A seven-year-old girl enters a church in Jal El Dib near Beirut, she bares nothing in her heart but her love for God and singing. With tears in her eyes, she stood in front of the altar, asking God to make her famous.
Jeanette was certain God would answer her prayer. As one of her father’s friends had once told her "All prayers were answered in that church, especially the wishes of those who entered it for the first time". Shortly after her prayers, the girl traveled to Cairo, the Hollywood of the east at the time, and became a prominent actress and singer.
The family left Jal El Dib and moved to Beirut, where “Sabbouha” went to a Christian school that had its own theatre troupe. After playing the role of “Princess Hind”, she started meeting journalists like Kanaan Khatib, and performing Lebanese Muwashahat
Film producer Assia Dagher soon heard about Sabbouha, and sent her agent to Lebanon to sign a contract with the young star, offering to take her to Egypt where she would perform in three movies for 150 Egyptian pounds.
Born on November 10, 1927, 17-year-old Jeanette Georges Feghali left with her father to Cairo, where she quickly rose to fame. In 1944, she starred in “Al-qalb Lah Wahed
” with Anwar Wajdi, directed by Henry Barakat.
She was only 18 years old, when poet Saleh Jawdat reportedly chose to call her “Sabah”. In another narrative, Assia Dagher published a photo of the promising star in “As-sabah Al-Masriya” magazine, asking its readers to choose a name for her. They later chose the name of the magazine in which she appeared, as they felt it captured the brightness of her face.
According to critic Khayriyah Al-Beshlawy, both accounts are likely to be true. Producer Assia did need a new name for her star, and so she did not mind consulting with numerous people and engaging the press.
The Loving Star who Dared to Dream
Sabah, also known as “the brightest of all suns”, “Shahroura” and “the legendary singer”, was a loving woman, who always dared to dream and rejuvenate her youth free from traditional ties. This summed up her philosophy in life.
Even when it comes to death, deemed as the ending to everything, Sabah perceived it as “a new opportunity to experience a new world”. In an interview with Radio Monte Carlo, she said that “death is not scary. I have had enough from this world, let me go and experience something new”.
According to critic Mohammad Hanafi, Sabah valued change and rejuvenation, performed around 3000 songs and acted in 85 films and 24 musical plays. Having started her career with "light" songs, as she matured she took on classical and traditional genre with ease.
From performing light songs like these:
Sabah moved to the classical genre.
And delighted listeners when she sang Lebanese traditional "Jabali" genre.
She played the role of an aristocratic lady in numerous films, including “Share’ Al-Hob
” with renowned star Abdel Halim Hafez:
She appeared as a farmer in “Aqd Al-Loulou
And a playette in “Ighra
In addition to diverse other roles.
According to Al-Beshlawy, her role in “Laila Baka Fiha Al-Qamar
” may be the closest to her real character. A famous star, Sabah was married to younger men, such as Fadi Lebnan, whom she helped but he later cheated on her. The story is quite similar to what happened in the film, mentioned above, in which she starred with the heartthrob Hussein Fahmy.
Free from all societal restrictions, Sabah loved change and did not hesitate to rejuvenate herself, this also applied to her marriages. She got married 9 times to men from different backgrounds. She married Najib Shammas, a merchant and businessman who fathered her son, whom they named Sabah, and stayed with him for five years.
She also married prince Khaled ibn Saud Ibn Abdul Aziz who divorced her months later due to pressure from his family. The star married Youssef Hammoud, a Lebanese politician, for two full years, but they were later separated because of his political affiliations and the fact that he spent little time with her.
A Maronite Christian, Sabah also married Egyptian presenter Ahmad Faraj, a devout Muslim who presented a religious show called “Nour ala Nour
”. Prior to their marriage, he had convinced her to convert to Islam, and she later appeared in one of his shows wearing a veil, according to critic Tareq Shinnawi. After a three-year marriage, they were separated because of his constant opposition to her roles in movies and her progressive approach to life.
Sabah, a movie star who rose to fame in the forties of the last century, also married Egyptian violinist Anwar Mansi in the early fifties, who fathered her daughter Howaida, born in 1952. However, the couple later divorced because he had been staying out late “drinking and gambling”, as she later told the media.
After convincing her that he would divorce his wife, Samia Gamal, Sabah married actor Rushdi Abaza. The couple agreed to keep their marriage a secret, but the press soon found out and Rushdi had to announce that he would not divorce his first wife, angering Sabah who asked to be divorced. When he refused to divorce her, she reverted to Christianity again to get a divorce through the court according to Shinnawi.
