Gretchen McCullough

Gretchen McCullough

Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997-1999.

Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in the Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth, Storyglossia, The Literary Review and The Common. Translations in English and Arabic have been published in: Nizwa, Banipal, Brooklyn Rail inTranslation and Al-Mustaqbel.

Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories from Cairo, Trans. with Mohamed Metwalli was published in July 2011 by AFAQ Publishing House, Cairo. A collection of short stories about expatriate life in Cairo, Shahrazad’s Tooth, was also published by AFAQ in 2013.

Currently, she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.


“Ya Touyour”: Oh, Birds Sing


I do not remember listening to the songs of Asmahan when I lived in Lattakia, Syria in the late nineties, but I must have. But then, I wouldn’t have understood the words. Only the year before, in 1996, I had taken one year of formal Arabic at the University of Alabama with an Iraqi lady who had fled Kuwait during Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990. How my Iraqi teacher, S. came to live in Tuscaloosa is another quirky story—maybe for another time. S. emphasized learning classical Arabic—and that year, I learned to appreciate the sounds represented by the elegant squiggles of the alphabet. I listened to the lyrical, melodic songs of Fairuz and played the tape again and again of the song, “Habiytak Bel Sayif.” A young girl who pines for a boy who never returns: “I loved you in summer; I waited for you in winter/Your eyes are summer; My eyes are winter.” Little did I know, that the situation would be the reverse for me in Syria: a boy would pine for me.
           I was taking classical Arabic because I had applied for a Teaching Fulbright in Syria. Of course, when I landed in Lattakia and I opened my mouth and spoke so formally and stiffly, the locals squawked. At the time, I felt the classical Arabic was useless, but now, I know better. On my first taxi ride, I must have sounded like a character out of Shakespeare, “Can thou convey me to the other side of town, if you please?” The taxi driver ignored my attempt, mistaking me for a Russian prostitute and simply made a hole with one two fingers and poked his forefinger through it. He told me it was impossible that I was an American; he was certain Americans did not look like me! I had spent two years at Ramses College in Cairo in the late eighties without much Arabic, except “Malish,” “Insha’allah” and “Maksur,” the sum total of my linguistic prowess. This time, I resolved it would be different and I would be better prepared. Except I wasn’t—how little did I understand that one year would never be enough preparation and even after nineteen years of dogged toil and tears, there was still so much more to learn!
           After my first year in Lattakia, I brought K., my Syrian boyfriend, a linguistics professor, back with me to Tuscaloosa and he met S. my Arabic teacher and her husband, a doctor, who was not practicing medicine, but counselling young African-American teenage mothers for the state of Alabama, an odd job for an upper-class Iraqi doctor. K. could not believe how much S. and her husband complained about the U.S.: they had fled Kuwait, yet they still had two cars, had jobs and were living in a spacious, rented house. K. had supported himself as a curry cook in Exeter and in Cork at Pakistani take-away restaurants because the Syrian government were always late in paying his university fees in graduate school. He thought S. and her husband were spoiled! It is now 2016 and I do not know if K. is one of the Syrian refugees walking across Europe. I hope not. I felt overwhelmed by the demands of K’s enormous Syrian family; sadly, our relationship did not survive after I left Syria. When I contacted him over six months ago, he said, “We are fine. God bless.” Given the fact that the secret police were listening, maybe he did not want to give any more details. Or maybe, he wanted to forget me. Now, I hear from another friend that quiet Lattakia has become swamped with refugees from Aleppo.
           It is the ‘Eid holiday. My partner, M., an Egyptian poet, and I are in Izmir, Turkey and I am sitting on the balcony, looking out at the Aegean Sea, thinking about the life of Asmahan. The bay is darkish this morning, not the bright blue that it was in June. Last night the mood was different: Turkish children were flying small, homemade hot air balloons—plastic garbage bags with a small wick, lit with kerosene—the glowing balloons are caught by the wind and carried over the bay. Asmahan, herself, was born on a boat in the Mediterranean in 1918, almost a hundred years before the current crisis in Syria. Her father was a governor in Demirci in Turkey and the Ottoman Empire was crumbling—he fled with his family across the Mediterranean. After the marriage broke up, Asmahan’s mother, ‘Alia Al-Atrash, took her three children with her to Cairo. Besides her music and enchanting voice, like many, I am attracted by Asmahan’s story: a crazy mélange of fairy tale, Greek tragedy and suspense thriller. Her mother, a musician, fostered her daughter, Amal’s talent. Wealthy, aristocratic people who found themselves impoverished in a strange country; they quite literally had to “sing for their supper.” In Zamalek, it is now common to hear the Syrian accent. Just around the corner, is an enterprising “shawerma seller,” who is selling Syrian sandwiches to make his daily bread.
           Asmahan’s fairy tale continued with a rise to quick fame and a marriage to her cousin, Prince Hassan, and the birth of a daughter, Camellia. But Prince Hassan from a conservative Druze background didn’t appreciate Asmahan’s immense, vast talent and simply wanted her to stay at home and prepare time-consuming, delicious Syrian food: mahshi, fattah, kibbeh. Like so many artists who rise quickly, Asmahan was seduced by the high life: alcohol, late parties, gambling. She suffered from depression, but was undiagnosed and untreated. I read Mohamed Al-Taba’i’s biography Asmahan Tells Her Story (Dar al-Shorouk, 2008), this past summer and enjoyed his account of his friendship with Asmahan. But it was probably extremely hard work to be Asmahan’s friend: she was charming and fun, but also moody, capricious and manipulative.
