Saturday, February 6, 2016

Badass Women of History- Asmahan


The Spy



Syrian princess, Egyptian singer, British spy and Nazi double-agent - Asmahan was an alluring figure in the Middle East during the 1930s and 40s.


Born Amal al-Atrash into a prominent Syrian family, Asmahan's father was an Ottoman official in Turkey during WWI.

Her parents, both members of the Druze religion, fled Turkey in 1918 after the French and British invaded and occupied the Ottoman Empire's territories.

Supposedly, Asmahan was born on the ship that carried the family to Beirut from Turkey.

When they returned to Syria, Asmahan's father moved the family to his ancestral homeland in the south of the country.

Tensions between the Al-Atrash clan and the French government turned violent in 1921 after a man who tried to assassinate the French governor of Syria was aided in his escape attempt by the Al-Atrash patriarch.

Asmahan's mother, Alia, who felt her marriage was also on the rocks, decided to separate from her husband and move with her children to the relative safety of Egypt.

Despite her husband's objections, Alia left as the French stepped up their violent campaign against the Al-Atrash.


Asmahan (far right) with her mother and two brothers shortly 
after arriving in Egypt.

When they arrived in Egypt, Asmahan's mother was forced to moveher children into a humble Cairo apartment.

Well to do relatives in Egypt avoided contact with Alia because they felt she had disgraced the family by leaving her husband.

Though she was of upper class origins, Asmahan's mother supported her children by working as a seamstress and by singing at parties.

However, her aristocratic background allowed Alia to send her children to a prestigious French Catholic school. Eventually, the family made enough money to live comfortably again. Their fortunes improved dramatically after Asmahan's older brother, Farid, began to succeed as a musician. 

Asmahan as a teenager. 

Inspired by their mother's singing, Asmahan's older brother helped to pave the way for his own sister's rapid rise to fame.

At fourteen Asmahan began performing in concerts. By sixteen she had recorded her first album. Gaining notoriety on Egyptian radio, many of her songs were written by Farid who she would remain close to throughout her life.

Asmahan also transitioned well into the Egyptian film scene. She became one of the country's most prominent movie stars, gaining fame and notoriety across the Middle East for her beauty, charm and singing talent. 


Despite or perhaps because of her great success, Asmahan received resentment and criticism from her extended family in Syria who pressured her into marrying her cousin, an powerful amir, in 1933.

Returning with her new husband to Syria for the first time since her childhood, the Egyptian star's liberal, more Western lifestyle clashed with her husband's conservative worldview.

She refused to change and fit the role of a traditional Druze wife and began to spend more and more time away from her husband's mountain palace.

Her rocky marriage to her cousin ended in divorce in 1938 (they would marry and divorce one more time) and Asmahan decided to move on.

Free from her marriage, Asmahan made a new home for herself at the luxurious King David Hotel in Jerusalem. 


The King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

It was here, at what was regarded as the headquarters of British rule in the Middle East, that Asmahan developed a reputation as a fem-fatale.

Using her singing, charm and extraordinary good looks, 'The Lady of the Lobbies' was able to beguile prominent British and Arab officials alike who stayed at or worked out of the hotel. 

The life of many parties, she was regarded  as an 'agent of influence' who could win and trade favors from a variety of power players. Many important men were smitten with her .

General Edward Spears, a British official, once described Asmahan as: ' of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Her eyes were immense, green as the sea you cross to paradise. She bowled over British officers with the speed and accuracy of a machine gun.'

There was also a popular joke at the hotel that it was impossible to be alone in her room as you were likely to find one general in her bed, another under her bed and one more dangling from the chandelier.

Asmahan was also bisexual and had numerous affairs with prominent Jerusalem women. Her female lovers were mainly the wives of her male lovers.

It was this ability to charm and influence important men which would change her life once again in 1939 when war broke out in Europe between Britain and Nazi Germany. 


Hitler in Paris after the Fall of France

The German conquest of France in 1940 brought numerous French colonies and possessions under de'facto Nazi control. Syria, a French Mandate, came under the domain of Vichy French forces who were loyal to the Nazi government.

Since A Vichy/Nazi controlled Syria threatened British possessions in Palestine and Iraq, British military officials knew they needed support from the peoples of Syria to bring the territory under their control.

In 1941, MI6 recruited Asmahan as an agent and sent her back to Syria. She agreed to work as their operative under the promise that Syria would be granted full and immediate independence once the British invaded it.

Going to Damascus and then to Southern Syria, her mission was to charm and bribe various local leaders into supporting the British invasion and turn their backs on the pro-German French authorities.

She also traveled through the Druze majority areas on the borders of Palestine and Syria convincing her father's people to fight for the British.

With her assistance, the British army in Palestine easily captured Syri. The Free French leader Charles De Gaulle thanked Asmahan personally for her assistance.

Asmahan's honeymoon with the Allies, however, was short lived. 

The British failed to deliver on their promise of Syrian independence. The territory was given to Free French forces opposed to Nazi Germany instead.

This betrayal prompted Asmahan to turn into a double agent.

Operating in Damascus, Asmahan used her seductive charms to steal British military secrets from her high ranking lovers for German intelligence.

Eventually, though Asmahan was captured with British military secrets while trying to reach a German contact in Turkey. She bit the border official who arrested her and she was booted out of Syria by the Free French.

Despite being caught red handed as a double-agent, Asmahan charmed her way out of a firing squad and returned to Jerusalem in 1942.

There, at the age of 24, she resumed her life as the  'Lady of the Lobbies' at the King David Hotel.

She lived there for the next two years, entertaining local notables, restarting her film career, and enjoying her favorite drink a champagne-whiskey cocktail on a daily basis.

She continued to have many affairs and lovers.

In 1944, Asmahan returned to Egypt to star in the film: 'Love and Vengeance' a move which she hoped would make her a prominent star once more.

While filming, she took a car-ride with a friend and a chauffeur in the Nile Delta.

According to the driver, who was the only witness of the event, he lost control of the vehicle which went off the road and dove straight into the Nile River.

Asmahan and her friend drowned before the chauffeur could pull them out.

The odd circumstances around Asmahan's death have prompted many to speculate that the accident was arranged by one of many different parties that would have wished the star harm.

Did MI6 kill her for her betrayal during the war? Did the Germans silence her out of fear that she would reveal secrets? Was a jaded ex-lover or a rebuffed suitor looking for vengeance?

It's unlikely any evidence of a plot will ever emerge. Yet Asmahan's death, like her life, was anything but typical.

Though she wasn't a warrior or a political leader, her skill at charming others made her an invaluable intelligence asset and she showed time and again how great her powers of persuasion were.

Dying only at the age of twenty seven, she lived an exciting albeit tumultuous life and remains an intriguing figure even to this day.


  1. Really good write up! I just wanted to ask though; what evidence do you have to say that Asmahan was bisexual? This is new information for me, but interesting nonetheless. thanks!

  2. This information is incredible! I'm currently studying Asmahan and writing a report on her, would you mind providing me with some of the sources you used? I need this information as soon as possible, so please reply to this comment promptly! Thank you!