Beirut and Fairouz: A path of gold and loss

Akram Rayess , Saturday 21 Nov 2020

On the 85th Birthday of the iconic Lebanese singer, Ahram Online celeberates the sound of hope and humanity

Fairuz at Beirut Port, 1968.
Fairuz at Beirut Port, 1968. (Source: Cover of the LP of the highlights of Bint el-Hares)

Nuhad Haddad was born on 21-11-1935 into a working-class family in Zuqaq El-Blat, Beirut, Lebanon. Her father Wadih Haddad was a print house worker, and she was his eldest daughter. She used to help her mother Liza Al-Bustani in doing house chores and taking care of her brother Joseph and her two sisters Huda and Amal.

In the school choir, Mohammed Flayfel (1899-1985) heard this shy girl’s singing. He was enchanted by her voice so he took her under his wing and trained her on the rules of singing and Quranic intonation. He was able to get her a scholarship to learn music in the Lebanese Conservatory managed by Wadih Sabra (1876-1952).

This essay, which is published on Fairouz's birthday, links the famous songstress’ path with that of Beirut in processes of artistic creativity, and being a cultural centre where Eastern and Western cultural currents intersected and interacted with one another. This was done through three main temporal and spatial points: the radio stations phase (1950-1956), Piccadilly Theatre (1967-1978) and her collaboration with Ziad Rahbani.

The Enchanted Nightingale

Beirut overlooking in 19850
Beirut overlooking the sea and mountain, ca 1950. Photo by Willem van de Poll. (Source: Wikicommons)

Fairuz in 1955
Fairuz at the Near East Radio Studio in Beirut,ca. 1955. (Source: The Official Catalogue for the Fairuz USA Tour, 2003)

In the 1930s and 40s, Beirut was consolidating its cultural, economic, and touristic role during a period that was in the throes of local, regional, and international crises and wars. Its social and demographic components have become numerous due to successive migrations from local rural regions as well as Arab cities. A new network of social elites with modernist outlooks emerged where economic interests of some of them intersected with the French Mandate policies, which were based mainly in urban areas.

The Mandate authorities developed infrastructures and institutions, including Radio Orient (1938), which became the official broadcasting radio three years after Lebanon’s independence. Within this radio station, the Artistic and Literary Committee was formed, which announced that among its missions was “developing the national spirit in the people’s souls, because singing and acting were one of the strongest means of influence on people’s minds and their tendencies. It is nott permissible in any way to leave these means to corrupt tastes and souls” (Fayek El-Khoury, 1966).

Discussions revolved around Lebanese songs and how to enhance their lyrics, tune, and performance. Organisational decisions were issued in Radio Lebanon in the mid 40s to reinforce it with content based on “colloquial oral poetry in the Lebanese vernacular language”.

Within this ardent cultural and artistic scene, Mohammed Flayfel convinced Nuhad’s father to allow her to participate in his weekly choir concerts in Radio Lebanon. Soon Hafez Taqi-Eddine, the radio programmes' director, introduced her to composer Halim El-Roumi (1917-1983), who became the manager of the radio station’s music department in the beginning of 1950.

After a short stint at the radio station, Halim El-Roumi gave Nuhad her artistic name, Fairouz, and her first song “I left my heart and obeyed your love” was released in February 1950, and was succeeded by a number of songs produced with the radio station’s lyricists and composers.  

Radio Lebanon was also a platform for the most important event in Fairouz’s artistic career, the encounter with Assi Rahbani (1923-1986), which culminated in their marriage at the beginning of 1955. Her voice grew more mature after a long arduous course of vocal training by the Rahbani brothers based on a modern vision integrating eastern singing resources with European patterns.

At that stage, the Rahbani brothers’ efforts aimed at founding an aesthetic sphere, whose features began to crystallise gradually, and to capitalise on what the nascent artistic movement achieved in recent decades towards new local expressive horizons.

Soon this collaboration became firmly established, eventually forming a unique artistic trio that attracted the attention and mentorship of Ahmed ‘Assah, the Syrian Radio Station director (1915-2005) and Sabri Al-Sherif, the Near East Broadcasting Station’s artistic director (1922-1999).  

Shortly, the works of the trio were widespread in the region through radio air waves, starting with the song “Itab” (Reproach) in spite of objections from some prominent conservative figures and audience groups in the arts, and the rare stage appearances of Fairouz.

Following the success of her song “Ya Ba La La La” in Cairo since its broadcasting in October 1953, the Egyptian Radio invited the trio for a six-month residency in Cairo in 1955, and to record 48 compositions with its orchestra. Mohammed Abdel-Wahab stated that he is the leader of Fairouz’s fan club in Cairo, in an expression of his enthusiasm for this artistic project (Assayad Magazine, 13/11/1958).

