A perfectionist and a Piscean
"Blind children love to touch and feel me when I sing. I dance for the deaf," Anoushka says with a sparkle in her eyes. A moment later a frown crosses her forehead when I ask whether her concern for children with sight and hearing impairments, orphans, the disadvantaged and the physically and mentally disabled is inspired by any particular spiritual or emotional needs.
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'Thank God I am not married. I do not feel the need to. Look around you. How many happily married couples can you find? There is deception everywhere. Lies, and no ethics whatsoever in dealing with people'
"I've been working for the last eight years with the United Nations," she explains. "We take the children on a Nile boat tour. The children love the river. The Nile is so beautiful."
Her eyelashes flutter furiously.
"The children need you and you know that you can give of yourself. Everyone is having fun," Anoushka continues. "The outing is a very special day for these kids with special needs. It is very important for them. We sing, we play, we have fun. I take my hat off to Abdel-Salam Ragab for organising the annual event," she says referring to the director of the Pharaonic Village, Giza. "It has become something of a tradition."
The interior of her Heliopolis apartment is unrelentingly cheerful -- the sitting room, overlooking a lovely terrace, especially so. Everything is in white, yellow and black. In one corner is a table on which lies a laptop computer and a mobile phone, in the other a divan -- canary yellow, gold and black -- on which the pop star reclines. It was a hot July afternoon and Anoushka has just returned from a grueling game of squash. She is wearing a summery, sleeveless blouse and no make-up.
Anoushka spends hours working out at the gym and dancing. She took up squash a year ago and plays almost daily. She eats healthily and heartily too. Moloukhiya is her favourite dish. She avoids butter and ghee, preferring olive oil instead.
"I love Chinese food, but I don't cook Chinese. I try to eat healthily, I have my figure to keep," she chuckles. "I love French fries, but I stay away from them these days. I cook fish and chicken and I don't touch red meat."
Cooking is a favourite pastime. When not recording, rehearsing or working out in the gym, she sneaks into her kitchen. "I love to cook for my friends," she says, and often cooks for her parents. But it is Misha -- her three-year-old papillion who at the mention of food pricks up its ears -- that is the daily recipient of Anoushka's culinary endeavours. Misha is especially partial to the chicken dishes.
We have been introduced by a mutual friend, a colleague of mine who, like Anoushka, is an Egyptian-born ethnic Armenian. At first Anoushka addresses her and they chat away in Armenian. I soon realise, though, that she is taking me in.
"I normally cook her food without salt. That is why Misha has not stopped licking your toes," she tells my horrified colleague. "She loves to have friends around. Misha is my baby. "
"Yegour." She summons Misha in Armenian.
It is soon established that both Anoushka and I are Pisceans, at which point our Virgo friend excuses herself and leaves. We were both born on the third month of the year -- March -- Anoushka on the 9th, myself on the 18th. What to most people is an embarrassingly insignificant aside appears to break the ice.
Anoushka's career took off on 6 October 1988, she recalls, the day she received her first international prize for her song Habeytak ( I Loved You). Ironically, for an ethnic Armenian, the award ceremony took place in Turkey.
"Certain dates are important for me," Anoushka says. The 9th of July, 1999 was another important milestone in her career for it was then that she won an international song contest. Yet inspite of her popularity Anoushka remains in the peculiar position of never having had a really huge hit. Her video clips appear regularly on a wide range of Arab satellite television channels and she is in demand as a performer at Cairene high society weddings. She also participates in many Arab and international music and song festivals.
Anoushka's songs are catchy. Her latest hit Lamahouni (They Had a Glimpse of Me), exemplifies her use of melody and improvisation to highlight the meaning and mood of her lyrics. Some of her songs, like Ya Leil (Oh Night), have received critical and popular acclaim. She has not, though, managed to effect a successful crossover to television and the cinema, and her outings on the big screen have been rare. She remains essentially a festival singer.
Anoushka's vocal range runs from the breathy whisper to the banshee scream. She sings simple love lyrics. Hers is infectious, feel-good, danceable music.
She dismisses charges that she does not have a particularly strong voice, insisting that "the vigour of the voice depends to a great extent on the intensity of the passion."
When she sings in Arabic it sometimes seems as if the musicians are overly conscious of swamping her voice.
Is she more comfortable, then, singing in English or French?
On the contrary, she counters, the performances that established her international reputation were mostly in the Arabic language.
Many musicians cross genres, and Anoushka is no exception. A solo artist, quietly testing musical boundaries, Anoushka is as comfortable singing in French or English as she is in Arabic. But perhaps she is happiest mixing all three languages on stage.
By her own admission she is suspicious by nature. "We Pisceans are suspicious. It is difficult for us to trust others."
She shrugs her shoulders and pulls a face.
She is not in the habit of confiding in strangers, especially not journalists. She'll make an exception of me, she says, on account of our mutual friend. And, the stars. True to character, though, she will reveal little, though she appears far more relaxed during my first visit than when, a week later, I return with Al-Ahram Weekly's photographer. The photo session obviously adds to the day's stress and Anoushka is far too forthright not to say so.
"I am not in the mood, please forgive me. But, I shall try. What do I wear," she asks nervously. Her discomfort is palpable.
"I can slip into an evening dress," she offers.
An hour later and Anoushka is more relaxed. She must have Misha in the picture.
The rumour mill has it that Anoushka is something of a court musician, featuring prominently at state and national functions.
"Who told you that? I can guess who did," she winces at me. "Some journalists," I stutter in alarm, trying to evade her question.
"No, it can't be journalists. No really, you must tell me," she says, refusing to accept my demural as an answer.
Anoushka doesn't suffer fools gladly. She has little patience with human weaknesses. But with animals it is different.
