For someone who has always abjured the political fray, the much beloved Lebanese diva, Fairouz, recently found herself inadvertently embroiled in the poisonous rift between Lebanon and Syria.
It is sadly inevitable that art and sport have a tendency to become the chattels of feuding politicians, and given the iconic status of Fairouz, there was little surprise that her decision to sing in Damascus would evoke condemnation, feelings of betrayal, sympathy and Schadenfreude on either side of the border in roughly equal measure.
The 73-year-old diva performed her classic 1970 musical “Sah al-Nom” in a six-day run, as part of a year-long series of events to mark UNESCO designating Damascus the 2008 Arab capital of culture.
Her decision to sing in Damascus, however, split her fan base in Lebanon between those arguing that Fairouz should not sing before the rulers of a country blamed for a string of assassinations in Lebanon over the past three years, and others who maintain that the Lebanese diva is above petty politics and should be allowed to sing wherever she wishes.
Still, the timing of her first concert in Syria since 1982 was awkward. A day after she traveled to Syria, Captain Wissam Eid, a top investigator in the intelligence bureau of the Internal Security Forces was killed along with four other people in the largest car bomb explosion since the assassination of Rafik Hariri almost three years earlier.
“Those who love Lebanon do not sing for its jailers,” said March 14 MP Akram Shehayeb. “Our ambassador to the stars, you painted for us the dream nation, so don’t scatter that dream like the dictators of Damascus scattered our dreams of a democratic free country.”
A poll conducted by the “Now Lebanon” web portal, which is sympathetic to the March 14 coalition, found that 67% of respondents were against Fairouz in Damascus.
“Simply, this is not the moment for a musical love-in,” a Now Lebanon editorial said. “Fairouz must decide. She is a Lebanese icon, and, as such she must repay the people who have backed her and who love her with a modicum of solidarity.”
Although she and the Rahbani brothers, her long-time musical collaborators, apparently were sympathetic to the ideology of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Fairouz has consistently kept her art detached from politics, saying her music was for the people only. Her songs were banned for six months in 1969 by the Lebanese government when she refused to give a private concert for the then Algerian President Houari Boumedienne. And apart from a single concert in 1978, she famously refused to sing in Lebanon during the 1975-1990 civil war in disgust at the warring militias, whose gunmen continued to adore her anyway.
For an older generation of Lebanese, Fairouz’ hauntingly beautiful voice evokes a nostalgia for Lebanon’s golden years in the 1950s and 1960s. For a younger generation, more accustomed to the scantily-clad sirens of the contemporary Arab music scene, Fairouz’ lack of stage charisma — standing ramrod erect at the microphone, unsmiling and disdaining banter with the audience — has done little to dent their adoration for the legendary singer.
Fairouz’ first post-civil war concert in Lebanon was in September 1994 when she sang in Martyrs’ Square before a crowd of thousands of Lebanese and a host of officials, including the late former president, Elias Hrawi, and then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an event that for many Lebanese signaled that the war was really over.
Eleven years later, Martyrs’ Square became the final resting place for Hariri and the venue for the Beirut spring protests that led to Syria’s troop withdrawal and to the current political impasse.
A renowned recluse who has only given a handful of interviews in her five-decade career, Fairouz remained silent toward the criticism surrounding her decision to perform in Damascus. However, her former musical partner Mansour Rahbani said her decision was “a message of love and peace from Lebanon to Syria. A message of friendship not subservience.”
Elias Harfoush, writing in Al-Hayat, said “Fairouz on her way to Syria during the worst moment in the history of relations between the two states and nations is probably the best ambassador to the Syrians, bearing the message that whatever link has been broken by political and state interests should not entail a rift between [the peoples] in both countries.”
Certainly, Syrians were delighted that Fairouz was back in Damascus. “The Syrians are thrilled, especially the Damascenes,” said Sami Moubayed, a historian of Syria’s post-independence period in the 1950s. “She reminds them of the ‘good old days’,” adding that apart from “nostalgia, talent, her gigantic standing [and] heavenly voice … everybody is pleased that she is defying the anti-Syrian team in Lebanon and coming.”
Still, for most ardent fans, Fairouz is a symbol of unity rather than division and her standing will long outlast the current quarrel.