Of love and politics: Asmahan’s turbulent final years in Jerusalem

Egyptian journalist Mohamed Al-Tabii recounts in his book how the Syrian singer navigated the turbulent waters of life in the ancient city during her 31 short years.

Asmahan with Muhammad Al-Tabei
Asmahan with Muhammad Al-Tabei

Of love and politics: Asmahan’s turbulent final years in Jerusalem

In 1917, shortly after the Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers suffered defeat, Prince Fahd Al-Atrash and his family boarded a ship to escape from Turkey.

His wife Alia unexpectedly went into labour on board, and before they had reached the Lebanese coast, a baby girl with blue-green eyes was born.

Her father wanted to name her Tajreba, but her mother insisted on calling her daughter Amal, Arabic for “hope”.

The Atrash family kept moving between countries. In 1922, Fahd joined the revolutionaries to fight the French, while Alia fled with their three children, Fouad, Farid, and Amal, from their native Suwayda to Damascus and then to Beirut.

In a bid to subdue the revolutionary prince, the French attempted to take his wife and children hostage. As a result, the mother of three was compelled to leave for Cairo in the winter of 1923.

Journey to Jerusalem

In 1939, shortly before rising to fame in Egypt in 1940-1941 under her stage name Asmahan, Amal Al-Atrash made the acquaintance of journalist Muhammad Al-Tabii.

In his book, Asmahan Tells Her Story, Al-Tabii recounted an era of the singer’s life that he had followed closely.

In August 1940, Asmahan received a letter from the Egyptian passport authority informing her that she needed to appear in person to renew her residency, which was about to expire. As usual, she disregarded the notice.

By December, the director of the passport office informed her that she risked deportation if she did not leave Egypt.

By December 1940, she hadn't renewed her residency, and was told that she risked deportation if she did not leave Egypt.

Asmahan departed Egypt for Jabal al-Druze in Syria, but rumours and lies continued to follow her.

Al-Tabii recounted that a magazine had claimed she was responsible for "the destruction of a respectable young man's family" and his financial ruin, and had been expelled because she converted her residence in the Immobilia Building into a gambling club, which was later raided by the police. 

In May 1941, she sent her first telegram to Al-Tabii, informing him that she had safely arrived in Jerusalem.


The journalist would witness Asmahan's time in the city first-hand, as she would frequently send him letters inviting him to meet her.

Meanwhile, academic Sherifa Zuhur recounts in her book "Asmahan's Secrets: Woman, War, and Song" that Asmahan would travel to Jerusalem alone, with her family, or with Afaf Al-Nashashibi, a close friend and wife of a leader of the Nashashibi family, which shared the leadership of Jerusalem with the Al-Husseini family.

A few days after sending her initial letter to Al-Tabii, she wrote to him again on 9 June.

Her letter read: "I arrived in Jerusalem two days ago and plan to stay for a few days before returning to Jabal al-Druze. My trip to Syria was very successful. The Prince insisted on getting back together with me, but I refused. I think I will be returning to Egypt soon." 

Yet on 10 July, the journalist was surprised to read in Al-Muqattam newspaper that Prince Hassan Al-Atrash had got married to an unnamed woman.

In its issue of 16 July, Al-Misri newspaper reported that the prince re-married his cousin, Princess Amal Al-Atrash, or 'Asmahan' as she was known in Egypt.

So frequent was the Egyptian press reporting on the cinema star that she was dubbed the country's first lady . 

Just a few days had gone by when Asmahan sent Al-Tabii another letter informing him that she was travelling to Jerusalem.

He cautioned her not to write to him because of mail and telegram censorship in Palestine, but she disregarded his warning.

Farid Al Atrash and Asmahan

Eventually, one of her letters was intercepted by censorship authorities in Palestine. Press Officer Major Tweedie wrote to Cairo inquiring about Al-Tabii's identity .

The journalist wrote to Asmahan once more to warn her, and she understood that he was upset. 

Al-Tabii immediately received a response. Asmahan told him in a letter that she had been forced into the marriage and had travelled to Jerusalem to obtain a passport so she could go to Cairo in disguise to see him for a week. He refused. 

At King David Hotel 

The correspondence between Asmahan and Al-Tabii ceased, but an Egyptian lawyer who had just returned to Cairo told the journalist that Asmahan was residing in a luxurious suite at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

While staying at the hotel, her lavish lifestyle was the talk of the town.

She would host champagne and caviar banquets for military commanders, senior officers, and government officials. She would gift her shoes and dresses to the hotel maids.

