“The Lebanese may differ from one another in every way but when it comes to her, they are always in agreement”. Fairuz – the most famous Lebanese artist and voice of hope
Her name is known to everybody. Her voice sounds like a rare gemstone. It’s reflected in the Arabic meaning of her name – turquoise.
Born in Beirut in 1935, she grew up in a non affluent, Christian family. Her real name is Nuhad Haddad. As a little girl, she used to sit on a windowsill with the window wide open, listening to her favourite songs by female Egyptian artists playing on her neighbours’ radio. She started singing by joining the school choir. At the age of 12, her skill had been discovered by a teacher of the Lebanese conservatoire, Mohammed Flajfel. He took her under his wings. The artist-to-be practised, among other things, the correct recitation of Quran. Flajfel also encouraged her to cut down on eating lemons and other sour fruits. He claimed that they could flaw her remarkable timbre.
Fairuz’s father, however, was reluctant towards her pursuing the musical career. He spared no efforts to ensure that his daughter received a solid education. His acceptance of her work in the radio station as a teenage girl came only upon the condition that she should be assisted by a relative on the way there and back.
The voice of Lebanon
The Lebanese Radio Station changed her life. This is where she was heard by Halim al-Rumi, a singer and composer with Palestinian roots and an important figure in the Lebanese music scene, who decided to help her with the development of her career. He was the one who picked her stage name. This is also where her paths crossed with those of brothers Assi and Mansur Rahbani. These talented musicians, a decade older than her, always dreamed of a career on the stage, at the time earning a living working for the police. Assi became Nuhad’s husband. They got married when she was merely 20 years old. The three of them have revolutionised the Arabic music stage.
Their compositions are connecting traditional Arabic sounds, Latino rhythms, orchestral music, lyrics written by the Rahbani brothers, and writings by famous poets. They were covering many different subjects; singing about love, sadness, longing, and the beauty of Lebanon. What is more, they significantly shortened the duration of one song. In the first half of the 20th century, it was popular in Egyptian music that the piece lasted for even up to 20 minutes but the tracks created by them were only about 4 minutes long.
Their first song – Itab (eng. admonition), tells the story of unrequited love. The trio became famous thanks to the festival in Baalbek – one of the most important artistic events in the area. In 1957, in the ruins of a Roman city, Fairuz sang on a stage for the very first time.
“When for the first time, we are not together”. Fairuz about love
Fairuz is an artist who values her private life very much. However, she tells the story of her love in songs. One of the stories goes like this:
“On cold winter days, flooded streets and sidewalks are like lakes, the girl leaves the house, one of those old houses. He tells her to wait for him in that street. So she waits and waits in the rain, and he forgot, he doesn’t come”. It goes on. “I loved you in summer, I loved you in winter, I have been waiting in the sun and the downpour. Your eyes were bright like the summer and mine, wet as the winter”.
The song was written by her husband Assi twenty years after the day they had arranged to meet and he hadn’t shown up. Fairuz was waiting for him in the rain, soaked. She never forgot this offense and the song was his way to ask for forgiveness.
The music for “Sa’aluni el nas” (eng. people asked me) was composed by the son of Nuhad and Assi. Ziad was 17 years old at the time. The piece tells a story of fear and longing which they all felt when Assi went to the hospital after his hemorrhage. “Sa’aluni el nas” became so popular that despite Assi’s pleas that Fairuz would not sing it again after his recovery, she was unable to comply.
Few people listening to the song today remember the circumstances by which it came into being. However the lebanese remember how a few years after her husband’s death, Fairuz couldn’t stop her tears when she sang the lines ‘it is the first time when we are not together.’
Power outage and Madonna
Another story is connected with the very popular nowadays song “Kifak Inta” (“How are you?”). This also is one of the son’s – Ziad’s – creations. It is said that one evening he forced his mother to listen to his work. Even a temporary power outage couldn’t stop him, as he precautiously equipped himself with a portable player.
The song was about an unexpected meeting of late lovers after years apart. After listening to the piece, Fairuz told him that she will think about singing it. Making the decision took her 4 years.
Another well-known story is the dispute between Fairuz and Madonna. The latter was sued for sampling the Arab star’s song “Al jaum ulliqa alal chashaba” in the track “Erotica”. The sale of Madonna’s album ended up being banned in Lebanon.
“This land is for you”
Both Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers are known for their commitment to defending the rights of Palestinians to an independent homeland. As a tribute to her efforts, she received the keys to Jerusalem in 1968. In one of her songs she praised al-Quds (the Arabic name of Jerusalem): “the flower of cities towards which all eyes are turned”.
In 1999, she became an ambassador of the Arab world on the behalf of the Red Cross. She was asked to give a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Instead of speaking, she sang: “this land is for you”. The words came from the poem by Khalil Gibran. Gibran was one of the greatest Lebanese writers, appealing for the recognition of the rights of the Palestinians.
Fairuz, the gem of Lebanon
The homeland has a special place in her heart and creativity. Fairuz is said to be a voice of hope for the country, where the last decades have brought many tragic events. She is the symbol of unity in the nation. A commonly known Lebanese saying goes: the Lebanese may differ from one another in every way but when it comes to Fairuz, they are always in agreement. The artist remained in the country during the Lebanese civil war, which lasted for 15 years from 1985 to 1990. She did not opt for any of the sides, which earned her great respect among many compatriots. Her first post-war concert at Martyrs’ Square in Beirut was attended by thousands of people, together, side by side.
Listening to her music, people can forget about divisions. Confession is not important. She is equally adored by both Christians and Muslims. In one of the few interviews she gave, she said: “when you look at my face when I sing you will see that I am not there. I am somewhere else. For me, art is like a prayer”.
The artist turns 88 this year. Dubbed the “ambassador among the stars” and “neighbor to the moon”, she seduced audiences everywhere she went for years, from her hometown of Beirut to Paris to Las Vegas. Her pieces will never get old. Generations have grown up listening to her voice. As said by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “with her voice, she can shrink the desert and enlarge the moon”.
Aleksandra Ciemała – arabist, Salam Lab’s editorial trainee.
Sources: Mawdoo3, Layalina, Mileword, France24, Rotana, Inside Arabia.
Translated by Marianna Gracz.