Due to the resourceful production capabilities in the Near East Broadcasting Station, this phase was characterised with an abundance and diversity of the trio’s productions of Arabised dance songs, popular and folkloric songs, MuwashshahatQasaid and mini operettas.

Many of this output still resides in the closed archives of these radio stations. A local and unique artistic expressiveness emerged. The word and “its sister the melody,” as Assi used to say, are conjoined with the singer within a melodic composition that intensifies human experiences and their emotional charges within a few minutes. They are drawn with professional accuracy despite their apparent simplicity, while staying away from improvisational practices in favour of written orchestral canons.

This technical system, interlinked with values of a renaissance innately attached to Lebanese land and people’s aspirations, formed the next step towards the completion of the Fairouz and Rahbani brothers’ artistic structure.

Poet Said Akl looked closely at these values and called Fairouz “Lebanon’s ambassador to the stars,” after Assayad Magazine described her repeatedly as “The Enchanted Nightingale,” and its founder Said Freiha labelled her as a “national treasure.” 

“She sang for the land, human faces, for rebellion against injustice. She gave hope to the displaced and refinement for beautiful woman, and a better tomorrow for the miserable. Fairouz is not far from the people; from their simple songs, evenings and hours of love, from their hot sweet dances she draws her material. However, she manipulates all this and then pushes it back to the hearts, which woke up to the magnificence, heroism, joy of happiness, and the pleasure of new creation. With her voice a nation was built,” Akl said in the 1956 autumn edition of Al-Ezaah Magazine.

This phase continued until the Lebanese Nights were launched, and through it the musicals in the International Baalbek Festivals in 1957 with Fairouz and the Rahbani brothers, as well as Zaki Nassif, Toufic El-Bacha, Sabri Al-Sherif, Marwan and Wadia Jarrar, Mohammed Shamel, and others.

In its form, the Lebanese Nights were a spatial extension of Beirut and an artistic framework in which rural and urban elements blended. A number of artistic milestones followed such as public performances at the Damascus International Fair starting in 1959, the Cedar Festivals since 1964, and concerts in many Arab countries, Britain, France, and the Americas.

It is noteworthy to mention that Fairouz starred in three films also at that stage – Bayya Al-Khawatim (“The Rings’ Seller”) 1965, Safar Barlik (“The Exile”) 1967, and Bint Al-Hares (“The Guard’s Daughter”) 1968 – as well as TV variety programs after Lebanese television station Tele Liban was launched in 1959.

Theatre of prosperity and disparities

Fairuz in the musical play Sah Al-Nnoum, Piccadilly Theater, 1970. (Source: cover of the 45-inch single el-beer el-Mahjour)

Announcement of Fairuz’s first musical play at the Piccadilly, January 1967. (Source: Personal archive)

Beirut maintained its unprecedented prosperity and in the 60s became a regional economic hub and a Mecca for medical, educational, and entertainment services.

Unbridled opposites and divided identities subsisted side by side, for it brought together exclusive political and economic privileges alongside a tendency for excessive consumption.

It was also the laboratory of avant-garde culture, a destination of continuous rural migrations, and a sphere of demonstrations triggered by exacerbated social disparities. The Hamra Street emerged, and soon it became one of Beirut's landmarks with its modern buildings and breathless lights; and in its platforms and cafes which witnessed clamouring political and cultural discussions.

Here, the Piccadilly Theatre was launched with the Vienna State Opera Company performance in 6 November 1966, to be the new descendent of inner decoration extravagance of the likes of the Grand Théâtre and the Crystal, responding in unique steps to Beirut’s global ambitions.

The Piccadilly Theatre embraced the beginning of a new stage in Fairouz’s theatrical career through a series of plays she made with the Rahbani brothers, directed by Sabri Al-Sherif and later by Berj Fazlian. They were (“Hala wa Al-Malik”) Hala and the King 1967, Al-Shakhs (“The Person”) 1969, Yaish Yaish (“Hurray! Hurray!”) 1970, Sah Al-Nawm (“Wake up”) 1970, Nas Min Waraq (“People made of Paper”) 1972, Al-Mahatta (“The Station”) 1973, Loulou 1974, Mais el Reem (“The Deer's Meadow”) 1975, and Petra 1978.