She also purchased a Rolls Royce for £2,500 from Henri Pharaoun, a wealthy Lebanese politician and businessman who owned the world's biggest Arabian horse racing stable. 

In her book, Sherifa Zuhur recounts that at one point, the hotel management requested Asmahan leave the royal suite to accommodate Queen Nazli, the mother of King Farouk, who had just arrived in Jerusalem along with several princesses.

Asmahan refused. "Queen Nazli has no authority here," she was reported saying.

She hosted champagne and caviar evenings, gifted her dresses and shoes to hotel maids, and bought a Rolls Royce for £2,500.

Another account of the event recalls that when Asmahan was asked to settle her bill upon the arrival of Queen Nazli, she refused, retorting: "She may be a queen, but I am a princess, and I always pay my bills. I refuse to leave." 

In fact, the singer did not have the necessary funds, but in a lucky twist of fate, she received an offer from Studio Misr and used her salary advance to settle her bill.

King Farouk eventually summoned Queen Nazli and the princesses back to Egypt. 

A woman by the name of Idana told Zuhur that her father once mentioned that when Asmahan was in Jerusalem, she had rented one of his cars for the day, and had realised, come evening, that she had lost a diamond ring.

She approached the authorities for help and, unable to locate the ring in the car, police gave Idana's father a beating. Asmahan eventually found her ring in another location.

In October 1941, Asmahan sent an English officer named Harold Morrison, along with a sum of £1,000, to her friend Amina Al-Baroudi, asking her to purchase some items and travel to Jerusalem to meet her.

Two days after her arrival, Amina wrote to Al-Tabii to inform him that Asmahan was ill and wanted to see him.


Al-Tabii traveled to Jerusalem on 24 October by train and stayed at the King David Hotel. However, he was surprised to learn that Asmahan was not in fact ill, but simply wanted to see him.

She told him that she was low on money. Despite having collected £17,000 for her collaboration with the English in persuading Druze leaders and desert princes to switch their allegiance from the Vichy government to the Allies, she had spent £15,000 in just five months. 

The late journalist said the English feared Asmahan's reckless behaviour and excessive drinking, not to mention her indiscretion. 

Before returning to Egypt, Al-Tabii travelled with Asmahan by train from Lod station to Tel Aviv at her suggestion. There, they stayed at the Jean Raymond Hotel, where the Irgun gang kidnapped English officers. 

On the streets of Tel Aviv 

In late November 1941, Al-Tabii joined Asmahan and two of her friends in Tel Aviv to celebrate her birthday.

Her husband, Prince Hassan, had known that she was staying at the King David Hotel, and she feared that she would find him waiting in front of the hotel. 

Al-Tabii and Asmahan strolled through the streets of Tel Aviv, and he accompanied her to a gathering of Jaffa's elite and a few high-ranking English officials and officers.

The next day, overhearing in Tel Aviv that he was seen arm-in-arm with Asmahan during her concert, he started distancing himself from the star.

"This is inappropriate," he said. "It's understandable that people have doubts." 

After the party, he inquired about Asmahan's whereabouts. She was on the top floor, he was told.

Upstairs, he heard her singing in her room, to the admiring shouts of a large crowd of men and women, including two drunken Englishmen.

Going upstairs, he heard her singing in her room, to the admiring shouts of a large crowd of men and women, including a few drunken Englishmen.

One of them, he would discover, was the son of Lord Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of British forces on the Western Front during World War I. The other was Lord Faversham, an officer in the English army. 

On their way back to the hotel, he said to her: "You will never change your ways, even if you lived 100 years," and she burst into tears. 

An evening with two officers 

Before Al-Tabii's return to Egypt, Asmahan asked him to join her for an evening with the two English officers. He understood that she wanted to spend time with him.

She told him the officers would have a cocktail and leave.

"And if they decide not to leave?" he asked. She shrugged."What should I do? Kick them out?"

He told her he did not want to spend his evening with strangers, so he'd rather let her sit with them. After that, he left the hotel. 


He spent the day in Jerusalem, which he found to be a miserable city lacking theatres, clubs, and clean restaurants. He spent an hour in a café before returning to the hotel, where he found out that Asmahan had not met the two officers because of a supposed headache. 

Their mutual friend, Jamal Jabr, told him she was still waiting for him in her suite. But when they went to look for her, they were told by hotel staff that she had gone into the hall with the two officers.

Furious, Al-Tabii approached her when he spotted her with the two officers. She subtly excused herself and whispered to him: "Please, let's not make a scene or fight here."

