her appearance over her health, and she declared that she loved life, humor, and going out to meet people. Her persistent glamour appealed to some people, but attracted the mockery of comedians, such as famous impersonator Bassem Feghali (no relation) who made a career of it. Despite her apparently shallow personality, Sabah commanded respect with her genuine kindness, honesty, and generosity. Stories about how she was always broke served as fodder for gossip columnists. When she was often asked to describe how her close circle of friends and relatives took financial advantage of her, she preferred to talk about the generosity of those who helped her, including the family that gave her permanent residence in their Beirut hotel, where she eventually died.
Even in death, she still commanded the spotlights with a glamorous style. Frequent rumors of her premature demise amused her and she was quoted to say that she kept people busy even in death. She then asked that people dance and sing at her actual funeral, which they did. Videos of her casket being bounced to the rhythms of her songs went viral. A Lebanese army marching band played her tunes at her burial in Bdadoun. Numerous interviews and biographies document the diva’s legacy, including a 2011 30-episode television drama titled Shahroura, staring Lebanese singer Carole Samaha.
Sabah died within a year of the death of her frequent duet singer, Wadi al-Safi. Their illnesses at older ages brought attention to the absence of a medical insurance system for artists in Lebanon and the Arab world. Even the great ones had to rely on their families or the charity of donors, and occasionally, heads of other states, to support themselves or pay medical costs. At Sabah’s and al-Safi’s funerals, many politicians promised to work to fix this problem. Art critics spoke of the end of the golden era of Arab arts.
Although her personality, appearance, and spontaneous comments received a great deal of attention and coverage, her artistic legacy proved more important than many critics gave her credit for. An incredibly talented and capable singer, Sabah excelled in various styles, but was exceptional in the mawwal genre, vocal improvisation in the context of folk songs and zajal poems, as well as mijana and ataba, popularized in Lebanese musicals of the Rahbani Brothers. She characteristically polished off long phrases in one breath, to the awe and praise of her audiences. Her greatest contribution to Lebanon, however, constituted the global appeal that resulted from her transporting Lebanese arts and folk traditions around the world. When Sabah became a star in Egyptian movies, the leading movie industry in the Arab world, she single handedly familiarized Egyptians with the Lebanese dialect, and through it, the Lebanese culture, paving the path for numerous artists after her to reach beyond their small nation.