Sabah, iconic Lebanese singer dies aged 87

Sabah, the legendary honey-voiced diva, as famous for her passion for life as for her voice and acting ability, has died aged 87, leaving the world to mourn the ‘Elizabeth Taylor of Arabia’.

In this June 2009 photo, famous Lebanese singer Sabah laughs during an interview with journalists at the Comfort Hotel where she has been living, in Beirut, Lebanon. AP Photo / Ahmad Omar
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Sabah, the iconic Lebanese singer known for her voice, fashion and perseverance, was rumoured to have died on many occasions in the past decade – the result of false social media reports and circulated emails.

When she finally passed away yesterday, many people in the Arab world still did not believe it.

The singer, who was known for the quote “I have lived enough”, died at home aged 87 after many years of ill health.

The news was released by Lebanon’s national newspaper in a brief statement at 8.30am, saying the “singer and actress Sabah passed away”. The Daily Star newspaper said Sabah died at 3am at Beirut’s Comfort Hotel, where she had been living.

One of a trio of Lebanese cultural icons including Fairouz and the great Wadih Al Safi, who died a year ago aged 91, Sabah was known as “the voice of Lebanon”, with “a voice like honey”.

To her fans, she was “white hearted” in the way in which she gave back so much of herself.

Sabah was born Jeanette Gergi Feghali, in 1927, in Bdadoun, Lebanon, to a Catholic family.

Taking the stage name Sabah, which means morning, she overcame a turbulent childhood marred by violence and became known to the Arab world as an actress and singer who rose to fame during the Golden Era of Egyptian Cinema in the 1940s and 50s.

Sabah earned various nicknames such as Al Sabbouha (a diminutive play on her name), Al Shahroura, in reference to her place of birth in Wadi Chahrour, as well as “singing bird”, and was also dubbed by many as “Al Ostoora”, the legend.

In a career that spanned more than 60 years, it was sometimes hard to separate the fact and fiction surrounding her.

It was alleged that she suffered abuse at the hands of her father and that her brother may have killed her mother.

Sabah married many times. The first time, it was said, was at an early age to get away from her family. Her most notable marriages were to the legendary Egyptian actor Roshdi Abaza for just one week, and the Lebanese writer-director Wassim Tabbara. Her marriage to the young Lebanese artist Fadi Lubnan lasted 17 years.

Lebanese media dubbed her “the Elizabeth Taylor of Arabia”. Some reports spoke of seven husbands, others 10, including a Saudi prince.

In Lebanon, she was often mocked on her romantic adventures and her plastic surgeries; especially her affairs with much younger men, such as her engagement and unconfirmed marriage to Mister Lebanon of 2000, Omar Mehio. He was in his early 20s, and she was in her early 70s.

Sabah was also known for her generosity, elegance and class, and for her forgiving nature – qualities needed after several husbands were said to have taken financial advantage of her. But ultimately it was her zest for life for which she will always be remembered.

In April, 2008, she published a report with supporting photos announcing her marriage to Joseph Gharib, her hairdresser of 17 years. She later revealed it was an April Fool’s joke. Some even believed that the union made her the oldest bride in the Guinness Book of World Records.

“I recall a very vibrant energetic woman,” said Rabih Feghali, a resident of the UAE in his 30s, who is related to Sabah on his grandmother’s side.

Mr Feghali met the diva in the 1980s as a teenager when she came to Abu Dhabi to perform. She came to his father’s bakery, Arlequin, in Al Khalidiya, to meet his parents.

“To me she was like my grandmother, about that age, but she was full of life and laughter,” he said.

“She pushed the envelope in terms of lifestyle, fashion and art. She did what many wouldn’t dare, and she just lived her life her way.

“You liked her for what she was, a multitalented entertainer.”

She was the first Arabic singer to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House.

In 2010, she was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dubai International Film Festival. Diff chairman Abdulhamid Juma said yesterday: “We all heard the bad news of the passing of the legendary singer and actress Sabah this morning. We honoured her at the festival four years ago, and we are very sad to hear the news.”

While the new generation of Arabs may have not known her songs and films, they knew of her through their parents and grandparents, as well as through her television appearances into her 80s. She retired only four years ago after an illness left her with paralysis in one of her arms and legs.

In her later years, financial problems left Sabah with nowhere to live. It was said these were compounded by her generosity to orphanages across Lebanon, while she would routinely give away dresses to those in need or to charity.

After the pop star Ragheb Alama stepped in, she thanked him on air. It emerged that he had met her as a child; she had welcomed him into her home and told him to pursue his dreams.

Yesterday he tweeted: “Our giants are leaving, our cedars are diminishing. Farewell our shahroura, our beloved, rest in peace.”

In February this year, a hospital photo of the singer went viral in the Lebanese media, showing the diva bloated and ill, and with no make-up. Al Bawaba media quoted her reportedly saying: “I’ve been waiting for death for a long time now. I want it. I want to know its secret. I want to know what comes after it.

“Everyone I’ve played with, lived with and sang with are gone; what’s left any more? They’ve even destroyed Lebanon. I’ve got to leave this life.”

“Sad news today. The legendary singer Sabah died. With her passing away, an entire beautiful past of Lebanon passes away,” tweeted the Lebanese MP Walid Jumblatt. “She was a great singer of a Lebanon that my generation knew and that will never come back.”

Condolences and sadness poured in for the ultimate diva, who often made headlines for her unconventional hairstyles, eccentric fashion and for keeping her figure, despite her age.

“RIP #Sabah — She showed us what it means to live your life to the fullest, the way you want it, not caring about what people think/say/do,” tweeted @SalmaIFouad echoing similar sentiments expressed by many.

“Somethings just happen! And when they do you feel empty. #sabah #RIP,” tweeted Lebanese TV personality @Zaven_K

The Lebanese singer Carole Samaha, who played Sabah in a 2011 TV drama Shahroura, posted a photo of her with Sabah on her official Twitter account saying: “I lived her feelings, her happiness and her sadness, and today she left, leaving a deep mark on my life, goodbye Sabouhti, Shahrourat Lebanon.”

Sabah will be buried on Sunday in her hometown following a funeral in Beirut. Finally, all those jokes about her immortality will be put to rest.

rghazal@thenational.ae

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