'Fairouz' documentary: On the inseparability of the Arab diva and her beloved Cedar country

Nourhan Tewfik , Tuesday 16 Aug 2016

Documentary 'Fairouz' was recently screened at Magnolia in Cairo. Directed by Frédéric Mitterrand and released in 1998, the film pays homage to the legendary Lebanese singer using rare archival footage

Still from 'Fairouz' documentary by Frédéric Mitterrand (1998)

“My country,

Gold from the days of yore
My country
Born of poetic stories

I am a poem carved upon your gates

Written by a persistent wind
I am a stone, a lily,

A lily,
Oh my country.”

Thus the “Soul of Lebanon,” a moniker for the legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz, whose heavenly voice filled the confines of a cozy screening room in Zamalek’s Magnolia on Saturday.

Around 20 audience members had taken their seats to watch Frédéric Mitterrand's eponymous 1998 documentary about the Lebanese icon.

The film, in French with English subtitles, is a French-Lebanese production which opens with a snippet from Fairouz's 1979 concert at the Olympia in Paris, conducted by her husband and mentor Assi Rahbani. With Lebanon embroiled in a civil-war at the time, Fairouz’s voice was a much needed “message of peace” for Lebanese expatriates attending the concert that night.

Fast forward to 1998, when the film was produced, and we see footage of a Lebanon that had just come out of an ugly war a few years earlier, and which “like a wounded victim… is learning to live again," the narrator asserts, adding that, "it is through Fairouz’s voice that it is reweaving some of its most cherished memories."

Over the course of an hour, Mitterrand’s camera takes us from Fairouz’s hometown, Debbieh village in the Chouf Mountains, to the neighbourhood of her teenage years, Al-Basta, all the way to Lebanon’s City of the Sun, Baalbek.

As this journey across places unfolds, Mitterrand narrates Fairouz’s story in parallel to that of Lebanon during the second half of the 20th century using poetically scripted narration.

To create this ingenious parallelism, Mitterrand employs a juxtaposition of rare archival footage, including material from his interview with Fairouz at her home in the 1990s, footage of Lebanon over the years, and snippets from the singer's concerts and video clips throughout her musical vocation.

That said, Mitterrand adopts a rather basic filmic style, thus rendering the production monotonous and boring at times. That shortcoming becomes forgivable once one remembers the yet unexplored potentials of documentary filmmaking in the 1990s.

Of the different ideas the director tugs at in his film, two thoughts are especially important.

First, Mitterrand’s urge to place Fairouz’s story within the socio-political and cultural contexts in Lebanon at the time, a reasonable impulse given that it is these very particularities that would come to dictate Fairouz’s repertoire with the Rahbani brothers over the following decades.

Second, in his tribute to Fairouz, Mitterand delivers a film clearly preoccupied with a sense of place. It is a documentation of Fairouz’s relationship with space—starting with her little village in the mountains, to her Beirut neighbourhood, and encompassing the whole of Lebanon with its trees, plains and smell being some of many details the diva would both preserve and reinvent in her own songs, operettas and films.

Still from 'Fairouz' documentary by Frédéric Mitterrand (1998)

The inseparability of Fairouz and Lebanon

“I loved music. I always had my ears open, because I didn’t have a radio. I listened to the neighbours’ radio. I listened to everything and I remembered much of it,” says Fairouz as she sits in her home’s reception room, with family photos adorning the background.

Having settled in Beirut's Al-Basta neighbourhood as early as 1935 with her family, Nouhad Haddad experienced the glory that would come to characterise Beirut over the next two decades.

By the 1950s, Fairouz, who was working at the Lebanese National Radio choir in parallel to her studies at the Lebanese Conservatory at the time, met the talented brothers Assi and Mansour who were also working at the radio station.

Together, Fairouz and the Rahbani brothers introduced a new wave of Lebanese music, which embraced “a blend of musical influences together with a certain “breath” from the West,” in Fairouz’s own words.

Using their musical genies, the Rahbani brothers contributed to the “construction of modern Lebanese identity in this time where Lebanon [was], in most people’s views, setting sail into a kind of a golden era,” argues Kenneth Habib, an Associate Professor in Ethnomusicology, Music Theory, and Music History at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, in his interview “Fairuz, A Woman for All Seasons.”

The trio, adds Habib who wrote his PhD dissertation on Fairouz and the Rahbani brothers, thus presented “a compositional style not only steeped in Levantine art music, but in western European art music, and in particular French art music...also drawing upon American popular music, particularly Latin music and jazz. But…in such a way as to infuse those styles into something of their own.”

Taking the stage name Fairuz (Arabic for turquoise), it was thus only normal that the budding artist’s fame would soar to new heights in 1960s Lebanon, when the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” a new moniker for the Lebanese capital, was now living its golden age. 

