Her presence on stage was one of the few things that could unite a country ruptured by civil war as her mournful love songs won the hearts of young and old alike. Now a legal battle over performing rights is threatening to silence her for good. Faisal al Yafai on the life of a legend When Sakan al Lail (The Night is Calm) was first performed in the 1960s, it must have seemed to Arab aesthetes like a perfect literary storm. Here was a song whose lyrics were by the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, with music composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, one of the greatest Egyptian composers of the era, all sung by a beautiful young Lebanese woman called Fairuz, who had already ascended to become one of the stars of the Arab world, her image visible on televisions across the region.
Nearly half a century on and the song is still regularly played, not only in Lebanon but across the world. Fairuz, with her instantly identifiable quavering voice, is still singing, still part of the landscape of Arabs arts. Yet this summer, her voice has fallen ominously quiet as the singer engages in a very public legal tussle over the royalties to some of her greatest songs. Most of Fairuz's songs were written and composed by the Rahbani brothers, Assi, her late husband, and Mansour.
Assi died in 1986 and when Mansour passed away in January last year, his children went to court over permission to perform songs that include their father's contribution. Last month a Lebanese court ruled that the singer could not perform one of her classic works Ya'ish, Ya'ish (Long Live, Long Live), forcing her to cancel a planned performance in Beirut. The news was greeted with shock and dismay across the world. Newspapers, blogs and social networking sites have been filled with despairing fans and musical protests were held last week in Beirut and Cairo. "The voice of Fairuz is a force of nature," one fan told television reporters, "Nothing can stop her voice."
The girl who would become the woman who would define a nation was born Nouhad Haddad in 1935 in Jabal al Arz, in Lebanon. Her family moved to Beirut when she was still small and the young Nouhad grew up in a simple neighbourhood, where her family shared a kitchen with another family. Here, via the radio, she became familiar with the music of the time. This was an era dominated by the Egyptian influence of singers such as Asmahan and Layla Mourad, women whose powerful voices and themes of yearning had mass appeal in an age before widespread television.
By her teenage years, Nouhad was singing in public, having taken the stage name Fairuz and making regular appearances as a chorus singer on Lebanese radio. It was through her work on the radio that she met the two Rahbani brothers, musicians who would define her career and her life. They began composing songs for her, including her first international hit, Itab (Reproaches), which in 1952 catapulted her to stardom across the Arab world. She was just 17.
From there, her ascent was meteoric. Her songs most often expressed the longing and power of love. In her most popular songs such as Habaytak Bissayf (I Loved You in Summer) and Kifak Inta (How are you?), she moved listeners to feel love as something tangible, forceful and uncontrollable. Her music both described and amplified the emotions of listeners, making them feel her love stories were theirs, that they too were mourning for lost love or waiting for its return.
Fairuz went on to record more than 800 songs by a wide variety of composers and perform in plays and films. Her most famous works were operetta, musical theatre that combined stories from folklore with songs, but it is the individual songs that are best remembered. As Fairuz held concerts across the Arab world and then far beyond it, selling out Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium, she connected Arab communities. She received rapturous welcomes in Latin America and Australia, defining how Arabs perceived themselves and their history.
Over four decades of performing, Fairuz became more than a singer, she became part of a musical dynasty. The Rahbani brothers wrote and directed many productions for TV and the theatre without her, and Ziad Rahbani, her son with Assi Rahbani, remains a well-known musician in his own right. The music of Fairuz and the Rahbanis defined Lebanon to the Arab world in a way that is difficult to conceptualise today. In the 1950s and 60s, Egypt was very much the cultural centre for the Middle East and a lodestone for artists. The musical grammar reflected this: even Syrian artists such as Asmahan took on the ideas and inflections of Egypt.
By contrast, the Rahbanis wrote songs that celebrated village life in Lebanon, the simplicity of life and, most often, the themes of love and longing. As widespread change swept across the region, her music hinted of a return to a more peaceful time. Even as the Arabs took Fairuz to their hearts, elevating her to the popularity of Umm Kulthoum, the lady herself always had a special place in hers for Lebanon. In song after song, she expressed her love for the country of her birth. "Even in your madness, I love you," she sang, more to a lover than a nation. "If you leave me, my most beloved, the world will return to a lie."
Through her lyrics, Lebanon became real, a country personified, more than the sum of its fields and its cities. Her most famous hymn to Lebanon is the devastating simplicity of Li Beirut (To Beirut), a classic still played across the Arab world. With little musical accompaniment, Fairuz's voice pours out her yearning for the city, for its people, its way of life. "You are mine," she repeats until her voice trails to silence.
That silence was ominous. In the 1970s, Fairuz was at the height of her fame, feted in capital cities around the world and drawing crowds of thousands. But while her star shone brightly, the skies in her homeland were beginning to darken. Killings began on the streets of Beirut. There were militias and talk of war; lines were drawn - in the sand, in the streets and on maps. Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s and 1980s changed Fairuz from a singer into a symbol of Lebanese defiance.
By 1976, it was clear Lebanon was stumbling towards an abyss that would consume it for 15 years. When Fairuz took to the stage in Damascus to sing I Love You, Lebanon for the first time, she seemed like she was speaking over the heads of her audience, to the people of her country, facing chaos and an uncertain future. Tossing her auburn hair, she reminded them of themselves: "They ask me what is happening with the land of feasts, now planted with fire and gunpowder," she sang. "I told them our nation will be created anew. A dignified Lebanon and a defiant people."
Those four lines to the endurance of the Lebanese were recalled and quoted long after. Throughout the war, the singer remained living in the city, but travelled abroad to sing, an apolitical ambassador embraced by all sides. Yet she never performed in Lebanon, wary of being seen to support one faction over another. When the war finally ended, long years later, she returned to the stage; first, to Beirut's Martyrs Square in 1994, and finally in 1998 to Baalbek, the venue that hosted her first open-air concert in the summer of 1957 but where she hadn't performed for 20 years. Sixteen thousand people came out to see her, a triumphant return that seemed at the time to seal Lebanon's recovery.
Now in her 70s, the greatest living Arab singer is still going strong, though her appearances are far less frequent. To those gathered in Cairo and Beirut singing her songs in the streets - and to the millions more watching around the world - it is inconceivable that she will not sing again. Despite multitudes of popular singers, there is something about Fairuz's music that still resonates with young people in the region, even as it did with their parents. The rights and wrongs of the legal case aside, public opinion is firmly on Fairuz's side. The protests in Beirut showed that as Fairuz has never forgotten her country, the Lebanese have never forgotten her; they speak out now only to fill the silence that precedes her songs. * The National
November 21, 1935 Born Nouhad Haddad to a Maronite Christian family in Jabal al Arz February 1945 Spotted by the head of a Lebanese radio station at a school concert who advises her family to send her to a conservatory January 23, 1955 Marries Assi Rahbani, a musician and composer, converting to Greek Orthodoxy. 1957 Gives first large scale concert at the Baalbek International Festival 1969 Banned from radio stations for six months after refusing to perform a private concert for the president of Algeria 1975 Lebanese civil war begins. Fairuz refuses to leave the city during this period 1979 Ends her artistic partnership with her husband, who is suffering poor health, and his brother September 1994 Performs in Martyrs Square to mark the rebirth of Beirut's downtown 2008 Causes controversy by performing in Syria