The nature of this theatre’s intimate space, which is distinguished from the open-air theatre at the historic Baalbek Citadel has affected the path of these plays, their characters, and style. The tense social and cultural reality imposed a change in the literary language, and intellectual context, and artistic approach; especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War Defeat drove Fairouz and the Rahbani brothers and also the Lebanese Theatre, Arab literature and Fine Arts in general, to self-criticism and tackling social, political, and existential themes.

Those plays dealt with social justice, military coup-d’états, bureaucracy, elections, corruption, and other issues. Thus, both the tomato seller in The Person and Qurunful in Wake up rebelled against injustice, and Haifa wondered in Hurray! Hurray! about poverty and people’s circumstances which are getting worse despite a change in governments and their policies.

These plays witnessed the refinement of Fairouz’s acting from a star of legends and rural imagery in Al-Baalbekiyeh (“The Girl from Baalbeck”) 1961, Jisr al-Qamar (“The Bridge of the Moon”) 1962, and Al-Lail Wal Qindil (“The Night and the Lantern”) 1963 into Fairouz “the actress released from captivity . . . and the inner actress with a magnetic presence” (Onsi Al-Haj, Annahar Newspaper Cultural Supplement, 17/3/1974).

Fairouz made with the Lebanese Popular Troupe a set of beautifully crafted musical dialogues and songs in a series of plays which opened new dimensions in her vocal and acting performance. The concept of the “female protagonist” (Nabil Abou-Mrad, 1990) constituted in these plays as a main creative engine for the Rahbani brothers in constructing the meanings and solutions for the dramatic conflicts they present.

“In every role I played there is part of me in it” Fairouz pointed out, “I feel that I didn’t play any role in the traditional sense. Assi was writing roles that resemble me and reflect something of me” (Oras Makhlouf, Shaza Magazine, December 1987).

Subsequently, these works have become a reality that transcended the theatrical imagination in Fairouz’s artistic presence in collective memory and entrenched her as a modernist symbol of musical theatre in the Arab World.

A Studio in A Fragmented City

Fairuz at Notta Studio
Fairuz at Notta Studio. Photo by Reema Rahbany, 1990. (Source: The Official Catalogue for the Fairuz USA Tour, 2003.)

Opening temporarily check points at the green line in Beirut city center. 1984. (Source: Liban: le siecle en images /sous le direction de Nawaf Salem et al, 1999)

The drums of war rolled, the dreams of change ceased to exist, and the glow of the “Lebanese Miracle” faded in the temporary city. Beirut was divided and its places were torn. Fairouz was absent from the Piccadilly and the city of ruin put out its lights. Her voice filled the vacuum of the landscapes of erasure and transcended the violence whirlwind of the fighting groups. Its presence was magnified and became “a driftwood of redemption against insanity and against drowning totally in the sea of grudge, infighting, sectarianism and criminality” (Onsi Al-Haj, Al-Maqased Magazine, 1985).

Within the dialectic of absence and presence, her silence increased. Between her voice and the people “a secret relationship was established, based on deep mutual love and profound mutual respect” (Nizar Mroweh, 1989). Thus, they carried it in their hearts, their immigration luggage and in their radio sets while they were moving from one shelter to another in the bottom of the city and its pitch-dark nights. In this cut-off from the world and cut to narrow pieces capital, the recording studio became the creative platform for Fairouz in her artistic collaboration with Ziad Rahbani, which marked a new stage in her path.  

This stage of artistic renewal is similar in many respects to that of “the Near East Broadcasting Station in searching for something new in poetic, musical, and performing expression” (Fairouz, Shaza Magazine, December 1987). It is also distinct from its prolificacy, where Beirut, most of the time, was no longer able to provide even the minimum of daily life bare necessities.

Fairouz’s new works have constituted an aesthetic texture characterised with regeneration from the inside as much as the dynamics of modernism opened the way for reinventing oneself. It also resulted in a wide controversy that divided audiences and critics between a yearning to static constants of a lost paradise and the outlook to the changing variables of the present reality, which in its turn, gradually receded.

The first album was released under the title Wahdon (Alone) in 1979. Fairouz became independent artistically from the Rahbani brothers after a collaboration spanning for more than a quarter of a century based on hard work and continuous production. Assi passed away in June 1986 after long suffering since he had a stroke in September 1972.

“Our family is like a Greek tragedy, happiness is temporary, and sadness and pain is the norm” Fairouz said before being devastated by the death of her daughter, Layal (Al-Anbaa Newspaper, 7/8/1985) less than two years later. Family bereavement and civil war nihilism came in succession; the novelist Elias Khoury wondered, “How this woman manages to bear the weight of all these songs? How can she see her voice in the Lebanese shattered mirror, how? Isn’t she afraid? Isn’t Fairouz afraid of Fairouz?” (Elias Khoury, As-Safir Newspaper, 27/5/1989).

