Fairuz: the voice of Lebanon

In her first hometown performance for seven years, Fairuz revisits the songs at the centre of a protracted legal battle.

Fairuz performing at one of her Beirut comeback concerts.
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In Lebanon, her home country, Fairuz is referred to as "our ambassador to the stars". In a musical career that has spanned more than six decades, her fans say that her angelic voice and distinctive stage presence have captured the hearts of a nation, possibly even the region at large.

According to those same devoted followers, Fairuz, who turns 75 later this month, does not sing ordinary songs. Rather, her work speaks to the soul of those she performs to, transporting her audience back to an altogether more innocent, more peaceful era.

If only her life had remained as uncomplicated as the songs she performs.

Earlier this year, Fairuz (whose real name is Nuhad Haddad) became embroiled in a legal dispute that threatened to silence her indefinitely. The controversy began when one of the relatives of the late Rahbani brothers - who together co-wrote most of her songs and still retain their copyright - served a court injunction against Fairuz after she unveiled plans to perform in a production of Ya'eesh Ya'eesh! (Long Live!) at Le Casino du Liban, one of Lebanon's most famous venues.

The injunction prohibited Fairuz from reproducing any of her theatrical and musical pieces without written consent. It is a dispute that continues to rumble.

Little wonder then that when Fairuz announced her intention to play two surprise concerts in Beirut last month - her first in her home country for seven years, her first anywhere for two years - tickets sold out within hours.

Rain soaked the streets of the city on the day of the first concert, although nothing could dampen the spirits of those who trudged through Beirut's centre towards the Biel Complex, the immense hall that would play host to the comeback performances. Inside, politicians and movie stars rubbed shoulders with schoolchildren and students. It was a remarkable sight, as if the whole country were making preparations for a wedding.

Fairuz began her career in the 1940s as a radio performer, although she would not achieve the full extent of her fame until she met and subsequently married the composer Assi Rahbani in 1954.

Her love of music began at an early age. From her parents' small apartment in Beirut, she would listen to songs of Asmahan and Umm Kulthum on her neighbour's radio and attempt to sing them later while doing household chores.

By the time she was 10 years old, she was known at school for her musical talent and would sing regularly during public shows. This is how she was discovered by Mohammed Flayfel who, impressed by her voice, advised her to enroll in the Lebanese Conservatory, which she did. Halim al Roumi, a prominent musician of the era who was also the head of the main Lebanese radio station, noticed her and appointed Fairuz as a chorus singer at the radio station in Beirut. It was al Roumi who would later introduce her to Assi Rahbani.

Hitherto, the compositions of Assi and his brother Mansour had made small ripples in the cultural scene, but Fairuz would help their songs reach a much wider audience. She performed on the most prestigious stages and music halls in the Arab world, throughout Europe and the US, and the trio continued collaborating until 1986, when Assi died.

By that time, Fairuz had become a household name. Kings, presidents and dignitaries attended her concerts, while composers fought to write songs for her.

Despite her widespread appeal, Fairuz has always been careful to distance herself from any obvious political affiliations. She sang for Palestine, Baghdad, Egypt, Paris and others, but her first allegiance was always to Lebanon. Even so, she opted to remain silent during the 15 years of civil war that blighted Lebanon.

It is hard to underestimate Fairuz's importance to her compatriots. A simple search of her work on YouTube returns gushing comments from fans describing her as "the voice of Lebanon". Others say that her singing reminds them of home. One even waxes poetic, saying that "the only time god and his angels rest is when this woman sings, so they can listen to her voice".

Her enduring popularity owes much to a closely guarded public image - she rarely speaks to the press and little is known about her private life - as well as to the seemingly timeless nature of the music she produces.

Fairuz's most recent album, Eh Fi Amal (Yes, There is Hope), released the day before her comeback last month, showcases a number of new compositions written for Fairuz by her son Ziad Rahbani. Its piece de resistance is Biktub Esmak ya Habibi (When I write your name my love), a song which features lyrics in praise of the Rahbani brothers, her former collaborators. In effect, it stands as the diva's only public statement about the legal battle she is still engaged in.

Of course, the question that remained unanswered before she took to the stage at the Biel Complex last month was simply whether she would perform any of those contested songs. Most believed she would not take the risk.

Whistles filled the vast auditorium as the orchestra, led by Harut Vazelian, the Lebanese Armenian maestro, lined up on stage and the first melodies began.

Shortly afterwards, Fairuz appeared dressed in white, her face set stern in the bright lights of the theatre, before tilting her head shyly at the crowd, her only acknowledgment of the rapturous applause that greeted her arrival on stage.

She performed a number of her most recent songs in the early part of her set, leaving the stage after every two to three numbers while the orchestra continued to play.

After one such break, Fairuz returned to deliver some of the songs at the centre of the dispute, including Al Tahouneh (At the Windmill) and Ouda Mensieh (A Forgotten Room) before ending her performance with Emmi Namet aa Baker (Mother Went to Bed Early), one of her most enduring anthems.

Of course, Fairuz's fans - the "Faruzites", as they call themselves - wouldn't settle until she had played the song they had all come to hear. She obliged, ending the night with an exquisite and emotional rendition of her traditional farewell anthem Bokra Berjaa Bou'af Maakun (Soon I shall be with you again).

If this was indeed her last moment on stage, she could hardly have ended on a higher note. The hopes of every Fairuz enthusiast rest in the title of that closing song, that she will stand among them once more, free from the burdens of her recent struggles.

Racha Makarem is a translator at The National