The Arab world’s last living music legend Fairuz, who will visit French President Emmanuel Macron in Beirut on Monday, is a rare symbol of national unity in crisis-stricken Lebanon.
Since the death of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum in 1975, no Arab singer has been revered as deeply as 85-year-old Fairuz – a stage name meaning ‘turquoise’ in Arabic.
For decades she captivated audiences everywhere from her native Beirut to Las Vegas, including the great Olympia in Paris and the Royal Albert Hall in London.
She sang about love, Lebanon and the Palestinian cause, in ballads that revolutionized Middle Eastern music.
Fairuz is “certainly one of the greatest Arab singers of the 20th century,” Virginia Danielson, an expert in Middle Eastern music, told the New York Times in 1999.
When she sang, she seemed in a trance: eyes glassy, expression stoic, little smiles flashed quickly across her face.
“If you look at my face while I’m singing you’ll see I’m not there, I’m not on the spot,” she told the New York Times in a rare interview.
“I feel that art is like prayer.”
Fairuz has been called “our ambassador to the stars” by her countrymen – not only because of her heavenly voice, but also because she is a rare symbol of unity for a country bitterly divided by a 15-year civil war.
– ‘I love you, O Lebanon’ –
Born in Nouhad Haddad in 1934 to a working-class Christian family, she studied at the National Conservatory of Music as a teenager.
During her time at the Lebanese State Radio Choir, composer Halim al-Roumi nicknamed her Fairuz and introduced her to composer Assi Rahbani, whom she married in 1955.
Fairuz, Assi and his brother Mansour revolutionized traditional Arabic music by combining classical Western, Russian and Latin elements with Eastern rhythms and a modern orchestra.
Fairuz rose to fame after her first performance at the Baalbeck International Festival in 1957.
Her reign as queen of Arab music was partly due to her standing up for the Palestinian cause, including “Sanarjaou Yawman” or “We Shall Return One Day,” a lamentation for Palestinians exiled by the founding of Israel in 1948.
The star is an immortal icon in her native Lebanon.
Many of her most popular songs are nostalgic odes to pastoral times. Others include poems by the Lebanese legends Gibran Khalil Gibran and Said Aql, among others, set to music.
She has largely disappeared from public life in recent years, but her soaring voice remains ubiquitous, blaring from radios in street cafes and taxis every morning.
“If you look at Lebanon now, you can see that it doesn’t look like the Lebanon I sing about, so if we miss it, we look for it through the songs,” the diva told the New York Times.
Fairuz also gained national prominence for staying in Lebanon during the civil war from 1975 to 1990 and for refusing to side with one faction over another.
Tens of thousands of people swarmed at her first post-war concert, in 1994 in central Beirut.
“I love you, oh Lebanon, my country, I love you. Your north, your south, your valley, I love you,” she shouts in one of her most famous songs.
– Political controversies within the family –
Fairuz is famous for protecting her personal life.
“She can be very funny if she wants to. She is also a leading chef. She is very humble and loves to serve her guests,” said journalist Doha Chams, her press officer.
But she hates “the invasion of her private life”.
Fairuz had four children with husband Assi Rahbani, who died in 1986.
Their daughter Layal died of a brain haemorrhage at a young age, their son Hali is handicapped and Rima, the youngest, films and produces her mother’s concerts.
Her eldest son, Ziad, followed in the footsteps of his father and uncle as a musician and composer.
Fairuz worked closely with Ziad – known as a troubled but talented artist – to compose songs with jazz influences.
The Lebanese star’s recent past has been marked by a series of family and political controversies.
In 2008, when Lebanese political factions were fiercely divided over support for the regime in neighboring Syria, Fairuz performed in Damascus.
Two years later, the Lebanese judiciary prevented her from singing tunes that the Rahbani brothers had written without the permission of her brother-in-law Mansour’s sons.
Fairuz spent several years without new material until 2017, when her daughter Rima produced her latest album, “Bibali”.
© 2020 AFP