One of my family’s few brushes with real fame was with Sabah, the great Lebanese singer and actress who has just died. The connection was through one of my cousins, a writer, actor and theatre director, called Wasim. Sabah may have been adored for her wonderful, passionate, keening voice, but she was also notorious for her many marriages. And Wasim was one of her nine husbands — number four or five, I think. One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is going to see them together in a play of his in 1970s Beirut. I think it was the first time I went to the theatre. It was a big thing for my family — we all showed up. Wasim was already well known for his comedy sketches and the little troupe he had created to perform them. Now with Sabah — one of the great stars of the Arab world — he was entering a new world. And so was I. We sat — my younger sister Salwa and me — utterly entranced and mesmerised by the bright lights and excitement — and by Sabah above all else. Amazingly enough, I have just discovered a tv broadcast of that very play on Youtube.
As with so much in Lebanon, there is a sting in the tail. The theatre where we saw the show was blown up and destroyed in the first paroxysm of the civil war that broke out shortly after the play opened. The theatre was on the Green Line — the fissure that quickly opened up between my Muslim side of Beirut in the west and the Christians in the east. It soon became a no man’s land. But Wasim didn’t give up. He took the play to Syria. So, we all went to see it again in Damascus. And that was where I actually met the great diva. I was a little curly-haired child with round glasses — very shy — and was overpowered by the presence and glamour of Sabah as she bent down to say hello to me backstage, her leonine locks falling around her startling face. Sadly, it was only a moment. We soon had to hurry away. Frightening rumours abounded about Damascus. The mukhabarat — the terrifying secret police — were believed to be on the lookout for Lebanese — to seize them and take them to some dark dungeon in the notorious Mezzeh prison, never to see the light of day again. I never met Sabah again — and her marriage with Wasim ended after a few years. She went on to marry several others. She used to say that she would change husbands every five years or so when they started to tell her how to run her life and career. But she remained my favourite of all Arab singers. I always preferred her to the grave, solemn face and voice of that other great Lebanese icon, Fairouz. That may be because after food and cooking, my favourite things are dancing and music. Sabah looked like she’d be fun — mischievous, cheesy even in some of her many films — and always up for a big girls’ night out, never too grand for a dance, however silly it might look — just as in the most recent party I gave for thirty or so of my Arab girlfriends in London. As the years, then decades went by, Sabah seemed frozen in time. Her face had long transformed into an ageless mask, forever unfurrowed and crowned by a mane of bright dyed blonde hair. The resilient diva in her eighties was barely changed from her image in films from the 1960s and 70s. She was affectionately mocked in Lebanon for holding onto that look so long — with rumours of elaborate plastic surgery. She remained like a ghostly memory of a long lost world. Her voice was a link to the golden age of Arab music and culture. Another great Lebanese survivor, the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has summed her up well, saying: She was a great singer of a Lebanon that my generation knew that will never come back. For me, there is a more personal sadness, too. I met Wasim once or twice when I returned to Lebanon. He had got quite fat, was surrounded by cats and plants in his apartment in Beirut — and had become more interested in computers than anything else. He died a few years ago. But I continued to see his sister, Hiam. Their side of my family has always been high achieving, cultured and wealthy, producing artists, academics and government ministers. Hiam had many of those qualities. Some years ago, she moved to a stunning, bare mountainside near Granada in Spain. I went to see her with my two daughters this summer. Her villa was full of memories from her adventurous life that had taken her to many countries. Amongst the pictures on the wall was one of Wasim when he was older, long after his marriage to Sabah was over. Hiam and I talked and cooked and had a wonderful time, but she was very unwell. She had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks before. We stayed for two weeks and were planning to go back soon. But sadly, just days after we had returned to London, the news came that she had died. I treasure the memory of all three — Hiam, Wasim and Sabah — and the creativity, culture and beauty they brought to the world, showing the extraordinary richness that my tiny, fractured and confusing homeland, Lebanon has to offer. I am going to cook one of the dishes I made on my last visit to Hiam and post it in the next day or two as a way of remembering them.