Nancy Ajram’s new song ‘Illa Beirut Al Ontha’ captures the heartache of separation

The touching song is based on a poem by Syrian writer Nizar Qabbani and is dedicated to those who left Lebanon for a better life

epa07730336 Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram performs during the 2019 Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts at the Jerash archeological site, Jerash, some 46 km North of Amman, Jordan, 20 July 2019. The Jerash festival takes part from 18 to 27 July 2019.  EPA/ANDRE PAIN
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Nancy Ajram’s new song has stirred up emotions with fellow Lebanese people at home and abroad.

Released on October 20, Illa Beirut Al Ontha (To the Lady, Beirut) is an epic ballad that captures the heart-wrenching moments when a family member leaves home for another country.

Directed by Samir Syriani, the accompanying music video brilliantly illustrates the heart-breaking intimacy of that final day. Set in a typical Lebanese household, the video begins with the departing son taste-testing his mother’s tabbouleh for the last time.

Then the extended family arrives and a home cooked dinner is served. There's spirited discussion, laughter, joy and even some impromptu dancing.

Then the dreaded phone call arrives, telling them that an airport-bound taxi awaits outside. There are tears and a sad goodbye. The video ends with a haunting image of a bereft mother adjusting to a home that’s irreparably incomplete.

A song of return

What gives the song an extra poignancy is it reflects what is happening on the ground.

With Lebanon facing the twin challenges of recovering from the Beirut port explosion and a spiralling economy, many are seeking their livelihoods elsewhere.

That movement has been recorded in the latest Arab Youth Survey. Released earlier this month, 77 per cent of Lebanese respondents said they were either considering or actively trying to leave their homeland, with the UAE a favoured destination.

With her song, the Beirut-residing Ajram is casting no judgments at her compatriots aspirations. While, Illa Beirut Al Ontha is sympathetic to their plight, Ajram holds up hope of their eventual return.

"Everyone who is forcing us to leave, we will be back," she said in an Instagram post announcing the song.

Lyrics that hurt and soothe

The song is based on a 1981 poem by late Syrian writer Nizar Qabbani.

In one of his many odes to Beirut, Qabbani describes the city as a vibrant and resilient woman whose personality is all her own. Ajram takes the poem's most piercing passage and repurposes it as the song's chorus. In a pointed message to those who left, she sings “Oh! The old lovers of Beirut, could you ever be able to find a substitute for Beirut?”

She then assuages the angst with the soothing final couplet: "The only thing that Lebanon wants from you is / That you love her, love her, love her ... even a little.”

How saying goodbye can feel like a thousand deaths

Considering its sentiment, it unsurprising the song resonated deeply with Lebanese people home and away.

Not only has it amassed more than half a million YouTube streams in 24 hours, but it became a regional trending topic on Twitter. A host of Lebanese celebrities also took to social media to express their reaction to the track.

Lebanese actress Aimee Sayah said the song hit a raw wound.

"I cry for how many days when I say goodbye to my family and we return to Dubai. This time we cried more than every other time," she said. "I cried yesterday because I missed them. I cried this morning because I ate sweets my mother made. I cried for a little while when I heard Illa Beirut Al Ontha. I am sure I will cry tomorrow and the day after. And like me, there are many who are also crying."

Actress Dalida Khalil praised the song, saying: "This is the reality of the situation in Lebanon and Beirut. It is a woman that has been violated and in pain and is still fighting as she says goodbye to her children with a tear and laughter. Beirut knows that her children will return."

Twitter user and Abu Dhabi resident Mariam Mazkour, perhaps, captures the pain best.

In her response to the track, she lays down the pain of leaving Lebanon for a better life in the UAE. "14 years ago, I bid farewell to my only sister. And every time I said goodbye it feels like one thousand deaths. I moved to Abu Dhabi and left my mother and father," she said. "I will hold on to this song so it can give me hope of returning."