BEIRUT (AP) — Beloved for her powerful voice and brazen in the conservative Arab world for her multiple marriages, Lebanese singer, actress and entertainer Sabah never seemed far from the limelight during her six-decade career.
And even while playfully mocked in her later years for clinging to youth through plastic surgeries, flings with far-younger men and garish outfits, Sabah remained cherished for her love of life and positive outlook even into old age.
"I'm proud that I'm a village girl but I had a lot of ambition," Sabah once said in 2008.
Sabah, whose real name was Jeanette Feghali, died Wednesday morning at age 87, the Lebanese National News Agency reported, without offering a cause of death. Her health had been declining in recent years.
A peroxide-blond with a throaty laugh and playful smile, she took the stage name Sabah, Arabic for morning. Her many other nicknames included shahroura, Arabic for singing bird, and the Sabbouha, a play on Sabah that millions of fan used for her across the Middle East. Others simply called her al-Ustura, or the Legend.
Born to a Christian family in the village of Bdedoun near Beirut in 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 participated in at least 25 plays, four radio musicals, 85 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 programing 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."
She worked with a string of legendary Egyptian composers, including the late Mohammed Abdul-Wahhab, acquiring the grace and breadth demanded to master classical Arabic music. She was a queen of the Lebanese folkloric form, called the mawal, nostalgic of a time before Lebanon's decimating 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Some of her most famous songs include "Zay el-Assal," or "Your Love is Like Honey on my Heart," and Akhadou el-Reeh, "They Took the Wind.' Her last well-regarded song, a duet released in 2006, showed she could out-sing her younger contemporaries.
News of her death filled Lebanese radio and television broadcasts Wednesday and condolences poured in. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut issued a statement on its Facebook page calling Sabah "a bright, shining image of the Lebanese people." On Twitter, Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt wrote: "She was a great singer of a Lebanon that my generation knew that will never come back."
"Our giants are leaving, our cedars are diminishing," Lebanese singer Ragheb Alameh also wrote on Twitter. "Farewell our shahroura, our beloved, rest in peace."
Sabah also held U.S. and Egyptian citizenship.
Amid her professional success, Sabah often set tongues wagging with her flamboyant life and her gregarious confessions to entertainment reporters. She frequently married and divorced — at least nine times, the National News Agency reported. Her relationships ran from a month and to 17 years, that marriage to a dancer known as Fadi Lebanon. He was an indeterminate number of years younger than her.
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 Mr. Lebanon, Omar Mehyo.
Well into her 80s, she appeared with thick, tumbling blonde locks, sparkly dresses, red lipstick and heavy black eyeliner. She broke a Lebanese taboo on plastic surgery — now almost a national pastime — constantly updating her features with facelifts.
In her last months amid rumors she had died, Sabah was tickled to discover journalists were in a frenzy to find out her health condition, Maalouf said.
"She said, 'Even in my death, I'm making people busy,'" he said.
Sabah is survived by a son, Sabah and a daughter, Huwaida. A funeral will be held on Sunday in downtown Beirut.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.