Fairouz is the Voice of Lebanon, Symbol of Hope in a Weary Land

25 April, 2022
Artist Yazan Hal­wani paint­ed a Fairouz fres­co in Gem­mayzeh, Beirut — he says Fairouz is the only nation­al sol­i­dar­i­ty sym­bol on which a major­i­ty of Lebanese agree.

 

This is instal­ment six of Melis­sa Chemam’s month­ly col­umn, Music in the Mid­dle East.

 

Melissa Chemam

 

Last month, while writ­ing about Ode­sa and Beirut, I talked to a Fran­co-Lebanese friend who often shares with me his favorite music from back home. I want­ed to hear about his months spent in Beirut, after years in Europe and Africa, and learn more about his expe­ri­ence of the dai­ly dif­fi­cul­ties of Beirutis. “Speak­ing of music,” Issam said, “I’m all about Fairouz these days, buy­ing old vinyl records and lis­ten­ing to them with my mom. Lis­ten­ing to her music, I see her become very nos­tal­gic, think­ing about my father…”

Born in France in the late 1970s, he is nonethe­less very attached to his family’s coun­try of ori­gin, despite the wars, polit­i­cal tur­moil, and cat­a­stro­phes. “My par­ents left Lebanon just before the civ­il war. They intend­ed to return but the war stopped them.” They thus spent decades between France and Cen­tral Africa. In the 2010s, his par­ents final­ly returned to Beirut, but then his father passed away. And two years ago, his moth­er, Zahra, had a stroke.

“Since my mother’s been sick, she lost a lot of her mem­o­ry,” Issam told me. “I came back to Lebanon to sup­port her. And she plays Fairouz again, look­ing at the family’s old pho­tographs. There is a lot she for­got but when we play the music, her mem­o­ries come back…She starts feel­ing emo­tion­al and becomes her­self again. We also lis­ten to the Lebanese singer Walid Touf­ic and Syr­i­an musi­cian George Was­souf. The lat­ter used to come to our Lebanese restau­rant in Paris. But Fairouz is the one that trig­gers my moth­er the most. I can see the nos­tal­gia in her eyes, as if she were redis­cov­er­ing the song and reliv­ing the moments…”

“She loves to lis­ten espe­cial­ly to the live record­ing of Fairuz’s con­cert at Paris’ Olympia,” Issam con­tin­ued, “with many French Lebanese attend­ing in the hall. My moth­er went to that con­cert with my father. Then she starts telling me about those years, when I was a child. Every day, she can retell this sto­ry. For me, it’s like an end­less day. It’s quite touch­ing. The music has incred­i­ble power!”

I found Issam’s sto­ry so emo­tion­al that I imag­ined that many oth­er fam­i­lies who had to leave their home­land because of wars and crises must have felt the same way. So I thought I would share Fairouz’s sto­ry with our read­ers and select a few songs with Issam.

Fairouz – “Habay­tak Bisayf,” com­posed by the Rah­bani broth­ers, per­formed in Paris in 1979


Fairouz Becomes Fairouz

The Lebanese singer was born Nouhad Wadie’ Had­dad (in Ara­bic: نهاد وديع حداد) in Beirut on Novem­ber 20, 1934, in a very mod­est Chris­t­ian Lebanese fam­i­ly, that had recent­ly left the moun­tains for the city.

She adopt­ed her pseu­do­nym 20 years lat­er, Fairouz – also spelled Fairuz, Fey­rouz or Fay­rouz (in Ara­bic: فيروز), which means turquoise.

Many con­sid­er Fairouz one of the lead­ing vocal­ists of the Arab world, among the greats of the 20th century.

She spent her child­hood in the cap­i­tal, punc­tu­at­ed by hol­i­days with her grand­moth­er in the moun­tains, where her fam­i­ly roots are and where she enjoyed the sim­plic­i­ty of the life in the vil­lage, deprived of elec­tric­i­ty and run­ning water.

She start­ed lis­ten­ing to music from the neigh­bors’ radio. She mem­o­rized all the songs she heard, and par­tic­u­lar­ly liked those of Farid al-Atra­che and the leg­endary Arab stars of the 1940s, like the Egypt­ian singer Leila Murad and Syr­i­an Druze vocal­ist Asmahan.

