Fairuz does not have much in common with the United Kingdom’s Olympic authorities. However, both found themselves in a similar conundrum recently, and it was not particularly pleasant.
In January, Fairuz traveled to Damascus for a concert, the city having been named the Arab cultural capital for 2008. Before leaving, politicians from Lebanon’s anti-Syrian March 14 coalition urged her not to go. In an open letter, one parliamentarian, Akram Shuhayyib, wrote: “People who sing for freedom, for Jerusalem, for the Arab conscience and dignity do not sing for the tyrants of Damascus … You are our ambassador to the stars, you have painted our Lebanon as a free, independent and sovereign nation, so don’t sing for those that don’t even recognize our nation.”
In February, the British Olympic Association (BOA) came under similar fire, when it admitted that athletes attending the summer Olympic Games in Beijing would have to sign a contract with a clause forbidding them to comment on China’s poor human rights record. Those refusing to sign would be banned from the games. To justify the move, the contract referred to Section 51 of the International Olympic Committee Charter, which “provides for no kind of demonstration, or political, religious or racial propaganda in the Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Consciously or not, Fairuz and the BOA hid behind a familiar defense: that there are certain domains that should remain isolated from politics. But more generally, they were trying to achieve an understandable if somewhat self-centered objective: to dodge ambient political bullets so as to emerge personally or institutionally better off.
In that sense, Fairuz and the BOA were right. When political matters infiltrate anything, they often polarize attitudes. And when that happens, a professional is forced to take sides. Yet the point of many professions, particularly artists or sports personalities, is to appeal to as many people as possible. Fairuz had no interest in alienating part of her audience by refusing to travel to Syria; and the BOA had no interest in damaging its Olympic prospects by allowing athletes to deflect public attention toward matters not essential to Britain’s sporting performance.
At the same time, however, such calculations are naïve, even counterproductive. In not wanting to alienate her Syrian audience, Fairuz alienated part of her Lebanese audience. As a noted Lebanese blogger wrote, with great bitterness: “Fairuz the singer died when her voice tragically aged. But her art was kept alive by the people who worshipped her as a symbol of their existence, and as a nostalgic reminder of home. Today, she betrayed them, and their memories. Syrian media hailed her ‘return to her people.’ Let them have her. Many of us will pretend that she died in the war, like many other people and things of value.”
Similarly, the BOA, in wanting to ignore politics, only compelled critics to look up comparable cases in the past. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a photo of the England football team saluting Nazi-style at the 1938 Olympic Games in Berlin, a showpiece for Adolph Hitler, over a caption reading “a memory which critics do not want to see recalled in China.” Was this disingenuous? Plainly, since China is hardly Nazi Germany. But that’s irrelevant. The real issue is that the BOA carelessly thought it could isolate itself from this kind of political one-upmanship.
Is there any solution to this dilemma? No. Culture, like professional sports, has always been fundamentally political, as are most kinds of public activity. National sporting rivalries, even if they do not overtly involve politics, reflect issues of solidarity or hostility and say a lot about how a country views itself. Culture that is entirely apolitical is terribly limited in scope, and many forms of expression, from poetry to painting to jazz, only found their true resonance when expanding into themes that were in some way political by challenging existing conventions.
But then a famous example of this involves Fairuz herself. In the 1980s, her son Ziad Rahbani staged a brilliant play titled Shi Fashil (Failure). It was about a theater troupe trying to stage a play similar to the theatrical musicals written by the Rahbani brothers (notably Ziad’s father Assi), which had turned Fairuz into a star. The biting comedy line came from the fact that the play being rehearsed in the play was supposed to be apolitical and reflect the basic unity of the Lebanese, even as the theater troupe was riven by political differences. Ziad’s message was that the apolitical, idealized musical worlds created by his father and highlighting his mother were mostly a sham; politics were everywhere in Lebanon.
Fairuz should have revisited Ziad’s play before agreeing to go to Damascus. She may have been justified in singing to her admirers there, but she couldn’t have seriously expected it wouldn’t provoke controversy.