Zeena Beale - Charting Lebanon's Star, listening to Fairouz
How does a person represent a nation? Is it through their actions, their talent, their style or their gender? For Lebanese singer Fairouz, it was a case of all of the above. Fairouz, born Nouhad Haddad, has captivated the hearts of the Lebanese people since the late 1950s, and continues to do so with such steadfastness that few would imagine her role as adored national icon ever being usurped. So, why is it that Fairouz managed to attain such a revered status not only in Lebanon, but also throughout the Arab world? In short, it was the weaving together of crucial strands - tradition, her vocal talent and her femininity – that eternalised the transnational veneration of Fairouz, and made her the standard to which all ensuing Arab singers – male or female – are measured against.
The evocation of Lebanese folklore in much of Fairouz’s music spoke to the Lebanese people on a deeply personal level. For a country that has been riddled with colonialism, civil war and other forms of sectarian conflict, the summoning of Lebanese tradition helped define such a turbulent nation. As it was Fairouz that performed these folkloric ideals, she garnered the respect and adoration of people who had longed for a visceral articulation of their heritage. The use of part of the poem ‘al-Mawakibb’ [The Procession] by Khalil Gibran (a giant of Arabic literature) in one of her much loved songs, ‘A’tini al-Nay wa ghanni’ [Give me the flute and sing], is such an example. It melds together the vivid imagery of Gibran’s words with the ardent expression of a female voice, which cuts to the very heart of Gibran’s meaning. Fairouz’s sonorous voice, unlike any of her contemporaries – most notably the highly ornamented voice of Egypt’s Umm Kulthoum – depicts various Lebanese countryside scenes in the song: babbling brooks, grapes hanging in clusters like ‘golden chandeliers’ and perhaps most strikingly, an image of sleeping on the grass at night, with just ‘the sky as your blanket’. As she sang these words with complete sincerity, Fairouz became a maternal figure who nurtured the image of the splendours of the ancient Phoenician legacy and nostalgia for rural simplicity. It was through works like ‘A’tini al Nay...’, and the numerous village-girl character roles she assumed in plays written by the Rahbani brothers, that Fairouz was able to construct a nationalist image for herself. Arguably, it was one that relied wholly on her femininity, while being devoid of any sexuality. For Fairouz, all love was spiritual, as she became the mother of the Lebanese nation.
So, how was Fairouz able to transcend national borders, becoming the object of adoration not only for Lebanon but for the entire Middle East as well? For a start, Lebanese folk ideals were not entirely dissimilar to other Arab traditions. Also, it was not only the fact that Fairouz was drawing upon these images in her music, but also the way in which she performed them - comforting and sensuous, but without sexuality. Fairouz also transcended national borders herself, through her song ‘Zahrat al Madaen’ [Rose of all cities]. As with ‘A’tini al Nay…’, ‘Zahrat al Madaen’ uses a text written by another celebrated Lebanese poet, Said Akl. However, rather than evoking a nurturing pastoral image, ‘Zahrat al Madaen’ recounts the struggle for the city of Jerusalem. The song is a compositional masterpiece on its own, beginning with a long introduction foretelling the programmatic trajectory of the song. A whole range of instrumentation is heard in the introduction; folk instruments such as the accordion and flute introduce the theme, and a luscious string section carries it on, only to be punctuated by militaristic brass in triumphant fanfares. When Fairouz eventually begins singing, she plaintively calls out a prayer for Jerusalem, before addressing the city directly ‘Ya qudsu’ [O Jerusalem], repeating its name three times before a descending scale on the line ‘city of prayers, I pray’. The sombre mood of the song suddenly shifts to a playful, major melody at the line ‘the child in the cave and his mother Mariam, two weeping faces’. It feels slightly incongruous, having an upbeat tune to accompany ‘two weeping faces’. Yet again, this could be a representation of the innocence of a child caught up in the chaos of conflict. The song soon shifts back to its militaristic tone, with Fairouz intoning the line ‘the looming fury is upon us’ in the manner of a bugler announcing a charge into battle. Crucially, however, the line ends with ‘yet I am full of hope and faith’ - a sentiment that is continued to the end of the song, which concludes with Fairouz repeatedly exclaiming hope and peace for Jerusalem. The significance of Fairouz’s song centring on the plight of Lebanon’s neighbours, Palestine, showed that Fairouz was not only a Lebanese national icon, but also a pan-Arab figure. Fairouz’s nurturing maternal image only grew stronger by her empathy for fellow Arabs.
Ultimately, Fairouz represents a resilience that is found in Arab people. This type of resilience acknowledges that troublesome times are never too far away, while upholding the abiding principle of hope that resonates with the intrinsic power of the word ‘inshallah’ [God willing]. For some in the Arab world, those two weeping faces of ‘Zahrat al Madaen’ still weep; the prayers still ring out for the cities of Aleppo, Mosul and for Gaza. But, through the voice of Fairouz, the flames of hope still burn bright. She is the unwavering beacon, unchanged in style and in message, that reminds people of their home, their heritage, their blood. And in a time where uncertainty reigns supreme, and ignorance and fear threaten to tear communities and nations apart, the steadfast light of Fairouz shines on as the eternal mother of us all.
Zeena Beale read Music at Homerton College, Cambridge, and graduated in 2016. She specialised in ethnomusicology during her time at Cambridge, and particularly focused on Arab popular music performers in her research. She has also written for the online magazine dardishi. From September 2017, Zeena will begin a master’s at the London School of Economics in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. Outside of academia, Zeena is a passionate advocator for cancer awareness, and founded a branch of the charity CATS (Cancer Awareness in Teenagers and Young People Society), at Cambridge University. In her free time, she is a keen violinist and clarinettist, and enjoys learning new languages on Duolingo.