When Syrian Bells Chime With Lebanon

The acclaimed Lebanese singer, Fairouz, sings a song of promise for the Palestinians: "The bells of return are ringing - now, now and not tomorrow."

The acclaimed Lebanese singer, Fairouz, sings a song of promise for the Palestinians: "The bells of return are ringing - now, now and not tomorrow." But it is the Syrian poet Nazar Kabani's response to this song that the Lebanese are now quoting: "Sorry Fairouz, pardon me, the bells of return will never ring out because a sharp pole is stuck in our backsides, from Sharm el-Sheikh to Sassa."

The sharp pole is meant to describe Israel's war against the Palestinians, but it is also an expression of of the powerlessness of Arab leaders to free the Palestinians from it. And indeed Kabani, who died of a heart attack in 1998, was one of the fiercest critics of the Arab leaders, particularly after his second wife, Belkis, was killed in an explosion next to the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1982 during the civil war. Kabani blamed the Arab leaders for her death in his poem, "Belkis."

Fairouz's nationalistic songs and Kabani's critical songs have served as the cultural backbone of the current war in Lebanon. But while Fairouz's songs praise the steadfastness of the Lebanese and the Palestinians, Kabani's songs and his criticism of the Arab states were clearly echoed in the words of Lebanon's rival, Bashar Assad, who cast his wrath on their leaders.

Nevertheless, both Fairouz and Kabani's songs were played at a concert in Damascus, of all places. This was the first performance by the Arab Youth Orchestra. The orchestra was set up at the initiative of Dr. Fawzi el-Shami from Egypt, and represents youth from all over the Arab world. The plan is for them to meet every summer in an Arab country to practice together, to study with important music teachers and conductors from both the Arab world and Europe and to present a mixed Arab and western repertoire before an Arab public. And why was Damascus chosen as the first venue for the orchestra's performance?

"It is our duty to Syria to stand by its side in order to free it with blood and spirit, with arms, with culture and with art, from all the cheap threats aimed at it by the forces of evil and slander," the orchestra's director explained in an interview with the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. Of course, these evil forces also produced the composers whose music the orchestra plays.

Syria, then, should have been the one sponsored and not just the one sponsoring the inter-Arab orchestral performance - and instead Lebanon wound up stealing the show. And at a time when the Syrian politicians remained mute during the war and did not hasten to assist Lebanon, the performance organizers were obliged to dedicate the concert to the war in Lebanon. What's more, Lebanese composer and oud master, Marcel Halifa, succeeded in drawing away the Syrian audience from the TV screens and into the concert hall.

A furor in Damascus

The performance naturally caused a furor in Damascus. Instead of raising Syria's prestige, the concert turned into a cultural event that was dedicated to Lebanon. In the wake of this, the Syrian artists themselves no longer knew how to react to what was going on in Lebanon. Until this performance, they had adopted the official line that one expresses support for the Lebanese public but not for the Lebanese government, and one should not be too enthusiastic about the steadfastness of the Lebanese who also forced Syria to leave Lebanese soil.

However, the Syrian regime was no longer able to withstand the reaction of the man in the street, particularly after thousands of Lebanese crossed the border into Syria to flee from the Israeli bombardment. Suddenly various nationalistic songs from different periods were sung in the streets, and Syrian singers requested permission to appear before Lebanese refugees. Every cultural event in Damascus was first and foremost dedicated to the courageous Lebanese citizens.

However, it seemed as if the effort made by the Syrian artists to help the Lebanese did not go beyond the boundaries set by the regime. According to these boundaries, it is forbidden to hold official cultural events to support the people of Lebanon. Host Lebanese refugees, yes; promote Lebanese culture, no - and if so, to a small degree. This can be understood from Syrian historian Bashar Khalif's admonishment of Syrian artists. "What does this mean, that an artist is not interested in what is happening 90 kilometers from his home?" he said angrily in a newspaper interview. "I call on all the Syrian painters to go out into the streets, to paint on the sidewalks, to sell their paintings and to dedicate the money to the Lebanese. The Syrian singers and actors must go out into the streets, they must compose new songs that are devoted to the war and they must improvise plays" so that the experience of the war can be transferred to the public. Of course, Khalif was only able to call on independent artists, since public sector artists cannot take action of this kind, as they have to toe the party line.

Serious artists were obliged to keep an eye open for what official quarters did or did not permit. The result is that the street singers have taken the place of the establishment artists. They are the ones who produced new arrangements for Palestinian or Egyptian nationalistic songs and suited them to the events in Lebanon, not to mention wrote new songs.

Now that the war has ended, people in Damascus are waiting to hear what the government's new instructions will be to the various artists unions. In Lebanon, preparations for the new performances are already underway and perhaps they will even resume the Baalbek Festival.