In other words, the rise of the “Lady of Lebanon” as a “phenomenon,” as Habib argues in the same interview, “came up at the same time in a sense that the modern state of Lebanon came up.”

“I felt more comfortable, of course, in that space, and that space was growing, from songs to musicals to operettas. Our work was diversifying, becoming more interesting. And my admiration for them [Rahbani brothers] continued to grow, I felt I was in the right place, a place I loved, the place I’d been looking for, probably, without knowing it," Fairouz explains. 

Granted, Fairouz acknowledged and gave legitimacy to this representation. This was particularly true in the late 60s and early 70s when Fairouz witnessed an alarming obsession with money and aesthetics invade her country, existing side by side with a bitter devastation experienced by the now thousands of Palestinian refugees who settled across Lebanon, as they continued to be neglected by Arab nations. 

Still from 'Fairouz' documentary by Frédéric Mitterrand (1998)

At such critical juncture, The Lady of Lebanon could not help but voice alarm over Beirut's mounting contradictions.  She proceeded to sing of the Arab torment, and especially the Palestinian struggle, with “Zahrat al-Mada’in,” or The Flower of Cities, being one such masterpiece.  

In doing so, the narrator asserts, Fairouz thus inherited “the maternal role that the tormented children of the Arab world give to the woman who expresses their unfathomable distress.”

The striking parallelism between the fate of Fairouz’s city and that of her life was also characteristic of the 1980s, when she witnessed her country crumble down in the midst of a bloody civil war, and in parallel saw her partner Assi wither away, until he died in 1986. 

“The Piccadilly Theater on Hamra had closed its doors,” the narrator mourns Assi and Beirut. “There would be no more musicals by the Rahbani brothers. Lebanon was at war. Assi had just passed away and Fairouz’s voice rang out like the death knell of all that had kept together a family, a people, and their history.” 

It was only with the war’s end in 1994 that Fairouz, like her beloved city, “could start living again.” She responded to her Lebanon’s restored will to live with the Peace Concert, held at Beirut’s Martyrs Square, on the very Green Line that once separated Lebanon into east and west.

Music as geography

Perhaps it is this parallelism that Mitterrand creates between Fairouz and Lebanon which allows him to explore the notion of space and geography in the artist’s life and work.

First, there is the idea that Fairouz’s love for her “secluded mountain village overlooking the sea” remained intact even as she moved into the Lebanese capital. Fairouz speaks of her annual summer breaks spent in her grandmother’s house, where she fetched water, cooked and did house work, with the company of her beloved grandmother, her ‘sitti’, as she called her.  

In a way, Fairouz, with the help of the Rahbani brothers, internalized this passion for Lebanon’s geographical features in her own music so that it became a recurrent theme in her project.  

This interest in documenting her country’s geographical grandeur would also underpin Fairouz’s few films. In them, she sang of and for her beloved Lebanon, making sure the films were “full of the things we loved,” she tells us before she proceeds to enumerate them, “the houses, places, mountains, people. The movies preserve all of those things that we loved and wanted to perpetuate in film.”

One case in point is Baalbek in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa valley. A habitué of the ancient City of the Sun, Fairuz took the stage at the annual Baalbek International Festival year after year “at a time when Lebanon was in its period of glory, its golden age,” she explains.

“Baalbek itself is an important historical site. Up there, music takes on a new significance,” she adds.

Photo taken during Saturday's screening of 'Fairouz' documentary at Cairo's Magnolia. (Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)

Hers therefore was an avid representation of Lebanon’s “conscience in an almost geographical and very human way as she revisits in landscapes and sows her sentimental ballads to the winds, amidst the humble folk of shopkeepers and artisans,” the narrator states.

In that way, Fairouz’s emphasis on beauteous Lebanon constituted a staunch act of preservation in the face of recurring wars and lingering devastation. So that when the Cedar country battled with a 15-year-old Civil War between 1975 and 1990, Fairouz, immediately distanced herself from the political schisms and took refuge in silence, her songs giving the Lebanese people hope “about what they might once again become.”

But safeguarding the country’s splendor also reassured Fairouz herself, allowing her to relive a past that now seemed so distant. In such moments of distress, Assi would remind her of the lyrics to her song “Habaytak Bil Sayf” (I Loved You in Summer), albeit with a twist.

 “Turquoise, My Turqouise,” he would caress her. “You loved me in summer, you loved me in winter and we will still be together for many lovely seasons in the everlasting peace of snowy and sunny Lebanon.”

Eventually, the inseparability of Fairouz’s music and her land became so profound, that her aficionadas, and especially the Lebanese diaspora, now think of her voice as an imaginary abode they could run to whenever they feet adrift in the city and need consolation.

“Anyone who doesn’t know me only has to listen to my songs to know who I am. My songs express my soul,” says Fairouz at some point in the film.

But one would argue that by listening to our Neighbor to the Moon, we also come to know our past, our homelands, and more importantly, our own selves too.   

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