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Remembering Sabah, An Iconic And Thoroughly Unconventional Arab Star

Lebanese singer Sabah in a 2008 photo from Lebanon.
Anwar Amro
AFP/Getty Images
Lebanese singer Sabah in a 2008 photo from Lebanon.

Legendary Lebanese singer and movie actress Sabah, an icon across the Arab world for decades, died today in Beirut. Married at least nine times, this mega-star of stage and screen was both completely unconventional and wildly popular, making more than 90 movies and releasing more than 50 albums.

She specialized in flirtatious love songs like "Yana Yana," which became a signature in her career, from the original 1970 film version to a 2009 remake with the young model and singer Rola Saad.

Her family announced her death to Lebanese media, though not its cause. A statement issued today by Lebanon's Ministry of Information mentioned that she had previously suffered a series of brain thromboses. She was 87 years old.

Born Jeanette Gergis al-Feghali to a Maronite Christian family in the town of Bdadoun, north of Beirut, she experienced hard times in her early life. According to the Lebanese government statement, her father physically abused her and tried to take her early movie earnings; her first marriage was to escape her father's control. There were other deep family troubles as well. Her brother killed her mother because he believed she was having an affair.

Feghali took the stage name Sabah ("morning") as she launched her career. She began singing and acting in Egyptian films in the 1940s, and co-starred with many of the era's leading men, including Abdel Halim Hafez and Kamal El Shenawy.

With her rich, expressive voice and vivacious stage presence, Sabah became one of the most popular voices not just of her native country, but across the Arab world. She had long ties with some of the era's leading composers, most notably the Egyptian Mohammed Abdel Wahhab and the Lebanese brothers Assi and Mansour Rahbani.

As well as being a superstar across the Middle East, she performed at landmark theaters around the globe, including Carnegie hall, the Olympia in Paris, London's Piccadilly Theatre and the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

Rather than retreating from the spotlight in her later years, Sabah tried to keep herself — and her trademark flowing blond hair, sparkling outfits and a face clearly altered by plastic surgery — squarely in the public eye, which invited parody. Until 2009 she kept performing in concerts and on television programs including Lebanon's competition show "Star Academy."

She took on the name Sabah when she launched her career, and she also became known by an affectionate diminutive, Sabbouha. But her fans also nicknamed her ElShahroura — the singing bird — which also became the title of a TV biopic produced in Egypt for Ramadan in 2011 that depicted the ups and downs of her life story. (In the Middle East, Ramadan is a hugely important time for television, in the words of one media executive, "a Super Bowl every hour, every night" for the entire month.)

Funeral services for Sabah will be held Sunday in Beirut at the St. George Maronite Cathedral.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.