Arab entertainers are facing a barrage of wartime criticism
Twice now, Lebanon has caused the cancellation of Jordan's annual Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts - first in 1982 and now this year.
Twice now, Lebanon has caused the cancellation of Jordan's annual Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts - first in 1982 and now this year. The Jordanian writer Jeryes Samawi, director of the festival, last week lit a torch in honor of Lebanon, but said the performances would not take place.
This was to have been the festival's 25th anniversary, and many Lebanese artists planned to appear, but "when Lebanese children are being killed, it's impossible to sing," said Samawi in an interview.
However, the interviewer, on the Internet site, Ilaf, refused to let up: "Why did you cancel the festival only because of the war in Lebanon, while Gaza is also in flames?" Samawi was asked.
His answer was not particularly convincing: "We said that we canceled due to events in the region as a whole, in Lebanon and in the territories, specifically. But there is a difference between Gaza and Lebanon. What is happening in Lebanon is not just a war but a holocaust."
The question of how Arab performers should act at this time is not theoretical: Two Lebanese singers, Haifa Wahbi and Nicole Saba, were sharply criticized for leaving Lebanon during the the war. Both are very popular members of the pop culture revolution Lebanon has sparked. Their oft-quoted songs appear in ring-tones. Now their patriotism has been challenged by columnists in other Arab countries (and not necessarily by the Lebanese, who understand).
"No one should question my patriotism," Haifa Wahbi said during an interview. "No one asked for our opinion before starting this war," she said, quoting the Lebanese prime minister with a clear hint to Hezbollah. "My home is near the airport. What do they expect me to do? Should I wait for the home where I live to collapse on top of me and on the members of my family? Haven't thousands of Lebanese left their homes? Why are the artists always criticized?"
Wahbi is well aware of her role as a Lebanese cultural representative and of her status as a national symbol. Over the years some of her performances were considered provocative and sharply criticized by clerics in Arab countries. Wahbi knew how to deflect this criticism in the name of Lebanese art and culture. This culture nurtured her career and those of Nicole Saba and Nancy Ajram, alongside the radical and conservative tastes that Hassan Nasrallah is seeking to spread. But in a country under fire, artists cannot evade the question of patriotism. Will they lose their audience?
Haifa Wahbi believes she owes an accounting of herself only to Lebanon's citizens, and not to critics in Arab countries whose governments, as far as the Lebanese are concerned, simply abandoned the fight for Lebanon.
Wahbi said that the day of the bombing of the airport, she took her family and headed toward Syria, but then Israel started bombing along the Beirut-Damascus highway and her confused driver crossed into Syria. Wahbi said in her defense that she appeared in Cairo at a special fund-raising event for Lebanon.
Her story did not convince a Lebanese man living in the United States who read the interview with her on the Internet. In the talkback, he reprimanded her with how American artists acted after September 11. "They stayed in the country, encouraged the public and did not flee," he wrote. Another surfer who identified himself as Rami ridiculed the singer: "We're very angry at Hassan Nasrallah for not asking Haifa's opinion before he kidnapped the Israeli soldiers."
To perform or not to perform? The well-known Kuwaiti singer Nawal announced that she was cancelling all appearances at festivals, from Carthage and Salala in Oman to Paris and London. She received many messages of support, but also criticism, especially from the Lebanese. "Don't be too impressed by these cancellation announcements," wrote one: "They cancel the public performances, but still appear at private parties." Another critic was blunt the other way around: "Why should you cancel the performance, Nawal? Did Lebanese performers cancel their shows when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990? It would be better if you continued performing and donated the earnings to Lebanon."
Lebanese singers comprise six of the top 10 biggest earners in the world of Arab music, and the sums run into the millions of dollars. One of these wealthy stars is Nicole Saba, who said she did not flee Lebanon, but rather came to Egypt as scheduled because she could not cancel performances at the last minute. In her defense, she said that she participated in the fund-raiser for Lebanon and bought and distributed lots of T-shirts bearing the Lebanese flag.
Iraqi singer Kazam al-Saher announced over the weekend that he was donating $18,000 to Lebanon, a respectable sum, but he's worth at least $25 million and a large part of that was raked in at his performances in Lebanon.
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