A crowning end: On the life and death of Sabah

I remember this super-blond woman appearing on television in 1987, and making me want to break the screen to pull her from inside and take her with me. Sabah alone transcended being an image on the screen. I became certain that behind the image was a real person, and I strived for her.

I remember only a few of Sabah’s 3000 songs, but my family and I remember fondly how when I was three or four, I used to rush to the screen to kiss her every time she appeared on television. I am not sure what attracted me to her exactly — maybe the strength and uniqueness of her presence as a woman.

Sabah died two weeks ago, leaving me sad for the first time to be away from Beirut, especially after I heard that she called on people to celebrate on the day of her death, not grieve. I followed news of the funeral and cried after watching the video that delivered her wish: Her coffin dancing to the tunes of a colorful dabke dance, with deft half-naked performers.

“We don’t know where all these people came from to bid the Sabbouha farewell, but they settled on the affluent streets of downtown Beirut. We heard them passionately murmuring her various songs while all repeating one phrase, ‘ya habibti’ (my love),” wrote Zakeya al-Dirany in Al-Akhbar on December 1.

Sabah is not an image or symbol. She’s a palpable, well-felt public figure. Her nickname, al-Sabbouha, and the words “ya habibti” murmured by those who came to mourn her tell much. I don’t know another artist whose public dared give them a nickname. Imagine Fairouz being called “Fairouza” or Haifa Wehbe “Hayoufa.”

Sabah remains closest to people’s hearts, and it’s a matter of emotion.

A life summed up in a funeral

Sabah’s death captured the attention of all television channels from 11am until the evening news. She occupied a third of newscasts, where her death masked news of the Islamic State and the Lebanese political clique.

She turned downtown Beirut’s exclusive streets into a public space, a space for popular joy that Beirut hasn’t seen in a long time. Last time I saw a crowd from varied social, cultural and religious backgrounds taking over what’s become the security zone of revamped and privatized downtown, was after the assassination of former President Rafiq al-Hariri, 10 years ago.

But the difference was in the joyful spontaneity of the gathering around Sabah’s death: The elderly and children alike rushing to reclaim a space taken from them to be offered to the rich men of Lebanon and the Gulf. I don’t remember my downtown so joyful since I was born, not since the Civil War started in the 1970s. This is one of the best gifts Sabah offered to her people.

Sabah is responsible for the happiness of generations, their dancing nights, their singing and rejoicing. Her modesty brought her closer to them. They tried to return the favor. Bassam designed the white dress in which she was buried. Bassem gave her a last photo shoot: She wore a crown of flowers on her head like kings and saints, and he sat next to her feet. Amin offered her the hotel room where she spent the last years of her life. Joseph brushed her hair and made sure she was beautiful until the last minute. Sabah was for the people, and the people took her.

At the funeral, these people silenced the official statements of public figures. Plans to mourn her failed, and the space was ripe for improvisations. They stole the coffin to carry it on their shoulders, they followed it from the hotel where she entered her last sleep in Hazmiyeh all the way to Martyrs Square, where the army arrived with its special orchestra. Alexandre, a mourner, gave a traditional shout of joy and was instantly joined by others. Mayssa, another mourner, danced flamenco. The troupe danced the dabke. The people sang.

Then the people of Wadi Shahrour, Houmal and Bdadoun, the three villages where she lived, took to the streets to welcome the car in which her body arrived to be buried. They threw rice while singing and dancing. Then they prevented the car from going further than Wadi Shahrour, and instead took the coffin and carried it on their shoulders, walking all the way to Bdadoun, where her body will rest eternally. Sabah made the conservative villages rebel and say, “This is what she wanted,” as in, “no space for criticism.”

Sabah’s death procession occurred three times, adding to her nine marriages. How could it be otherwise, when she symbolizes the freedom of the female body and its right to pleasure? The public handling of her death was a political statement. People appropriated her, and freedom with her. They silenced the phonys and took over the funeral, as though saying, “This is life. This is the face we want for Lebanon.”

Sabah has a special place in Lebanon’s fabric. She’s like a family member, that rebellious one who impresses us with mischief and the ability to fly freely. We criticize her, but don’t stop loving her and striving for her. She shows the way.

She has an authority no one else has. This libertarian, rebellious woman managed to impose respect in death as in life. In a Jadaliyya article, Maya Mikdashi wrote that Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Botros al-Ra’i prayed over the body of Sabah, who married nine different times, both Muslim and Christian men. She obliged a conservative sectarian patriarch to hear and respect her. He had no other choice. That’s how far her authority reached.

So who is Sabah?

She is Jeanette El-Feghaly, a modest girl from Bdadoun. Born in 1927, the third child to a Maronite family, to a violent father and a less caring mother. Her mother used to tell her she wasn’t beautiful, was worthless, that she would find no one to marry.

