MY memories are impregnated with sounds. First comes the noise of my childhood nights punctuated with the rumble of generators. And then there are the serene melodies of my mornings marked by the voice of one diva, Fairuz, singing from my mother’s radio.
It was a time of civil war. There were frequent power blackouts at home. Outside, the country was fractured. The news was often of assassinations and car bombs. Yet one singer brought us all together with her quaint songs of love and peace. Her words were as pure as her voice, always provoking an angelic smile on my mother’s anxious face.
Today, 17 years after the end of the war, we are sadly watching our country lie at the precipices of chaos. And for many of us, the music of Fairuz is again the haven that preserves our idealistic vision of Lebanon.
It seemed utterly strange that I had to run away from Beirut and come to Athens for the first time to relish another moment with Fairuz on stage. Last weekend, beneath the Acropolis, at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the lights were suddenly all projected on the red carpet where the tail of her glittering white dress slid.
The rattle of guns echoing in my head was silenced. Fairuz’s voice embraced the full ancient Greek theater. She sang the nostalgia for the innocent past: “Children Are Playing,” “I Miss You,” “Oh Moon, Me and You” .... In one song, “Tell Me, Tell Me About My Country,” she asked a breeze for stories of the picturesque villages of Lebanon. In another, “These Were the Days,” she recalled a shadowy neighborhood where on feast nights a drunken man once sang and made wall drawings of a girl next door.
Many Arab nationals had made the trip from places like Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and Jerusalem to see “the Lady” perform. Fairuz was invited to Greece by the Athens Epidaurus Festival, an international event that every summer hosts music, plays, dance performances and operas from around the world.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a majority of Greeks in the crowd. Although most of them were not familiar with Arabic, many seemed simply moved by the intensity of emotions emanating from her voice. They had come to see the Lebanese myth who embodies the torments and exaltations of a whole country.
During the civil war, with every faction struggling to impose its different vision of Lebanon’s future and identity, the idea of a united country seemed preposterous. But we all believed her, especially during the mornings when sleep had refreshed our hopes. Her distinct vocal timbre, filled with a powerful motherly affection, could soften the cruelest of hearts.
She boasted about a beautiful Lebanon, a green Lebanon, a country made of rivers and fruit trees, filled with rosy love stories. It was an invented nation that only existed in the oft-refined accounts of our parents and grandparents.
When the fighting began in 1975, Fairuz, a stage name meaning turquoise in Arabic, was already one of the Arab world’s most popular singers. With her husband and his brother, Assi and Mansour Rahbani, who composed and wrote for her, she performed all over the world, enriching Arab music with a new type of rhythmically elaborate but simple songs. Her mysterious, Callas-like aura captured the hearts of audiences across the Middle East. She was known for being discreet and shy, rarely giving interviews.
Fairuz continues today to be an iconoclastic artist, producing distinctive music in an Arab world way too invaded by cheap locally produced pop songs. With her son, Ziad, who now writes her music and lyrics, she has performed in recent years several innovative songs mixing jazz and Oriental rhythms.
She was born as Nouha Haddad in 1935 and raised in a humble Christian household in Beirut. She started her career as a chorus girl at the Lebanese radio station before meeting the Rahbani brothers. Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers were setting the way for modern-day Arabic pop songs, parting from the tradition of long songs with interminable classical-Oriental musical interludes. Her prodigious musical repertoire included melancholic songs, folk tunes, patriotic hymns and religious chants. She sold millions of records around the world.
Fairuz also played in a dozen musicals and in three motion pictures. Written by the Rahbani brothers, the musicals had underlying political messages. But all through the 15 years of bloodshed, as Lebanese, we only had her recordings and radio voice. She refused to perform while her countrymen fought each other. During my teenager years, I watched her old concerts on national TV. I was fascinated by her firm, proud posture in front of the perennial columns of Baalbek, the ancient Roman city.
And then, the war was finally over. I remember how exhilarated I was, the first time I saw her on stage in 1994. It was Fairuz’s first public performance in Lebanon after the war. Thousands of Lebanese had flocked into Martyr’s Square. Fairuz was singing live for a new start along the old demarcation lines in the ruined heart of Beirut. With tears seemingly pearling in her eyes, she chanted: “I love you Lebanon. I love your north, your south, your plains .... " And we were all spellbound as we fantasized about rebuilding our country.
In later years, I carried her voice with me as I left to study abroad. When nostalgia and homesickness invaded my room, her songs had the power to transport me home.
“Take me to those lovely hills. Take me to the land that reared us. Forget me among vineyards and fig trees. Let me lie upon the soil of our village. Take me, plant me in the land of Lebanon .... “
Since my return, I have been witnessing with bitterness the descent of Lebanon into chaos again. I realize how naive I am, clinging to a primordial idea of a united and flourishing country.
This summer, Fairuz and many other artists from all over the world will not be performing in the festivals of Lebanon because of the instability of the country.
But watching Fairuz shine among the Greek gods filled me with pride. She proved to the world that as a nation we were capable of producing culture and not only images of bombs and fighting, which have unfortunately become very popular on TV bulletins everywhere.
Rafei is The Times’ special correspondent in Lebanon and also writes for Forbes Arabia.