Israeli Arabs Get Rare Chance to See Legendary Singer Fairuz

Over 3000 fans from all over Israel traveled to Amman to hear 72-year-old 'ambassadress to the stars'.

AMMAN - A convoy of dozens of buses made its way from Israel to Amman last Friday, carrying more than 3,200 Israeli Arabs: Muslims, Christians and Druze, of every age from 15 to 75. They were on their way to Amman to hear "the Arab world's ambassadress to the stars," Fairuz. For many, this was the realization of a dream - to hear Fairuz not over the radio, but live.

These days, concerts by the 72-year-old Lebanese legend are rare, and each one could be her last. Ironically, last weekend's opportunity was made possible by the Second Lebanon War. A new musical starring Fairuz had been slated to open on July 13, 2006, at Lebanon's prestigious Baalbek festival. But the war broke out on July 12, the festival was called off, and two of the scheduled performances were relocated to Amman. Arab Israelis cannot legally travel to Lebanon, but they can to Amman, and local travel agencies jumped at the golden business opportunity.

Fans came from all over Israel - Haifa and Baka al-Gharbiyeh, Ussfiyeh and Umm al-Fahm - to see Fairuz in "Wake Up," a revival of a political satire from the 1970s. Maryam Awad, 27, of Haifa, was there with several fellow counselors from the Arab branch of the Noar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement. "In the movement's camps, we wake up every morning to an hour of Fairuz," she explained.

In the hall, the curtain rose only half an hour late, revealing a crowd waiting for the king to awaken. At the front of the stage stood a woman with a yellow umbrella, her back to the audience. As she broke into song, and the audience recognized the most famous voice in the Arab world, they stood up and cheered. Some even wept.

For the next hour and a half, Fairuz took center stage. She played a poor woman who needed the king's signature to enable her to build a roof to finally replace her umbrella. But the king awakens only once a month, for one day, during which he approves only three requests. Thus Fairuz's character decides to take the law into her own hands: As he sleeps, she steals his signet and approves all of his subjects' requests. When the king next awakens, he has trouble recognizing the vibrant, rebuilt city. At first, he sentences the woman responsible to severe punishment. But eventually, she is pardoned and granted the right to keep the signet.

At the end of the show, Fairuz took a single bow and left, without even a smile at the crowd. The woman whose songs were once banned in her own country because she refused to sing for a visiting president, on the grounds that "she sings for people, not for leaders," who canceled a performance after Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination because "she will not sing for a divided nation," who dedicated songs and entire performances to the Palestinians and the intifada, felt no need to add to the message of her musical: Let the leaders, the people, the artists, all wake up!

For Awad, who delivered a lecture on the bus to Amman on why national service could benefit Israeli Arabs, that message was not enough. "It's too simplistic, old and outdated, not critical," she said. She even speculated that Fairuz staged the show "solely for the money."

It is just as well that Amir Nasser al-Din from Daliat al-Carmel did not hear her. The 20-year-old, who describes himself as "Fairuz's No. 1 admirer in Israel," spent three days in Amman going from hotel to hotel in an effort to find the singer, for whom he had prepared a special photo album. He only got as far as her personal photographer, but the latter promised to pass on the album. In an emotional interview with Abu Dhabi television after her show, he stammered: "For me, Fairuz is God. More than God."

In Amman, Nasser al-Din was also able to finally meet friends from Syria and the Palestinian Authority whom he had discovered over the Internet, via the Fairuz Online forum. All of them were a trifle disappointed: They were unable to get her autograph. But the disappointment was marginal, and they ardently defended her from all criticism. She is cold to her fans? "Her daughter is to blame." Unlikeable? "Shy." Kept her back to the audience the whole time? "That's her role in the play."

After all, they came to Amman to touch their dream, not to awaken from it.