Fayrouz and Arab Nationalism

Moran Levanoni analyzes the release of a new single by Lebanese singer Fayrouz, now a controversial figure, despite having once been a symbol of Lebanese and Arab nationalism - partially due to her support for the Palestinian cause.

In June 2017, something remarkable happened in the world of Arab music. After a seven year hiatus, Lebanese singer Fayrouz, the stage name of Nouhad Wadie Haddad, released the first single from her new album, titled “On My Mind [ببالي],” which is due to be released in September.[1] The 81-year-old, velvet-voiced Fayrouz has recorded no fewer than 685 songs – establishing herself as a symbol of Lebanese and Arab nationalism. Her songs have been performed in musicals, films, and concerts throughout the Arab world, Europe, and America, and appear on more than 60 albums. Her recent single, “For Whom [Lamin],” was released on YouTube and social networking sites (SNS)[2] on June 21, and is dedicated to her late husband, the legendary producer Assi Rahbani, 31 years after his death. This is Fayrouz’s cover of a song by Pierre Delanoë (lyrics) and Gilbert Bécaud (music),  translated into Arabic by her daughter Reema, who produced the current album. The revolutions in the Arab world and the war in Syria have plunged Fayrouz’s music and her support for the Palestinian cause into a controversy dividing supporters of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah from the opposition groups, especially inside Syria and Lebanon.

Fayrouz’s position as a symbol of Lebanese nationalism is attributed to her unforgettable performance at the Ba‘albek Festival in the Lebanese Beka‘a in 1957. Fayrouz was cast in the show “Harvest Days,” produced by the brothers Mansour and Assi Rahbani (whom she later married), as a counterweight to the hegemony of Egyptian artists, led by Oum Kalthoum‎, in the world of Arab music. In a performance that became the festival's highlight, Fayrouz appeared to be floating, bathed in light beside the marble pillars of the Temple of Jupiter, and sang the immortal words, “Oh Lebanon, green and beautiful...”[3] in her common Lebanese accent. The audience went wild, and Camille Chamoun and his wife, then president and first lady, congratulated her on the success. The first lady even awarded Fayrouz a medal of honor after the performance. [4] In the wake of the festival, Fayrouz’s career blossomed, and nationalist motifs remained central to her roles in the Rahbani brothers’ musical productions.[5] For example, on Lebanese Independence Day in 1962, the show “Return of the Soldier [Odat al-Askar]” was produced in honor of the Loyalty Day instituted by the Lebanese president following a failed coup by the Syrian National Party (PPS), signaling support for the Lebanese government and army. [6]

At the time, the nationalist motif integrated well with other prominent contemporary manifestations of Arab nationalism, particularly the Arab world’s favorable attitude towards the Palestinian cause. Fayrouz, an ardent supporter of the Palestinians, made firm statements on the subject. As early as 1955, at the invitation of then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Rahbani brothers and Fayrouz began producing a Palestinian show in Egypt for the radio station Sot al-Arab. For this project, they arranged songs by Gazan poet Hashem Rashid[7] and produced a 15-minute work called “We Will Return One Day [Sanarga Yoman],” which was played on Arab stations and portrayed Gamal Abdel Nasser as the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism. Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad also honored Fayrouz and her songs, as the Syrian usage of the Palestinian issue was pivotal to leading the Arab world in what was called “the policy of resistance [Muqawama] and prevention [Memanada].”[8] In a 1977 performance in Damascus, Fayrouz premiered several songs sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, earning herself rousing acclamation throughout the Arab world. The performance included a medley of songs about cities in the Middle East, including Damascus, Amman, Kuwait, coastal Alexandria, and Baghdad, with a combative centerpiece dedicated to Jerusalem – a song called “Flower of the Cities [Zahara Almadan]."[9] She also sang “The Bells of Return [Ajras al-Odeh]" by Nizar Qabbani, “Take me to Beit Shean [Khuduny Lebisan]," and “Jaffa [Yafa]," all of which called for a return to Palestine.

