Farid al-Atrash (Arabic: فريد الأطرش; October 19, 1910 – December 26, 1974), also written Farid Elattrache, was a Syrian–Egyptian composer, singer, virtuoso oudplayer, and actor. Having immigrated to Egypt in childhood, al-Atrash embarked on a highly successful career spanning more than four decades—recording 500 songs and starring in 31 movies. Sometimes referred to as “King of the Oud”, he is one of the most important figures of 20th century Arab music.
Al-Atrash was born in al-Suwayda, in southern Syria to the Druze al-Atrash family who fought the French colonial army.[ His father was Syrian and his mother was Lebanese. As a child, al-Atrash emigrated with his mother and siblings to Egypt, escaping the French occupation. Later, they were naturalized by the Egyptian government as citizens. Farid’s mother sang and played the Oud, which spurred his musical interest at an early age.
As a child and young adult, al-Atrash sang in school events. He studied in a music conservatory and became an apprentice of the renowned composer Riyad as-Sunbaty. In the 1930s, al-Atrash began his professional singing career by working for privately owned Egyptian radio stations. Eventually, he was hired as an oud player for the national radio station and later as a singer. His sister, Asmahan, was also a talented singer, and for a while they worked together. In 1941, they starred in their first successful movie Intisar a l-Shabab (انتصار الشباب – The Triumph of Youth, 1941), in which Farid himself composed all the music. He died in December 26, 1974, at the age of 64.
Al-Atrash had a long and colorful music career lasting four decades. He composed musically diverse songs, and was a highly regarded composer, singer and instrumentalist. Al-Atrash maintained that although some of his music had western musical influence, he always stayed true to Arab music principles. Although the majority of his compositions were romantic love songs, he also composed several patriotic and religious songs.
One of al-Atrash’s most unusual and distinguishable traits was his voice. High and mellow at the start of his career, it evolved into a wider, deeper sound. A person not familiar with his work would find it hard to believe the singer in “Ya Reitni Tir” (1930s) and “Adnaytani Bil Hajr” (1960s) were the same singer. His singing style was deeply passionate.
In many of his songs, and nearly all of his concerts, al-Atrash would sing a mawal, which is a slow voice improvisation of a few poetic lines. These improvisations sometimes lasted up to 15 minutes. The mawal was a favorite of his fans. Some of the most famous songs include “Rabeeh” (Spring), “Awal Hamsa” (first whisper), “Hekayat Gharami” (story of my love), “Albi Wa Moftaho” (my heart and its key), “Gamil Gamal”, “Wayak”, “Ya Zahratan Fi Khayali” (يا زهرة في خيالي – “Flower of my imagination), “Bisat Ir Rih” (flying carpet), “Ya Gamil Ya Gamil”, “Ya Habaybi Ya Ghaybeen”, “Eish Anta”, and “sa3a bi 2orb el habib” (an hour in company of the beloved).
Al-Atrash starred in 31 Egyptian musical films from 1941 to 1974. His last movie, Nagham Fi Hayati (نغم في حياتي, Songs in my life) was released after his death. All his films except the last two were black and white.
They ranged from comedies to dramas, or a combination. He composed all the songs in his movies including the songs sung by other singers, and instrumentals (usually belly dance routines). His earlier films would include approximately ten songs, but overall the films would average about five songs each. Some of al-Atrash’s well-known movies include Intisar al-Shabab (انتصار الشباب – The Triumph of Youth, 1941), Yom Bila Ghad, Ahd el-Hawa, and Lahn al-Kholoud (لحن الخلود – “Eternal Lyric”, 1952).
Farid Brother Fouad sister Amal (Asmahan) and Mother
Farid and his sister Amal, along with their brother Fou’ad, belonged to the religious minority clan of their parents, Princess Alia and Prince Fahd al-Atrash. (Samir, 1998)
His younger sister, Asmahan, evidenced similar musical talent in her teens, becoming one of the most popular female vocalists and cinema stars in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Farid is better known than Asmahan because her career was interrupted by her death in an accident in 1944. Yet he was initially overshadowed by his sister’s talent and popularity. With maturity and the forging of a successful performance formula, Farid became famous in his own right. Even today, reference to the given name “Farid” in the context of
Arabic music or popular culture is immediately understood to denote al-Atrash himself. (Sherifa, 2003)
Al-Atrash shaking hands with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, February 1955
Quick success brought the young man a lifestyle of nightclubs, love affairs, and gambling. Soon Farid was in debt and found himself abandoned by his disapproving mother.
Farid Al Atrash and Samia Gamal
During this difficult period of his life, he also endured the death of his sister and fellow performer Asmahan.
Farid found comfort in a relationship with the belly-dancer Samia Gamal, for whom he was motivated to risk all he owned. In 1947 he produced and co-starred in a movie with Samia directed by Henri Barakat; Habib al-‘Oumr (“The love of my life,” 1947), which became a huge success. After this came Afrita Hanem (“Madame la diablesse,” 1949). Five films later, the unmarried couple broke up. Farid continued to work with other film stars in numerous successful movies in which he always had the romantic lead role of a sad singer. He even repeatedly chose his character’s name to be “Wahid,” meaning lonely.
Al-Atrash refused to get married, claiming that marriage kills art. In his films, the audience remembered his leading ladies and his beautiful songs more than the story lines.
Prior to the 1952 military coup d’état against King Farouk I, al-Atrash became friends with Farouk’s consort, Queen Nariman, a relationship that continued after the Queen’s divorce and the coup that cost Farouk his throne. The former queen’s family did not accept al-Atrash, and the separation from Nariman sent the singer into a long depression, the start of health problems that worsened from that point on until his death.
As al-Atrash became older, he reconsidered his opinion of marriage and proposed to Egyptian singer named Shadia, but at the last minute he backed out. By now his health was poor, and he feared that he would leave her a young widow. He often played out that scenario and sang about it in his romance movies.
“He remained a bachelor throughout his life and constructed himself with references to the authentic post of Arab tradition and in a fairly idealized version of modernity. Tales of his love affairs were wildly popular during his lifetime and were seemingly merged with the lyrics of his love songs.” (Lahoucine, 2003)
Camilla Al Atrash, the only daughter of Asmahan with her uncle Farid