 

 

At school, her teach­ers encour­aged her to study music. She was soon hired at the nation­al Lebanese Radio Sta­tion in the cho­rus, in the late 1940s.

In July 1954, she mar­ried Assi Rah­bani, and along with his broth­er Man­sour they formed a trio. Togeth­er they began to dom­i­nate the music scene in the Arab world. As their voice, Fairouz soon met with crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar acclaim, from the 1950s to our time.

With the con­se­quences of the Nak­ba for the region, dis­plac­ing thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans to Lebanon, her music increas­ing­ly embod­ied for many the sound of a lost par­adise… When in 1967 the Pales­tini­ans lost Jerusalem in a new war against Israel, Fairouz wrote the songs “Al Quds” and “Zahrat Al-Mada’en” (The Flower of Cities). She would ral­ly many Arabs behind her sen­ti­men­tal lyrics.

 

Dur­ing Lebanon’s 15-year-long civ­il war, which start­ed in 1975, unlike many of her con­tem­po­raries, Fairouz didn’t leave her coun­try. Her song, “Raji’e Lebanon” (Lebanon will be back) became a call to rebuild the war-rav­aged country.

Issam’s fam­i­ly is orig­i­nal­ly from south­ern Lebanon, a region reg­u­lar­ly attacked by the Israeli army. “At that time,” my friend told me, “Fairouz real­ly became a fig­ure rep­re­sent­ing the resis­tance of the Lebanese peo­ple, with her plays, musi­cals, songs…My moth­er lis­tened to her every day in Paris, as our hero and patri­ot. And I lis­tened along.”

The singer was very attached to her pop­u­lar roots, and always refused to give pri­vate con­certs for the powerful.

In Fairouz’s reper­toire, both text and music are marked by inno­va­tion. With songs, operas, operettas, the­atre, cin­e­ma, tele­vi­sion, she and the Rah­bani broth­ers worked in all the arts and gave con­certs around the world. She has now reached the sta­tus of a cul­tur­al icon, in the Ara­bic-speak­ing world but also beyond.

For­mer Mid­dle East edi­tor at the Guardian, Ian Black, wrote in 2010 that Fairouz’s “crys­talline voice” and her “haunt­ing lyrics about love, life, Lebanon and Jerusalem” have made her “an icon sec­ond only to the leg­endary Egypt­ian singer Umm Kulthum.” Lis­ten­ing to her, espe­cial­ly live, many lis­ten­ers have even men­tioned feel­ing “ecsta­sy,” among them the Pales­tin­ian-Iraqi author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.

Yazan Hal­wani’s por­trait of the young Fairouz.

In 2015, when she turned 80, the Amman based pan-Ara­bic web­site Al Bawa­ba head­lined: “Icon­ic Fairouz remains most lis­tened-to Arab singer.” And in 2016, the Dubai-based news­pa­per The Nation­al pub­lished an arti­cle titled “Eight rea­sons why Fairouz is the great­est Arab diva of all time.”

Last year, for the open­ing of the exhi­bi­tion “Divas” at the Insti­tute du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris, the direc­tor of the muse­um, Jack Lang, told the New York Times: “These women were not just excep­tion­al vocal­ists. Some par­tic­i­pat­ed in their country’s strug­gle for inde­pen­dence from the colo­nial pow­ers, Britain and France, and joined in a wave of nation­al­ism that swept across the Arab world. The emer­gence of these divas coin­cid­ed more or less with a time of col­lec­tive eman­ci­pa­tion. The music sung by them is an extra­or­di­nary expres­sion of freedom.”

On her Face­book page, which has 5.8 mil­lion fol­low­ers, a fan recent­ly wrote that “there’s no one like you on earth,” while anoth­er called her a “Queen of art and beau­ty.” A third one added: “Fairouz is my life.”

Her last album was pro­duced in 2010 and titled Eh Fi Amal (Yes, there is hope). In an inter­view from 2014, her eldest son, Ziad Rah­bani, a com­pos­er, pianist, play­wright, and polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor, didn’t rule out a new one. Now 87 years old, her lega­cy con­tin­ues at least with him, but mil­lions of fans live in hope.

 

Oth­ers, espe­cial­ly in Beirut, like Issam and Zahra live in nos­tal­gia, and — these days, with the bleak polit­i­cal and social cli­mate — frankly, who could blame them?

 

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