Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fayrouz by Neil MacFarquhar

Fayrouz's emergence as a singer paralleled Lebanon's transformation from a backwater of the Ottoman Empire to the vibrant financial and cultural heart of the Arab world, a rare oasis of tolerance that soon went up in flames. Born in 1935, she was the daughter of a poor Greek Orthodox Christian typesetter, she was discovered at age 14 by the founder of Lebanon's music conservatory. He heard her sing at a public school where he was scouting for a chorus for a new national radio station. An early mentor who considered her a rare gem dubbed her "Fayrouz," which means 'turquoise' in Arabic. She met Assi Rahbani, a composer who became her husband, and his brother Mansour, a lyricist at the radio station.

It was a time when Arab cities from Casablanca to Baghdad were filling with former villagers who wanted to shed their rural past and become more modern, more westernized. By combining Arab and European instruments with shorter compositions and Fayrouz's clear soprano, the trio revolutionized the region's music :"She made this wonderful mix of folkloric art and songs with European instruments and styles that was very appealing," Virginian Danielson, a music librarian and expert on the Middle East at Harvard University, told me. "The whole thing managed to be international, rural and cosmopolitan at the same time."

It was also rendered in a voice unlike any other, because Fayrouz eliminated the nasal tones favored by most Arab singers. To me, her moody voice is reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday, but using Oriental quarter tones.

As performer, Fayrouz presented a melancholic, rigid figure on stage. About five feet tall, dressed in a series of ball gowns that swept to the floor and covered her arms, she stood stock still at the microphone. During a particular passage she might lift a hand slightly or twitch her shoulders. She rarely smiled. Talking to me, she laughed at the idea that even committed fans found her too serious. She told me that she had always been a shy performer, still wracked by stage fright. "If you look at my face while I'm singing, you will see that I am not there, I am not in the place," she said. "I feel art is like a prayer. I am not in church but I feel like I am, and in that atmosphere you can't laugh. And dance? If they saw me dancing they would kill themselves!"

I interviewed her for a second time in Las Vegas where she performed at the MGM Grand Hotel before a roaring, weeping, clapping crowd of nearly 10,000 mostly Syrian and Lebanese expatriates. She told me both times that for many of her fans, her songs conjured up an idyllic Lebanon of simple villages and fertile vineyards that was gone, if it ever had existed. "When you look at Lebanon now, you see that it bears no resemblance to the Lebanon I sing about, so when we miss it, we look for it through songs. It's as if the songs have become their country."


  1. Fayrouz maintained that her songs were not meant to carry any overt political messages. But the themes lent many of them a political shading. The song "We Will Return" ("We shall return to our village one day and drown in the warmth of hope") used to be the hymn of Palestinian refugees, but after Lebanon splintered, its emigres adopted it as their own.

    In Syria in the 1960's, when rival military cliques stage repeated coups, each new junta signaled the change by broadcasting her song "Ask Me, Oh Damascus" as soon as it seized the official radio station. President Hafez al-Assad banned the song for awhile after overthrowing the government in 1970 because broadcasting it was enough to spark rumors that he had been toppled. When she agreed to perform in Damascus for an Arab cultural festival in early 2008, her first concert there in more than two decades, a fierce national debate erupted in Lebanon. Opponents argued that it represented treason by endorsing the repressive Syrian regime that had done so much to undermine Lebanese autonomy, while supporters though culture should remain above all that.

  2. Ziad Rahbani, born 1956, is the son of the Lebanese famous composer Assi Rahbani and Nuhad Haddad, the famous Lebanese female singer known as Fairuz. He composed many songs for his mother Fairuz, as well as other singers, and he has released his own music albums. Many of his musicals satirised the political situation in Lebanon during and after the civil war, often strongly critical of the traditional political establishment; others addressed more philosophical questions. He played the lead role in all his plays, and has generally been reluctant to allow the filming of his plays. Politically, Ziad Rahbani has a long standing relationship with Lebanese leftist movements, and is a self-declared communist. Being a Christian, his politics have meant that he has been at odds with some of his coreligionists. During the Lebanese civil war, Rahbani resided in mainly West Beirut.

  3. "The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday; Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East" by Neil MacFarquar

    MacFarquar was a long time Associated Press correspondent in the Middle East and Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times from 2001 through 2005.

    "The Bush administration had boasted that it would create a domino effect in the region with its invasion of Iraq. It had, but the dominoes had all fallen in the wrong direction, towards more oppression, with the general population accepting it because the feared the possible bloody consequences of experimenting with pluralism".