It was one of music’s darkest days. On December 8, 1980, ex-Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his New York City home by fan Mark David Chapman.
While Lennon’s solo music career was already celebrated at the time, the tragedy of his passing galvanised an even bigger, and enduring, appeal. Fans sought his songs, both tender and caustic, and lyrics, both anguished and wise, as a guide to navigating an increasingly complex world.
While there is plenty of transcendent material to choose from, it was his 1971 track Imagine that struck a universal chord.
Written at home on his piano, over the span of one morning in early 1971, the song is based on the poetry of Lennon's wife Yoko Ono and composed in the shape of a secular hymn.
Not only did Imagine top the charts worldwide, it also went on to become an international anthem, rallying cry and healing balm used throughout modern history. It's been played at New Year's celebrations, became an anthem of hope following 9/11 and the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, and has most recently become the unofficial soundtrack of the coronavirus pandemic.
The song’s international appeal also seeped into the Arab world. From the region’s most revered artists to young singers in television talent shows, Arab singers went on to not only perform faithful covers, but use Arabic lyrics.
Such a move allowed Lennon’s message for peace and humanity to become one for the region as well.
Here are five versions of Imagine, sung by Arab artists over the years.
1. Fairuz (2017)
A meeting of giants. One can argue Lennon's stature in the West is similar to that of Lebanese chanteuse Fairuz in the Arab world.
For her 2017 comeback album Bebalee, she performed a sensual and languid take of Imagine with lyrics repurposed to suit the crisis facing her homeland.
Titled Yemken, it features soft piano, gentle acoustic strumming and some Polynesian-style percussion. One can almost imagine Fairuz peering out a window at home as she dreams of a better future "without injustice, death, fear and reprisals".
2. Khaled and Noa (1999)
A plea for tolerance and coexistence. Algerian and Israeli pop stars, Khaled and Noa, teamed up for this take which had them singing their verses in Arabic and Hebrew respectively, before both chiming in to sing the chorus in English.
That cultural fusion is also displayed in the music, with western pop arrangements laced with some tasteful licks of the oud.
3. 'The Voice Kids: Ahla Sawt' (2018)
A lovely regional take by the 2018 contestants of the television talent quest The Voice Kids: Ahla Sawt. While the young competitors are all in fine form, the song was recorded to deliver a serious message.
The song amended Lennon's original lyrics to make a case for the power of music. "Imagine there is no music," the children sing. "How will life be?"
4. Lina Sleibi (2020)
Palestinian singer Lina Sleibi really gives the song the full Arabic folk treatment. The rich and evocative production features the wistful sounds of the ney and oud as Sleibi delivers the verses in English and Arabic. For the latter, the lyrics are changed but essentially retains Lennon’s meaning. "Imagine there are no borders and no worries," she sings. "No war or greed."
5. Anghami (2020)
Released as a plea for people to stay home as protection against Covid-19, Arabic music streaming platform Anghami recruited a range of regional independent artists for a multilingual take (Arabic, English and Spanish) called Stay Home and Imagine.
The tracks features some recognisable Lebanese names recording their parts from home, such as singer Marc Hatem, pianist Aleph and guitarist Elie Akl. Even actor Wissam Saliba stepped in to showcase a surprisingly decent croon.