           When I was nosing around on the internet, I found Asmahan’s death notice in the Al-Ahram newspaper, published in August 15th, 1944, which hinted at a conspiracy, saying her death was “not ordinary.” Reading Al-Masry Al-Youm every day defies this statement—there are scores of Egyptians who are not glamorous or famous who die in terrible car accidents, more dramatic than a flipped car in the Nile–cars either incinerated or pretzeled are daily, gruesome fare on the Accidents page. That said, if the British or French intelligence wanted to get rid of her, there would have been much easier ways than a car accident; poison, for example. In Sherifa Zuhur’s book, Asmahan’s Secrets: Woman, War and Song she suggests still other conspiratorial stories which remind me of the game, Telephone, we used to play when we were kids. Whisper a secret to the person next to you and see how monstrous it becomes. Umm Kulthum, her rival, got her pals at Studio Misr to hire a driver. Really? And there is also Prince Hassan, her Druze husband who decided to kill her because she was ruining the family’s honor and reputation. Her conservative male Druze relatives probably wanted to throttle her, but did they pay for a driver to drive himself and his passengers into the canal so that they would drown? She married two directors briefly, Ahmed Baderkhan and Ahmed Salem. But was she, in fact, married? Druze are not allowed to marry outside of their community; they often marry their first cousins. And with Prince Hassan, her cousin, she had divorced and then re-married.
           Maybe, even more bizarre than the conspiracy theories swirling around her is how “real life” impacted the filming of the movie, Gharam wa Intiqam (Passion and Revenge), directed by Youssef Wahbi. Asmahan died while they were making the film—and the car accident is written into the script. In the film, Wahid, played by Anwar Wagdi, is killed on the evening of his wedding to Suheir, a singer, (Asmahan, playing herself.) Gamal Hamdi, a close friend of Wahid’s is a suspect, but the police release him because they don’t have enough evidence. She vows to take revenge upon Gamal, the musician, (Youssef Wahbi) and pretends to like him. To her surprise, she actually falls in love with him and her plan of getting revenge backfires. Gamal comes to her home and confesses that he killed her fiancée, but it was an accident. He had learned that his best friend, Gamal was having an affair with his young sister, Munira, who had come to live with him from the village. When Gamal went to confront his friend about ruining his sister’s reputation, there was a struggle involving a gun and Wahid is killed. Suheir, (Asmahan) is shocked to learn of her fiancée’s betrayal. The police are listening behind the curtain at Suheir’s house. After the moment Gamal confesses, he is taken away in handcuffs. After a lengthy court case, the musician is found to be innocent and Gamal and Suheir declare their love to each other. As if that were not melodramatic enough, when Gamal returns from prison, eager to see Suheir, a car pulls up with her body wrapped in a shroud. Youssef Wahbi, the writer and director, took the idea of how to solve her absence in the plot from real life. Finally, Gamal, (Youssef Wahbi) ends up playing his violin for Suheir in the insane asylum. Another reverberation from real life in the film, the music is played by Asmahan’s famous brother, Farid Al-Atrash.
           When I was chatting with my Arabic teacher, M. about Asmahan, he said, “She was her own worst enemy. She lost focus.” She had an extraordinary gift and she got drawn into the intrigue of intelligence agencies who thought they could use her to convince the Druze to go against Vichy France in Syria. Easy to see how that might happen. It was another time and another place in history, WWII, although by today’s standards of professionalized, bureaucratic intelligence, it would be ridiculous and unthinkable to use such a charismatic, flamboyant singer as a spy. The spying was a diversion for her; Mohamed Taba’i, her friend, warned her that it was not a game. Many of us lose focus or get sidetracked by adventure or impulsive romance, but eventually find our way back to our talents and passions. Asmahan, so gifted, died young—there is no doubt that is a tragedy. Asmahan was told by a gypsy: “she was born in water, she would die in water.” Hard to know if that was true, or just more legend. But dying young, much younger than 32, is happening very frequently in our world; the only difference is that the young are not known or famous, unless they are photographed, like the three-year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who washed up on a beach in northeast Turkey.
           I first became interested in Asmahan when my partner, M. played “Ya Touyour” for me; he had been up all night, writing poetry. He finds Um Kulthum’s voice to be “whiny” and feels that Asmahan is not appreciated enough. Probably true. Syrians may love her, but there is still no museum. The Syrian army took over her family’s house in 2006. Highly unlikely that there will be one or it may be a very long time, given the civil war and destruction in Syria. Much of Asmahan’s life was spent in Cairo, but there is no museum here, either. Her star was eclipsed by Um Kulthum. But maybe Asmahan’s spirit and life, like her song, “Ya Touyour” could not even be contained in a museum, even if there were one. For those who appreciate the beauty of song and poetry in Arabic, the greatest tribute to Asmahan is that people still listen to her songs.

Works Cited

  • Syrian History Website. “Singer Asmahan announced dead in the Egyptian press–August 15, 1944.” Web. 9th Sept. 2015.
  • Classical Arabic Music: Twentieth Century Notables Website: “Asmahan.” Multi-Media Publishing, 2008. Web. 9th Sept. 2015.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Asmahan’s Secrets: Woman, War and Song. Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas, 2000.

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Text in this post: © Gretchen McCullough
Published with the permission of Gretchen McCullough