“But they left”!

From the cover of the LP Highlights of the musical play Al-Mahatta, 1973.

Smoke billows following an explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. AFP

Fairouz’s works continued with Philemon Wehbé (1916-1995), Zaki Nassif (1916-2004) and Mohammed Mohsen (1922-2007) but mainly with Ziad Rahbani. Her second album titled Maarefti Feek (“Our Encounter”) 1987 was released and then the third, titled Kifak Enta (“How are you?”) 1991 that became the epitome of the Fairouz-Ziad artistic collaboration. It was followed by an album title Ila Assi (“To Assi”) 1995 which is an artistic tribute to “the one who entered people’s homes in simplicity and wrote an artistic history then departed.”

This was done through rearranging, and in some instances re-conceptualizing, a selection of songs and instrumentals from the Rahbani brothers’ repertoire and was performed by the Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra. Fairouz used to meet her fans every now and then after the armed fighting in Lebanon ended, and her Beirut comeback concert was held in Sahat Al-Shouhada. She chanted Good Friday Syriac and Byzantine hymns in churches that were badly hit during the war and were not restored yet, bearing the symbolism of peace and resurrection.

However, this wish did not materialise in a city that “spreads its gold over trash” (Claire Jubaili in “Beirut in the Poets’ Poems” by Shawqi Bzie’h, 2010). The promises of reconstruction and attempts to make Beirut regain its former regional role broke down while economic and political crises came in succession with the absence of the givens of social peace and reconciliation.

On another level, the war abolished the traces of “a whole life of freedom and human relations and eliminated happiness; and the effervescence of singing has got nothing to do with happiness.” (Marchilian and Zibawi, Fairouz: Speech is limited and the truest divulgence I utter only in singing, Annahar Newspaper Cultural Supplement, 7/11/1992).

Places and their ramifications have changed and so have people. Her song Mish kain heik tukoon (“You were not like this”) 1999, which was the title of her next album with Ziad within a series of later collaborations: Sho ma sar lakin raho (“Whatever happened, they are gone however”).

Beirut, a submerged city in a whirlwind of its accumulated illusions and a prison of closed guardianships, will not return to its past moments of ecstasy. The time of initiation ended and faded within the daily wars, and the labyrinths of ambiguous power sharing and consecutive defeats and mourning.

Fairouz shed the bygone city’s dress, for the word paradise is “a strange word from the outset.” (Abbas Beydoun, in his poetry book titled B. B. B., 2007) The ruins of Beirut will reside in the memory of ashes and in the perished relations of “strangers and exiles.” (Elias Khoury, the Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 2020) It will live in the vacuum of hijacked births and ports of oblivion. It will become more violent than the dryness of land and boredom of water.

Seashores, preludes, and hidden treasures

Writer Khalida Said approaches Fairouz’s singularity and finds that she was “the mainstay of the utopian Rahbani brothers’ project” and hence a partner in Ziad Rahbani’s artistic project, which left the legends of nation building and the fall of empires to plunge in different linguistic and musical sources, and in the contradictions of Beirut’s daily life.

She points out that “Fairouz alone combined (those) two distant riverbanks, but without making any concessions regarding her distinctive peculiarity.”(2009) In the light of this path, this lady embodies, through her work with the Rahbani brothers in her beginnings at local and regional radio stations, and her plays, and afterwards Ziad Rahbani, the entire history of Greater Lebanon through its independence all the way till its wounded present.

It also symbolises the path of Beirut, Star of the Sea, which seduces us once with a “thousand new starts,” and sometimes “turns about in its sands,” according to poets Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis.

Fairouz earns a progressive stature in her art and professionalism and in being both a national and modernist symbol. She succeeds, in what critic Nizar Mroweh (1989) rightfully mentions, in “rehabilitating totally the worth of the artist and their dignity, the artist man and the artist woman at the same time; this isn’t possible for any lady. It is a difficult effort, requiring a fortified character, and being tied to the honour of art in a new kind. Fairouz has transcended what is known as the common boundaries of the artist to become a meaningful sign of a dignified artistic world, and a vocal memory that emanates avant-garde content.”

Fairouz bears hidden parts of beauty and childhood’s kindness that does not cease to renew itself. She ventures to complete her long and tiring journey towards what is more welcome than moving from beyond cities and villages. Her sail is her voice, and her songs are lanterns lighting forthcoming stories of our seashores, land, and people coming from gold and loss; from fire and jasmine as her songs divulge.

*The writer is a Lebanese researcher in Ethnomusicology

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