Two Mysterious Singers

Ruba Al-Jamal and Samira Tawfiq

By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 15 September 2023

The Best Singing Voice in the Arab World

Ruba Al-Jamal was born in Aleppo in 1966. From early childhood she wanted to become a professional singer. By the age of nine she had become an accredited singer in Damascus and in Beirut. To accommodate market demands, she changed her name from Dzovinar Garabedian to Ruba Al-Jamal (“Lord of Beauty.)

Her budding career was cut short because her family wanted her to become a physician. Thus, rather than dazzle the stages of the Arab world with her unique soprano voice, she studied in France and in Britain to become a pediatrician. But she abruptly quit medicine when she met an opera director who persuaded her to compete in The International Maria Callas Festival. Al-Jamal won first prize, beating singers from thirty countries.

Back in the Middle East, she collaborated with Palestinian song writer Riyad Al Bandak who composed many songs for her. Since Cairo was the Arab world’s Hollywood-New York-London rolled into one, Al-Jamal traveled to Cairo in 1995 to take part in the Arab Music Conference where she sang classical songs by divas such as Um Kalthoum and Asmahan. Critic Samir Al-Sharif said of Al-Jamal: “She was an extraordinary voice the likes of which has not been heard in fifty years.” It was obvious he was referring to the similarity of Al-Jamaal voice to that of the “goddess” Um Kalthoum. Meanwhile, a famous musician told Al-Jamal that if she stayed in Cairo, he would make her “the most important singer of her time.”

Although she could have raised her profile by making videos which were popular at the time, Al Jamal criticized the-popular fad as being about fashion and sex. They reminded her of slave markets, she said.

By now, Al-Jamal had married and had a son (Rami). After five years of marriage, she separated from her husband.

In 2001, following a car accident, she started taking barbiturates to ease her spinal pain.

In Egypt, she participated in music festivals in Cairo and in Tunis, including a concert in honor of the Mohammed Abdul Wahab, the greatest Arab composer of the 20th century. She was also called the “best female voice in the Arab World” and received the highest accolades…the Golden Plate Award and the Golden Microphone Award in addition to a certificate from the Continental Opera of Paris.

Despite the overseas accolades, she returned to Syria. It was to be the last act of her career.

This is the way her last act began. On March 13, 2005, at a solo concert at a top Damascus hotel, she became angry because the orchestra wasn’t well prepared. Furthermore, she was insulted when one of the musicians walked out during her performance. Irate, she walked off the stage and returned to her room. After much persuasion, she returned to the stage only to see members of the orchestra and the audience leaving the hall. By now her anger had turned into a rage. While walking away, her long robe tangled and she rolled down the stairs. She had developed a blood clot in her head,

She was rushed to the upscale Hisham Sinan Hospital. After a few days, she asked to be returned to her home because she could not afford the hospital’s steep fees. After a few days, she suffered from cerebral hemorrhage. She was rushed to the less costly Douma hospital where she died of a stroke six days later. The Syrian Artists’ Union didn’t cover any of her medical expenses and no member of the union attended her funeral. The Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) paid the funeral expenses. Fewer than twenty people, including family members and friends, attended her funeral.

Dzovinar’s star dimmed. On April 12, 2005. She was 39. The promising career of the “best singer of Arab songs” came to an end because of the negligence and ignorance of Syria’s rigid ‘artistic’ officials.

Dzovinar recorded two albums. According to multiple sources, she recorded twenty-six of her own songs with Damascus Radio. Yet, the station claims it cannot find her recordings.

Dr. Siyar Al-Jamal, who knew Dzovinar in Paris, wrote the following: “We stand before an Aleppo-Armenian innovator who influenced Arab singing with her distinctive voice and unique throat. This is a true artist and singer who was lost to Arab life.”

Dr. El-Jamal also wrote: “She was not like the singers of this time, as she did not care about trivial appearances. She sang aloud of self-respect and did not demean her voice in the market of vulgarity as we witness these days. She was completely keen on her work. She possessed a unique voice with the ability to manipulate that voice. She could do so on 14 musical levels while famous singers such as Fairouz and Abdul Halim could only sing at one level. She was created in a time and place that didn’t deserve her at all. Her wonderful works will remain a testament to her abilities throughout time.”

