Lebanese singer, actress and entertainer Sabah, who was known for her powerful voice and was notorious in the conservative Arab world for her garish outfits, multiple marriages and flings with younger men, died Nov. 26 at her home in Beirut. She was 87.
The Lebanese National News Agency reported her death without disclosing a cause. Her health had been declining in recent years.
Sabah, whose real name was Jeanette Feghali, was a peroxide blonde with a throaty laugh and playful smile. She took the stage name Sabah, Arabic for morning, but had many other nicknames throughout her six-decade career, including al-Ustura, or the Legend.
Born to a Christian family in the village of Bdedoun near Beirut on Nov. 10, 1927, Sabah came to prominence in the 1940s as a singer and actress in the Egyptian movies that dominated the Arab world at the time. She ultimately appeared in at least 25 plays, four radio musicals and nearly 100 films and sang 3,000 songs, according to Charbel Alasmar, a Lebanese-Canadian composer who goes by Charbel Moreno and has documented Sabah’s career.
“She broke so many taboos. I don’t know if she was even aware of it,” said Chady Maalouf, head of programming at Voice of Lebanon radio. “She was the example of a star, she was totally complete: in her appearance, behavior and voice. She shocked people all the time.”
Sabah worked with a string of Egyptian composers to master classical Arabic music. She was particularly drawn to a nostalgic Lebanese folkloric form called the mawal.
Some of her most famous songs include “Zay el-Assal,” or “Your Love Is Like Honey on My Heart,” and “Akhadou el-Reeh,” or “They Took the Wind.”
In a duet recording released in 2006, she showed that she could still outsing her younger contemporaries.
Amid her professional success, Sabah often set tongues wagging with her flamboyant life and her confessions to entertainment reporters. She frequently married and divorced — at least nine times, the National News Agency reported.
One of her husbands, parliamentarian Joe Hamoud, divorced her in the 1970s after she scandalized Beirut society by appearing in tiny shorts for a theater role, Maalouf said. In her 70s, she dated a 25-year-old man who had been named Mr. Lebanon.
Well into her 80s, Sabah appeared with thick, tumbling blond locks, sparkly dresses, red lipstick and heavy black eyeliner. She broke a Lebanese taboo on plastic surgery by constantly updating her features with facelifts.
She held U.S., Lebanese and Egyptian citizenship. Survivors include two children.
In her last months, amid rumors that she had died, Sabah was tickled to discover that journalists were in a frenzy to find out about her condition, Maalouf said.
“She said, ‘Even in my death, I’m making people busy,’ ” he said.