She later married renowned Lebanese comedian author, director and actor Wassim Tabbara, with whom she stayed for four years. She also married Egyptian actor Yousef Shaaban for one month for unknown reasons before getting a divorce for unknown reasons as well.
When it comes to love and marriage, age difference has never been an issue to Sabah. She loved and married Najib Shammas, who was two decades her senior, and also married Fadi Qintar, known as “Fadi Lebnan”, who was of her son’s age. Their marriage lasted for 15 years, and then she left him because he had reportedly taken advantage of her financially in the last years of their marriage without giving her enough attention.
Audacity and Freedom
Audacity, coupled with faith and freedom, underpinned Sabah’s philosophy in life, and examples are in abundance. Media professional and journalist Jihad Ayyoub said that he had once asked her about her sex life, a question that surprised her from a journalist in the east, where no one was brave enough to delve into this topic.
She said this was “an important question that journalists in the east do not ask. No one else has ever asked me this question, and I will give an honest answer without sugarcoating: a person who always thinks about sex makes a big mistake, and errs a lot. He/she cannot continue to succeed. Sex comes at a certain stage in the life of a female star, and lasts for a shorter duration compared to the male star, and then everything is revealed. I am neither demanding nor attracted to sexy men. Those who said otherwise about me were wrong. They either wrote it because they are jealous, or they were asked to write this for evil reasons.”
She added that “sex took only 10 % of my life, and this will shock everyone. Yes, it is the truth, and that’s why there were husbands to whom I was unfair, because sex was not my first priority. Sex is a waste of time. It is a unique state needed for pleasure, but it lasts for a few moments only. When you later reflect on it, you may be either annoyed or feel deceived and then go back to your dream, thinking how you will continue to work. Some people use sex as a means to achieve their goals, but it is a temporary and lowly means that sidelines the mind despite the short-lived pleasure it gives. It is a game to those who do not know their goals, but it destroys them. It is a stage to those who do not mind it. I love handsome guys and beauty, but the most handsome man does not mean anything to me sexually, contrary to what many people believe about me, or have come to believe because of my multiple marriages. Sabah has never loved anyone but Sabah. There are silly people who love and value sex more than life itself, but those cannot succeed with time. Not only is their success short-lived, but their news could be shared everywhere!”
The legendary singer did not shy away from flirting with Gamal Abdel Nasser publicly. According to writer Fida’ Shandweely, she sang “Min Sihr Oyounak
” in a private concert for the Egyptian army in the presence of Abdel Nasser. As she performed the song, she kept looking at the president, and everyone felt she was fascinated by his eyes. Fida’ mentioned this incident in “Shahroura”, a soap opera in which he presented her biography, and later confirmed to the press that Sabah had personally shared this incident with him.
Despite confirming that Sabah had actually shared the incident, Shinnawi says it is not true. He says the song was presented in “Ighra’
” movie in 1957, but the censor banned broadcasting the song at the time, because Sabah was allegedly too feminine when she said “yaaah”. She had to re-record the song to make it less feminine. Shinnawi affirms that Sabah did not sing in concerts, and certainly did not address Abdel Nasser, but she might have been confused about the details of the incident later.
Because of her audacity, she did not really care about the consequences of her friendship with Enrico Macias, a Jewish French singer of Algerian descent known for his support for Israel. She sang with him at a time when enmity against Israel made headlines in all Arab radios and newspapers, making Arab radios boycott her songs for five years.
Reportedly upon the request of Abdel Nasser, she was not allowed to enter Egypt and her Egyptian citizenship, which she had been granted following her marriage to Anwar Mansi, was revoked. This was further exacerbated by strained relations with Lebanese president Camille Chamoun at the time. However, she returned to Egypt years later and reclaimed her citizenship during the rule of Anwar Sadat, singing the following song to Egyptians:
Sabah performed in Olympia Hall in Paris with Romeo Lahoud musical troupe (and was the second Arab star to do so after Umm Kalthoum), Kanagri in New York, Sydney Opera House, Belgian Palace of Arts, Albert Hall in London, Las Vegas Theaters, and presented a huge collection of movies and plays. She paid little to no attention to any rule. She even had no house at one point in her life.
Spending money like there was no tomorrow, Sabah had given money generously to everyone around her until she lost all that she had. She sold her own house to pay for the treatment of her daughter Howaida.
Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi offered to build a palace for her in Libya, but she refused and lived her last days in a hotel.
Even when she kissed the world goodbye, she did so with a lot of courage. Before her death, numerous rumors about her demise had spread. She responded saying that she did not fear death. In her will, she did not want any expression of sadness in her funeral, and asked to be laid to rest while playing the Lebanese Dabkeh, which is what happened on November 24, 2014.