Nearly twenty years after her passing, a number of mysteries remain unresolved about Dzovinar Khachadur Garabedian’s life and death.

Was she hooked to barbiturates?

Why did she return from a successful stay in Cairo to provincial Damascus?

Is the official account of her “accident” accurate?

Why was she not an accredited member of the Syrian Artists’ Union despite her tremendous success?

Why does Damascus Radio claim it has no record of her 26 songs recorded at its studio?

Why after a successful career, she had little money for her hospital care and funeral?

Tragic Dzovinar is gone but one can watch her and hear her incredible voice on the internet.

The Bedouin Singer Who Wasn’t

Practically every bit of biographical information about singer Samira Tawfiq was contradictory. The singer, who was big in the Arab world from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, was a walking puzzle.

To start with, no one knew the definitive spelling of her assumed name: Tawfiq, Towfiq, Toufiq, or Taufiq. The name, which means “success” in Arabic, was given to her by her business manager.

Although she was known as Samira Tawfiq, her real name was Samira Ghastin Karimona.

Most sources say she was born on Christmas Eve 1935 although another source makes the unreasonable claim that she was born in 1944.

While most sources say she was born in the village of Umm Haratayn in the Suwayda region of Syria  Lebanese sources said she was born in Beirut. Her father (Ghastin) worked at the docks at the time.

Although Syrians, the Lebanese, and Jordanians claimed her as their own, Samira Tawfiq was Armenian. Her father, Ghastin, was Armenian. The last name “Karimona” remains a mystery.

She began singing at an early age. Although she did have a hit song, she realized her career would be limited because the Lebanese singing scene was dominated by the four giants: Fayrouz, Sabah, Wadi el-Safi, and Nasr Shamseddin.

Looking for a way to make her name, she moved to Jordan…a country with no professional singers. Her arrival in Jordan was fortuitous. The government wanted to create a Jordanian identity in a country where half the population were resentful Palestinians who dismissed the desert-rooted Jordanian culture. The authorities believed if they changed Tawfiq’s image and made her look and sound Jordanian, Tawfiq could promote Jordanian identity and perhaps help bring Palestinian and Jordanian cultures and traditions together. To achieve that goal, Tawfiq had to sing Bedouin songs, dress in ornate Bedouin clothes at her concerts, and most important sound like a Jordanian Bedouin. King Hussein II became a fan. Her Syrian-Lebanese-Armenian links were deep sixed. During interviews she spoke with a Bedouin accent.

Tawfiq became the main representative of Jordanian music in the Arab world. One of her top songs was “Bayn el Dawali” (“Among the Vine Leaves”) and a song about a young girl who frequently walks to the village spring ostensibly to bring water for her family but in fact she was meeting her lover. But the two patriotic songs that impressed the Jordanian authorities most were “Diritnah Urduniya” (“Our Jordan Homeland”) and “Urdunn al Quffya al Hamra” (“Jordan–the Red Kaffiya”). She had become the cultural symbol and ambassador of Jordan.

Some critics criticized her kitschy makeup, the gaudy costumes, and the unrefined voice. No matter. Millions of fans in Jordan and in the Middle East adored her and her naturalistic style.

After more than twenty years as Jordan’s premier cultural symbol, Tawfiq returned to Lebanon. She dispensed with the Bedouin image and began to sing Lebanese songs. Now that she had made a name for herself in the Middle East, she didn’t have to be concerned in being dominated by the four Lebanese greats.

In 2004, she married a Lebanese millionaire in Switzerland. By now she had three houses (one in London and two in Beirut.)

Tawfiq slipped at the entrance to her London house and broke her leg. She eventually returned to Lebanon. She drastically reduced her concerts. Now 88-years old, Tawfiq lives in Beirut.

The daughter of  the dock worker, Samira is now a millionaire.

There’s still one more mystery about Tawfiq. Why was her baptism name Samira Ghastin Karimona when she was Armenian?

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