“The sound of longing for the Lebanese mountains” and “the voice of the human condition” are only two of the descriptions used by the Lebanese singer Fairuz's millions of fans in the Arab world – and beyond. For me, her voice is a reminder some of the best years of my life, spent in beautiful Beirut. It is the sound of sunshine over the deep Mediterranean blue, and of the warm, moist, slightly salty, almost sensual, air that rises from the sea and fills the Lebanese coastline.
I was lucky to be in Beirut in the early 1970s, when the city was at a cultural peak, enjoying the best of what the east and the west had to offer. And Fairuz was singing one charming song after another, mostly cheerful melodies about youthful love, and the odd sad tune about lovers torn apart by the hands of fate.
Her name, meaning turquoise, was a perfect symbol of her delicate figure, cascading hair and finely sculpted face.
Then came the civil war, ending tens of thousands of lives, not to mention the disruption it caused to much of Lebanon's artistic and intellectual activity. But Fairuz remained unscathed. Throughout the war, her voice could be heard loud and clear from rival warring factions' radio stations, or many a neighbourhood loudspeaker, praising the glory and beauty of Lebanon, or stirring passions about Palestine, recalling Jerusalem and all it holds dear to people of many faiths.
Her performances, though, stopped until after the war, when she sang in Beirut's city centre, which had been part of the front line and the scene of the most intense fighting.
So it was natural that on hearing – from some Parisian friends on a visit to London – that Fairuz would be performing in Paris at the end of June, I should want to cross the channel, for the first time in 15 years, to hear her. Only a few days before the concert, my partner and I learned that because of high demand, our friends had been able to buy only two tickets – for the two of us.
In their apartment in Paris, we discovered that we were being given the tickets – $150 each – as gifts. And these were not the most expensive. It is a sign of Fairuz's popularity that, in spite of the high prices, a second night had been added to her performance.
Much to our surprise, the prestigious concert hall, Salle Pleyel, was not packed by people in luxury clothes arriving in limousines. Most members of the audience were dressed casually, many of them young couples holding hands. Some were older, no doubt with memories of their youth coloured by the romantic songs of Fairuz, herself now in her mid-sixties, having recorded hundreds of songs and appeared in more than 20 musicals, and three movies.
From my seat, high up in the back of the gallery, it was difficult to see Fairuz's face clearly, but the contours suggested she was as beautiful as ever. She first appeared in a maroon outfit that rather blended in with the background. But then she put on a beige, bridal, gown that did more justice to her, especially in contrast with the red carpet on which she would glide onto the stage.
The concert opened with her most famous song about Jerusalem ”
Zahrat al Madaaen” –
The Flower of the Cities – shortened, and slower in rhythm. A few other songs had also been re-arranged by Fairuz's son, Ziad Rahbani, who for many years has been writing much of her music, and conducted the 30-strong orchestra and chorus. But what was missing in tempo was more than made up for by the warmth of Fairuz's voice, and her emotional engagement.
The audience response became stronger as time went by. Towards the end, many were weeping as she sang of the Palestinians, greeting them as “Oh you, the people of the Occupied Land”. One of the two phrases she sang most powerfully, as fresh as it was some thirty years ago, was about returning to Palestine
She sounded equally passionate about personal love, especially in a song about love not having gone away, in spite of the years gone by. The refrain, which she sang at the top of her voice, said: “I've been missing you”.
Responding to four calls for encores, she returned to the theme of Palestine three times, once with the challenging opening line, “A sword shall be drawn; and horns shall be blown; and the bells of return shall ring: now, now – not tomorrow.”
Finally, there was a song about youth, love, friendship, and everything else about life having changed and grown old, except for one's homeland, which “will always be there, as sweet as a little child”.
The only disappointment, for me, came after the concert when I tried to get Fairuz's autograph on a biography of hers that I had bought in Cairo last March, when I met another artistic idol of my Beirut years – the revolutionary Egyptian poet, Ahmad Fouad Negm. I had read Fairuz's biography overnight, on the bus journey from London, and somehow felt a lot closer to her than I ever had.
Maybe if I had just shown the book to her security guards and explained that I had travelled all the way from London only to see and hear Fairuz … maybe then they would have allowed me to meet her; or at least they might have taken the book and had it autographed by her. Instead, I showed my BBC card and asked if I could go in. They said firmly that Fairuz would not see any journalists.
I asked if I could just have her autograph on the book. One of the guards went in to find out. A minute later he came out and, calling me “Monsieur Le BBC”
, announced that the only way I could get an autograph would be to wait for Fairuz outside the concert hall. On the pavement, there were many others waiting for exactly the same purpose.
The idea of having to fight my way through the crowd to reach Fairuz was not quite in keeping with the beauty of her voice and the tenderness of her songs. The possibility of not being able to get close to her at all made the prospect much less appealing. It was time to go.
Having been to a Fairuz performance after nearly thirty years was in itself a dream come true. Maybe someday I will also get a chance to meet her – hopefully in Lebanon itself.
Ishta'etllak (I've been missing you)
— Habbaytak fe-sayf, habbaytak fe-sheti (I loved you in the summer, I loved you in the winter);
— Sabah o massa (In the morning and in the evening)
Endi sika feek (I have faith in you)
Bihebbak ya Lebnan (I Love you, O Lebanon)
— Fee a'hweh a'l-mafra' (At a coffee shop on the cross road)
Hossein Shahidi has worked in the BBC's Persian and Arabic Services, and its News and Training departments.
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