Lebanese Singer Fairuz Is Finally Fashionable in Israel

The Israeli mainstream is opening up to Arab music, whether sung by musicians from the Arab world or by local ‘The Voice’ competition winner Lina Makhoul.

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It was one of the most beautiful concerts I have ever been to. Some friends and I went to Amman to see Fairuz, the Lebanese singer, and we were beside ourselves with excitement. It was late January 1999, when King Hussein was already very ill. Even though a seat had been reserved for him, everyone knew he was unlikely to attend.

The show began with renditions of both national anthems, the Jordanian and the Lebanese: unusual for me, but then again I knew what I was getting into when I decided to come.

In any event, Fairuz’s songs and her singing, as well as the impassioned responses of the crowd, the spontaneous dancing and the wordless dialogue between the singer and her audience surpassed any national anthem and swept away all memory of the concert’s formal beginnings.

We enjoyed it so much that we bought last-minute tickets for the following evening as well. It was a good thing, too, since that performance was even better and more thrilling than the first.

We spent our remaining evenings in Amman with our fellow travelers on the organized tour we took from Jaffa, who came from various cities and villages in Israel/Palestine. While some were surprised by the Jews who were traveling to Jordan to see Fairuz, others seemed to take it for granted and were a bit confused only by my Ashkenazi appearance.

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A reviewer from a popular Hebrew daily also went to the concert, and panned it in the paper. Fortunately, Israeli society has opened up somewhat to Arab music since then (even if it still looks down on the popular Arab-inflected Israeli genre known as Mizrahi).

For example, the rendition by Season 2 winner of the Israeli version of “The Voice,” Lina Makhoul, of a Fairuz song, in Arabic, thrilled most of the audience as well as the judges of the TV talent show.

The song was actually an arrangement by composer Ziad Rahbani, Fairuz’s son, of the French song “Les Feuilles Morts” (“Autumn Leaves”), made famous by Yves Montand, and presumably its chanson sound was easy on the Israeli ear. But the mere fact of an Arabic song in a popular show meant for a broad audience is somewhat novel.

On December 5, Makhoul is performing a concert in honor of Fairuz’s recent 80th birthday, at the auditorium of the school of the Sisters of St. Joseph, in Nazareth. She will be singing songs from Fairuz’s repertoire, including compositions by her son.

From the start of her career, in the 1950s, Fairuz worked with the Rahbani brothers, Assi and Mansour, and she married the former. This pair of composers, musicians, songwriters and playwrights was well known in the Arab world thanks to their innovativeness, their unique musical style and the various musical influences they combined with local musical styles in their compositions.

They were best known for the songs they wrote for the theater. In the early 1970s they also became well-known in the West, and together with Fairuz they toured the United States and parts of Europe.

Their best-known song was “Habbaytak bissayf” (“I loved you in the summer”), which Jean Francois Michel adapted for his French song “Coupable” (“Guilty”). The French version of the song became a worldwide hit, and event today many people do not know of its Arabic origins.

Ziad Rahbani, the son of Fairuz and Assi, also became an innovative musician, a writer of satiric plays, a talented and prolific composer, a singer and an actor. At 17, when his father was in the hospital and his mother had to perform without him for the first time, he wrote the song “Sa’aluni-n-Nass” (“The people have asked me”) for her, and it became one of her biggest hits. The Israeli band Turquoise recently recorded a Hebrew version of the song.

Turquoise has caused a small furor in the Arab world for performing Fairuz’s songs, some translated into Hebrew and others in Arabic. Some people see it as a lovely tribute to the Lebanese singer and an important step toward coexistence, but on social media the majority of comments express anger over what the writers view as an act of “cultural theft” that shows contempt for the singer and the songwriters.

One commenter wrote, “It doesn’t seem to me that Fairuz would take pride in knowing that her songs had been performed in Hebrew in Israel.”

Other comments have been even harsher, saying that after the Israelis stole the Palestinians’ land and expropriated their traditional foods, now they were stealing the Arab cultural and musical heritage as well.

Fairuz and Ziad, who has composed the music for most of his mother’s songs in recent decades, do not seem to be bothered by it. Ziad, who is admired in the Arab world for his lovely melodies and for the stinging satire in his songs and plays, is considering leaving Lebanon for Russia.

While he said in an interview that he was not emigrating, but only moving to work on a Russian television show, it is plain to see that he is disappointed with his life in Lebanon.

Some claim that the political situation there is making things difficult for Ziad, whether because of his communist beliefs, Fairuz’s support for Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and the Syrian regime or the conflict between Ziad and the editor of Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, where he is a columnist.

Others say he is in despair over the lack of media coverage of his most recent appearances.

Still others say he has not recovered from the shock of discovering, some years ago, that he was not the biological father of his son, Assi, who was named for Ziad’s own father. Whatever the reason may be, he seems tired, broken and disappointed.