She studied at the Jesuit school and followed a nun there until she thought she wanted to become one herself. She also looked up to Laila Mourad and wanted to be like her, a diva. Her grandfather was a priest whose voice reached as far as the distant village of Bsous. She inherited his genes, her voice was strong since childhood. Kids showered her with money to repeat the traditional Aboul al-Zolof mawal, her childhood friends recount.

Sabah used to play protagonist in school plays. She started singing at an early age with the encouragement of her uncle who’s a loved poet. She sang the Levant’s mountain folk songs. She tried to sing on radio but was refused due to her young age and voice. Then, famous producer Asya Dagher discovered her and invited her to come to Cairo to sing in three films, for which she signed one contract, when she was 16. She traveled to stardom with her family, hosted by Dagher in her Cairo house.

The voice is a raw asset, a gift from nature, and Sabah had it like no one else. She also loved performance and stardom since childhood. She didn’t live off talent alone. She mastered her voice and adapted it to different uses, which made her special.

Composer Ryad al-Sonbaty worked hard to train her in classical song in Cairo, given the difficulty of adapting her mountainous Levantine voice to Egyptian genres. Sabah quickly understood her abilities and limitations. She understood that she could not indulge in the classical genre with all its musical complexities. This was to our own good. What Sabah owns today transcends music, for she led the war on self-censorship and societal control. She led the movement to love and be proud of oneself, one’s body and one’s life. She moved on, not worrying what her society would think or what chastity would entail.

She thrived when competition in singing was fierce. She battled for space in a scene where Oum Kalthoun, Asmahan, Fairouz and Wadie al-Safi and other heavyweights were contenders. And she managed to hold solid space for herself from 1943 until the end of the 1980s without interruption, earning it through her strong and unique personality.

Sabah is an audacious woman. She refused the musical systems of her times way before others. She stood up and said, “I have something special to me, it’s me and I’ll present it no matter what.” She had no manager. No one to take care of her work. She spent decades taking care of her own business. Her main companions were her hairdresser, designer and choreographer. These are the three people she insisted on remembering and giving credit in her success.

1960s Sabah makes you wonder: Who is this woman? How dare she appear on stage in faux-queen attire with a troupe of young men and women dressing controversially and skillfully dancing dabke? Sabah was always accompanied by the best dabke dancers, that’s how she raised folk dance and song from street to theater and the arena of performance. She made them trendy through clips, plays and operettas that became prevalent ways of reaching out to wider publics. In this she was a pioneer, and she left a print. She invented a genre special to her, a performative folk genre, masterly and enchanting. Sabah came before Michael Jackson in performative singing accompanied by dance, albeit simplified given differences in time, culture, genre and resources. Imagine Sabah alive today, in her early days and her beauty — her powerful masterly voice, love of performance, fashion, beauty, coquetry, rebellion and pioneership all robustly present. Imagine Lady Gaga with Sabah’s voice and grandeur amid today’s media. Boom!

Sabah was pop star par excellence. She preserved her stardom and popularity until the last breath. I wouldn’t be unfair to anyone if I say she was the first to establish a benchmark of pop stardom as understood today in the Arab world. If Haifa Wehbe has a role model, it can’t but be Sabah. Sabah had a voice and performance that can’t be compared to any of today’s stars of course, but I’m pointing to the performance aspect of her practice. Sabah was the first to dare emit sexual connotations in her performances, let alone her personal life, which became public in the midst of our conservative societies. In Yana yana for example, what really attracts us is her flirtation, rather than the song’s beauty.

It’s worth noting that Haifa Wehbe entered and exited the funeral silently not to take away from Sabah’s moment, unlike other stars. It’s also worth noting that Sabah sent advice to Wehbe with her niece. She told her not to be concerned with rumors, not to be afraid, and to continue just the way she is.

The artist is their personality and emotion, their unrestricted individuality. When a public loves an artist, they don’t just love their output and performance, they love them, their existence. They enjoy their way of thinking, feeling, living their bodies, their image and mastery of the tools they use. They learn from the artist, listen to them, see themselves in them. The artist would be nothing more than their tools (a voice, a skill), if the person behind isn’t visible and palpable, offered transparently and generously. The artist and their project are two faces of one coin.

Sabah is the queen of her life. She knew how to celebrate her body when it was breathing with her life. Her soul embodying it was infinitely rich. Fairuz chose the right words. “Your sun doesn’t disappear,” she wrote on flowers put discretely at the church entrance the day of the funeral.

Sabah died at 87 in the early morning of Wednesday, November 26.

The author would like to thank Alexandre Paulikevitch and Kamiliya Jubran for their contribution to this article through conversations. 

Kinda Hassan 

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