She has always had a special place in her heart for dogs and other animals -- "dogs are such faithful creatures. Far more faithful than humans," she tells me.
Is that why she has never married, I venture. Such a beautiful woman must surely have had many suitors.
"Thank God I am not married. I do not feel the need to. Look around you. How many happily married couples can you find? There is deception everywhere. Lies, and no ethics whatsoever in dealing with people," she says, adopting a mockingly supercilious tone.
Anoushka doesn't see the point of marriage for a woman who stays up late, lives practically on the stage and doesn't want to be bossed around by a man. And what she doesn't actually see she senses.
"I have a sixth sense. In my line of business, marriage is out of the question. A conventional marriage would be detrimental to my career."
Anoushka will not be dragged into conversation about the men in her life. The frequent rumours in the Arab press that she is married or engaged are given short shift. "I have never been married and I am happy without a man in my life," she insists. "I neither need a man who brags about himself all day, nor one who incessantly nags."
And what about romance?
"The flame is usually gone after the first six months," she complains. "Nowadays girls can read men very easily."
Anoushka, however, has a host of "platonic and very rewarding relationships with men". She values her friendships with men.
"My father is my good friend. I have got a few good male friends, ones I can depend on in times of distress. Men who can advise me as friends and as brothers. Friends like these last for a lifetime. Some are musicians I work with. We are very close. They give me an honest opinion when I ask them about something."
Anoushka is careful to make time for her family. She is forever running errands for her parents. "My father wanted to name me Vartanoush, Sweet Flower. My mother insisted on Anoushka."
"My father is an extremely emotional man. He is my idol," Anoushka says. "As I grow older I understand my father and identify with him more."
It was her father who encouraged her to sing professionally. Her mother would have much preferred her daughter to be a lawyer or doctor.
"My mother is very practical and down-to-earth. She does not like to show her emotions. I'm more like my father. I express my emotions."
Her mother, she says, is her most scathing critic.
"Mother is blunt. If she doesn't like a song of mine she will say so, and it hurts sometimes."
Her mother, however, always attends Anoushka's performances.
"And she sews the dresses I appear on stage in," she chuckles.
Anoushka is very close to her sister, Christine, who lives in France. Anoushka's apartment is dotted with striking paintings.
"They are my sister's," she says, and I dutifully admire her paintings.
Anoushka is especially fond of her niece, another Piscean. "Small wonder. My sister says that she takes after me. She is a free spirit."
Anoushka refuses to be fenced in. She sometimes escapes Cairo in search of peace and quite.
"My crazy friends and I hire a boat and take to the Nile. We sail, we have fun, we leave modern civilisation behind. We drift back in time catching glimpses of the peasants living along the Nile in so-called primitive conditions. We contemplate. Perhaps because I am a Piscean I love water: shores, coastlines, river banks, beaches."
At times Anoushka yearns to get away from it all.
"A safari trip to East Africa perhaps, India, the Caribbean or Hawaii. But I'd take my medicine chest, my mobile phone and my laptop computer. I cannot leave those three behind." She would also take Misha along.
Anoushka enjoys listening to different kinds of music though her all time favourite is fellow Armenian Charles Aznavour -- "the king of emotions" she calls him. She also adores the music of Armenia's duduk-king Djivan Gasparyan. She is fond, too, of artists as varied as Pavarotti, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Barbara Streisand.
Among Arab singers Anoushka has a special regard for the voice and style of Sabah Fakhri, the Syrian singer. "I love the old traditional styles, even if I can't imitate them myself. The artistic style of the older generation of singers was far stronger than what we do today."
Anoushka professes to be a workaholic. Her professional career has spanned 14 years though she first started to perform at the tender age of six when she was pronounced a gifted child by her parents and teachers at the Kalousdian Armenian School. Fluent in French and English, Anoushka is also proud of her native Armenian and Arabic. "We had a good education at Kalousdian," she explains.
After graduating from the American University in Cairo, where she studied Business Administration, Anoushka embarked on her singing career and since has devoted her life to song and dance.
No husband, no children, no regrets: in the morning she is invariably at the gym, in the evenings she heads for the sound studio. Afternoons are reserved for a game of squash, more workouts at the gym or cooking.
She abhors the gold-rush mentality of the contemporary Cairene music and cinema scene. Anoushka is fastidious, and clearly cannot bear muddling her way through matters she does not understand. She must know everything that concerns her work.
"I'm interested in the details. I perform on stage, but I must know how the backstage is organised."
Having made a name for herself in the Arab world, Anoushka now wants to have a go at wowing Western audiences. She teamed up with Kiko Motos, of the Gypsieland Group. "He's BIG in France," she assures.
Although the idea of east meets west appeals to Anoushka she instinctively felt that there was something wrong with her recordings with Kiko Motos. He had asked her to repeat the refrain "Salam Aleikum! Inshallah!" and she refused point blank, explaining to him over lunch that she would prefer a duet.
"I would rather sing along with you. I would like to take this opportunity to tell the world that we are not terrorists in our part of the world. Peace is the universal greeting in our part of the world. I was interested in peace as a means of communication. Of communicating loving sentiments."
Motos agreed and Anoushka rushed back to her hotel room and scratched out some lyrics. "Mahlaha al-haya lamma tesoudha as-salam (Life is beautiful when peace prevails).
"Kiko invited me to sing along with him. I sang in Arabic. He sang in Spanish. He sang about love and life."
The key to the album, released in France last month, is juxtaposition. The sense of opposite extremes -- east and west -- finding common ground delighted Anoushka. The music, definitely more energetic than her previous hits, fuses elements of flamenco and Arabic music.
"I had an inkling it would be an instant success."
Piscean sixth sense, she insists.