However, the last six years have fissured Syrian support for the Palestinian cause, in part because of the ambivalent behavior of the Palestinians vis-à-vis the civil war in Syria. While one prominent Palestinian camp chose active support for the Assad regime, and was thus strongly disparaged by the Syrian opposition, another prominent camp, headed by Hamas, supported radical Islamic factions, including ISIS - despite ISIS' long siege on the al-Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp. These Palestinian alignments were considered interference in Syria’s internal affairs. Meanwhile, Fayrouz herself was criticized for a statement by her eldest son, Ziad Rahbani, in December 2013. He claimed, “Fayrouz loves Hassan Nasrallah and if she were in Assad’s place, she would have done exactly as he did.”[10] The statement was later denied by Fayrouz's spokesperson, but this denial did not avert Syrian opposition groups' anger. There was an ensuing break in the relationship between Ziad and Fayrouz, which is likely why he did not produce her current album, despite having  produced some of her previous albums.

Consequently, when rumors spread about Fayrouz’s new album and a planned performance in Damascus, the online Syrian opposition journal Zaman al-Wasl stated, “If Fayrouz is planning to appear in Damascus, it is better that she refrain from doing so.”[11] Al-Mayadeen, a satellite television channel related to Hezbollah, reported more sympathetically on Fayrouz’s album. In response, Facebook user Mazen Sadeq wrote, “Where is your national news, channel of the Ba’ath Party?” Another user, Louwy Nazzal, asked sarcastically, “This is news from al-Aqsa about resistance and prevention?”[12] A Saudi reader commented on the al-Arabiya website, “The bells of return ring, but from whence are you returning, Fayrouz? The nation turned its back and is immersed in prevention from the Golan to Jaffa,”[13] which was his way of expressing that the Palestinian people are immersed in internal affairs, and have lost interest in returning to Israeli territory. Beyond dismissing Fayrouz because of the statement attributed to her, he also criticized her support for the Palestinian cause.

Fayrouz’s artistic conduct illustrates how popular music can promote a public agenda, as the Emir in Rahbani’s play, “The Days of Fakhr a-Din,” tells the singer Attar al-Lail, played by Fayrouz: “I will be the sword and you shall be the song.” However, the issues of Lebanese, Syrian, or Palestinian nationalism are no longer top priorities for the region’s residents. Furthermore, the divergence of large parts of the Syrian public from the Palestinian cause, which is identified with Fayrouz, has weakened her popular appeal. Nonetheless, Fayrouz remains a cultural icon and a wonderfully unique singer, with a mass of fans that continue to cherish memories of the past.

[1] "Fayrouz Tasadar 'Lamin'… 'Ilaik ow Alai ow Mish Lashai,'" al-Nahar, June 21, 2017, .

[2] https://play.anghami.com/song/23820811, accessed July 8, 2017 and since removed.

[3] Christopher Stone, Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: Fairouz and Rahabani Nation (London: ‎Routledge, 2007), 40.‎‏ ‏

[4] Ibid, 41-42.

[6] Stone, 53.

[7] M. Mansur, Al-Kharita al-Shi’aryya fi al-Ughniya al-Rahbaniyya (Dimashq: Dar mamduh lilnashar watawzi’, 2009), 81.

[8] “Prevention [Memanada]” was a term coined by Hafez al-Assad in the late 1990s to describe a policy of fighting Israel through indirect confrontation, unlike "resistance [Muqawama]." He used this term to explain his decision to refrain from attacking Israel.

[9] In a song written by the Rahbani brothers and performed for the first time at the Cedar Festival in 1978, they wrote, “The child in the cave [Jesus] and his mother Mary both weep for those who were expelled [from their land].”

[10] "Al-fnnan Ziad al-rahbani: Fairuz tuhib Hassan Nasarallah walaw kanat mahall al-Assad lfa’alat ma yafaluhu alaan," al-Quds al-‘Arabi, December 13, 2013.

[13] Yara al-Andri, "Fairuz Sahibat al-Sawt al-Khalid…Lam Tamat," al-Arabiya, March 11, 2012, comment 112, accessed July 10, 2017.