A Diva Brightens a Dark Time in Beirut
By KATHERINE ZOEPF
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 2 — As she stepped onto the stage, a tiny figure in apricot-colored silk, some in the audience broke into tears, while others clapped and cheered. As she lifted her lace parasol, turned her famous hooded eyes to the balcony, and her song began, ululations of joy erupted from several elderly Lebanese ladies in formal evening dress seated near the stage. Fayrouz was performing in Beirut again at last, and her country, it seemed, had never needed her more.
In recent days, armored personnel carriers have moved into position along highway on-ramps, at major Beirut intersections and on a bridge overlooking the Hezbollah demonstrators at Martyrs’ Square, and fears and rumors that civil war might return have swirled. All the while, Beirutis of every sectarian stripe seemed to agree on this: Fayrouz must sing as planned. In the Arab world, the emotional resonance this 70ish diva commands is difficult to overstate. Many of the great anthems of Palestinian and Lebanese nationalism — not factionalism — are her songs. Passengers on cheap overnight buses between Syrian cities know that morning has come and their destination lies near when the driver turns on Fayrouz. From Damascus to Ramalla to Amman, Fayrouz’s unmistakable deep, quavering tones echo from radios and tape decks in cafes, shops and taxi cabs, reminding people of the long-lost rhythms of village life and the longer-lost, golden years of peace. “Fayrouz is the music of our lives,” said a young Arab Israeli man in Haifa last week, who gave his name as Said. “She plays from dawn till midnight, every day, everywhere we go. She is the symbol of Lebanon and of Palestine. We all love her.”
Just how true that is in Lebanon seemed clear on Friday night, as she took the stage before tens of thousands of people at a convention center on the Beirut waterfront, to perform in “Sah el Nom,” a musical comedy. They had braved the demonstrations, blocked roads and multiple security checks to occupy white plastic chairs while scores of soldiers with AK-47s patrolled outside. Some came from Beirut, some from Saida, a mainly Sunni town considered the gateway to southern Lebanon. Rosine Hajjar, 28, a psychotherapist from the Bekaa Valley, a predominantly Shiite region, said she had planned and saved for months for this night. “Fayrouz is a dream for all Lebanese people,” Ms. Hajjar said. “She is majestic, she is mysterious, and it is very rare to see her. There were so many rumors this weekend of a coup d’état. But Fayrouz refused to cancel, and my sisters and I are so happy. Whether there is a new civil war or not, I feel sure that this will be the first and last time in my life that I will ever see her.” Amal Hachem, 29, a lawyer from a Christian neighborhood in Beirut, said: “The fact that Fayrouz went ahead with this means a lot for Lebanese people. She is the symbol of Lebanon. Lebanon in war, Lebanon in peace, and Lebanon in revolution. She brings us together.”
“Sah el Nom” concerns a self-serving king who demands impossible favors when his people ask for help, but who comes to change his ways through the intervention of a good, brave village woman, played by Fayrouz. But even symbolism and inspiration sometimes have to take a back seat to age and the sound requirements of a convention center. As the performance progressed, there were hisses and whispers — soon hushed by diehard admirers — as her lips occasionally moved out of time to the voice singing from the speakers, or as she focused on dancing, and the voice sang on. Born more than 70 years ago — no one seems certain just how many — as Nouhad Haddad, she was dubbed Fayrouz, or Turquoise, by an early musical mentor. For more than 50 years, she and several family members — her husband, the composer Assi Rahbani, his brother Mansour, a lyricist, and a son, Ziad — have been the musical royal family of the Levant. The Rahbani brothers wrote most of the material that Fayrouz has regularly performed throughout her career, including “Sah el Nom.”
They are the rarest of public figures in Lebanon: artists whose standing is above politics. Throughout the 15 years of Lebanon’s civil war, they never took sides. Fayrouz was to sing in “Sah el Nom” at the ancient Roman acropolis in Baalbeck, where an international music, theater and dance festival is held each summer. But the Israeli-Hezbollah war began that very evening, and the performance was canceled. Throughout the 34-day war, Fayrouz’s patriotic songs, including “To Beirut” and “The True Lebanon Is Coming,” were everywhere. But she never appeared. The festival’s organizers decided to move the program to Beirut. Fayrouz had not performed here since 1994, and ticket sales were frantic. May Arida, the festival’s president, watched as the audience filed in on Friday night. “We knew there would be some fear,” she said. “We didn’t make the decision until yesterday, but we finally decided that the show must go on. In a difficult time, we need Fayrouz.”