By Andrew Lee Butters
Damascus - Her cascading voice has been compared to flowing rivers; her luminous and impassive face to the moon; her graceful bearing a message of peace in a war-torn world. The Lebanese singer Fairouz is not only a legend, the most beloved living Arab performer, but a symbol of Lebanon itself.
So why, oh why, many Lebanese lament, is she singing in Syria? This week Fairouz launched a nine-day series of performances in Damascus at the National Opera House, in the heart of the very country that some Lebanese accuse of waging a campaign of terror to overthrow the Lebanese state.
Born Nouhad Haddad in 1935 in the mountains of Lebanon, and raised on a cobblestone street in Beirut, Fayrouz - whose stage name means turquoise in Arabic, had always stayed above politics. She refused to give interviews, refused to give private concerts to princes, plutocrats and presidents, and refused to perform in Lebanon during most of that country’s sectarian civil war, out of disgust for the killers on all sides. That and her work - which mined and modernized traditional Levantine music - made her a national institution revered by Lebanese of all religious and backgrounds.
Fairuz billed her Syrian concerts - for which she has come out of retirement - as a message of friendship from the people of Lebanon to the people of Syria. But her tour is undoubtedly a feather in the cap for the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al Assad, which has sought to reassert itself in the face of international isolation. One of the founding ideas of Ba’athism is that the modern map of the Middle East is illegitimate, an artificial creation of European imperial powers which carved pseudo-states - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel- out of the larger Arab nation, greater Syria. To this day, Syria has never wholly accepted the independence of Lebanon - refusing to send an ambassador or officially delineate the borders - and Syria soldiers occupied Lebanon from 1975 until forced out by the United States and France in 2005. Now with the most famous Lebanese singer performing in Damascus to coincide with city’s designation by UNESCO as the Arab Cultural Capital of 2008, Syria is again staking its claim to be, as the slogan goes, “the beating heart of Arabism.”
But that’s not the only message. Fairouz’s choice of material, a musical play called Sah al-Nom or “Did You Sleep Well?” is decidedly subversive. The play is a fable set in an archetypical Levantine village, where nothing can happen without the official stamp of the governor, who wakes from sleep just once a month at the full moon to stamp two or three petitions among the many presented by the villagers. When a girl, Qurnfil, played by Fairouz, steals the stamp and stamps all the petitions - to mend a roof, to free a prisoner, to build a nightclub with pretty women -- the village flourishes, until the governor wakes and finds the symbol of his authority missing. He orders his soldiers to arrest and execute Qurnfil, but they refuse to do so without the official stamp.
It’s a mystery how or why the Syrian authorities allowed Fairuz to perform a play that satirizes authoritarianism and bureaucracy, when Syria itself is an authoritarian state struggling with a centralized economy and moribund reforms. Perhaps the choice was a compromise between a government eager for a hit show, and an artist struggling to maintain her credibility at home. Or perhaps, the Syrian government isn’t really concerned, such is its firm control over the country. Certainly the audience - filled with government officials and members of Damascene society on the night I attended -- seemed immune to its anti-establishment message. When the village governor in the play declared on stage that “the people have a right to complain, but the authorities have a right to close their ears,” the audience applauded.
What is clear is that Fairuz the performer can no longer bear the burdens of Fairuz the icon. The show was anti-climatic. The lavish orchestras of yesteryear were gone, as was the famous voice - both the music and the singing were pre-recorded. For an audience member not raised in the mythology of Fairuz, the sight of a 72 year-old woman playing a village girl was less than thrilling. And the story of Sah al-Nom itself is simplistic - conjuring up an idyllic past with no sectarian or ethnic strife, no foreign occupations, and no social divides except that between the people and the government.
The reality of Lebanon couldn’t be more different. For all the Lebanese dismayed by Fairouz’s performing in Syria, there are others who look towards Syria as a bulwark for support against Israel, the United States and the imperial powers of this era. The coming battle for Lebanon isn’t merely one of freedom versus authoritarianism- as some might cast it - but a nastier struggle that will pit neighbor against neighbor, Shia against Sunni, Christian against Christian - and no one who will be above the fray. The lesson of Fairouz in Damascus is that even she can no longer be all things to all Lebanese.
Source: Time Middle East Blog
Tags: Fairuz, Lebanese, Syria