Al-Tabii recounts the furious conversation that followed.

"Words just came out of my mouth. I did not know or care what I was saying or doing," he writes

"She had convinced me to come from Egypt to celebrate her birthday with her. Was it a coincidence that the two Lords were there? Or had she also invited them in Tel Aviv to follow her to Jerusalem?"

As usual, the journalist adds, she started crying and grabbed a bottle of whiskey, sipping it as if it were water. Al-Tabii snatched it from her hand. 

In the morning, she swore to him that she had not told the two officers to follow her to Jerusalem and admitted that she had made a mistake by inviting them for a cocktail. 


On the morning of 28 December, the first day of Eid al-Adha, Asmahan told Al-Tabii to head to the King David Hotel after having told him earlier to stay at the Eden Hotel.

She was feeling under the weather due to a late night.

She told him that her husband, Prince Hassan, had opened her office drawer and taken the telegrams she had sent him. She warned him against visiting Lebanon and Syria, where her husband could kill him. 

On the evening of 31 December, despite not fully recovering, she insisted on ringing in the New Year with a drink. Al-Tabii tried in vain to talk her out of it.

On the first morning of 1942, she woke up with a fever. In the evening, Amina Al-Baroudi arrived to spend time with Asmahan, with Al-Tabii by her side. 

She warned him against visiting Lebanon and Syria, where her husband, Prince Hassan, could kill him. 

Al-Tabii was taken aback when he saw hotel staff delivering a large bouquet to the room, along with a letter from one of the officers thanking her for her company at dinner on Saturday night, the night she had fallen ill. 

A renowned German-Jewish doctor told them that she had a cold and suspected an issue with her right lung. He decided to wait a couple of days before taking her for an X-ray, especially given her mental state.

Her condition would turn out to be mild, but her right lung was found to be in poor condition, which Asmahan was unaware of. She pointed to her chest and said: "Bear with me for another year or two. I know I will die after that."

Al-Tabii could not find a friend of hers to care for her upon his return to Egypt. Rumours of her illness had spread, and her friends would leave within minutes of their visit.

He spent two additional days by her side, ensuring that she received her medication on time and preventing her from drinking and smoking. When he returned to Egypt, he sent Marie Qilada to attend to her.

Suicide attempt

On 16 January 1942, Asmahan sent a letter to Al-Tabii to let him know that her husband Hassan Al-Atrash had arrived and they would travel together.

However, he was surprised to receive a call from her from the British military command. She asked him to speak in English, and he realised that the call was being monitored by military censors. She sounded tired and in distress, and asked him to meet her in Jerusalem. 

Almost 80 years after her death in a car crash, Asmahan's angelic voice still sends hearts soaring

He took the train to Lod and from there to Jerusalem, without questioning whether her husband was still there. He was afraid that pondering this eventuality would discourage him from taking the trip.

In the morning, Asmahan sat in the living room, with Marie Qilada by her side, and confessed to Al-Tabii that she had attempted to take her own life. 

She told him how her husband had asked her to pack her things and go to Beirut after losing his patience, especially after seeing the hotel's guest list for the month and finding out that Al-Tabii was there.

Al-Tabii cites Asmahan as saying: "He told me his patience had run out and that I've seemingly forgotten that I am his wife; otherwise, I would not constantly run away from him.

"If he stays in Sweden, I flee to Damascus; if he comes to Damascus, I go to Beirut; if he goes to Beirut, I come to Jerusalem. He said people in Suwayda are having a field day with stories about us."

She said: 'If he stays in Sweden, I go to Damascus. If he comes to Damascus, I go to Beirut. If he goes to Beirut, I go to Jerusalem.'

After her husband insisted on using violence to force her out of Jerusalem with the help of English authorities, with whom her relationship had taken a hit, she emptied a bottle of medicine prescribed by her doctor into her mouth and lay on her bed, waiting for death.

Marie saved her, and when she woke up, she found her husband by her side. He asked her: "Do you hate me so much that you would rather die than live with me?" Then he left for Beirut in tears. 

Al-Tabii then recommended that she reconcile with her loving husband, who would forgive her and treat her as a cherished wife and esteemed princess, as opposed to the undignified life waiting for her if she returns to Egypt.

With that, he turned around and walked away, leaving her in tears. He drove to Lod and then on to Egypt, unaware that it would be the last time he would see her in person.   

Two years later, he would see her on a cinema screen in her second and last film, Love and Revenge, before her and Marie Qilada's tragic death in a car accident on the Ras El-Bar Road.

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