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How One Selfie Sent Tremors Through Lebanon

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Fairouz in a concert in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2010.
Fairouz in a concert in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2010.Credit: AFP

There are few things that can make the Lebanese people happy these days. But when the legendary singer Fairouz on Thursday posted her first selfie with her daughter, the director Rima Rahbany, her fans went wild, and the pundits rested a moment from the political and economic crisis that threatens to destroy the country and tried instead to find metaphysical meaning in her selfie.

"Because Fairouz is the most beautiful thing ever made in Lebanese memory, and because she has accompanied the citizens of Lebanon through all their sweet bitter days and because she is the reigning queen of Lebanese hearts…yesterday she sent a message to the Lebanese, in which she reminded them that she is at their side and has remained in Lebanon, in her home in the Rabieh suburb of Beirut, as always,” gushed a brief article on the website Lebanon24. The 86-year-old singer is a national treasure not only in Lebanon. Millions of her followers all over the world have her songs in their phones and track every concert. To them, she symbolizes Lebanon’s great past. After the horrific explosion in the Beirut port in August, French President Emmanuel Macron took the trouble to visit Fairouz in her home, as a gesture of sympathy with the Lebanese.

Fairouz’s first selfie with her daughter came after years in which she hadn't been seen out in public. The family's scandals were the bread and butter of the media in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world. Specifically, Lebanese media was obsessed with the use of her copyrights, and the major falling-out between Rima and Ziyad, the two children she had with her late husband Assi (who died in 1986), and with the family of Mansour al-Rahbany, Assi’s brother (who died in 2009) – two huge musicians that left behind an expansive musical legacy. But Fairouz herself was ensconced in her home as if the disputes didn’t touch her.

Beyond sending emotional tremors through the country, Fairouz's selfie ignited a debate over whether she is merely a cultural icon or represents female empowerment in Lebanon. Can she serve as a feminist symbol or “only” as a living memorial of Lebanon? Women singers like Umm Kulthum, Asmahan and Fairouz, or the new generation of singers like Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe, Assala and others, primarily earned their status because they provided a new musical and cultural message. Fairouz is still considered the traditional, Christian and even conservative voice. Her songs, alongside those of Umm Kulthum, have become something like anthems, but are also considered supportive of the regime. In contrast, the younger generation of singers started a cultural revolution not only by making music in a new style and with different content – they also challenge the traditional, “decent” presentation of female singers, who appeared in modest and meticulous dress and sang in a classical musical mode. They began to appear scantily dressed, accompanied by well-built male singers, and dancing erotically. The change brought them epithets like the “wonton singers” and the “prostitutes,” and accusations of crushing social and religious values. Nevertheless, these singers were admired by young men and women who, beyond seeing them as symbols of female empowerment, loved the combination of Arab and Western music and the visual innovations that made them feel closer to the West.

Modern Arab feminism found its place in articles and studies about film and theater, in the momentum created by the #MeToo movement, in women’s organizations and social media, and in the active participation of women in the Arab Spring. Most recently, feminism has blazed a new and original road in the guise of a comic book by Bernadette Daou and Yazan al-Saadi, “Where to Marie? Stories of Feminism from Lebanon.” Daou is a veteran scholar of feminism and Saadi is a Syrian-Canadian artist and columnist, and along with a group of five artists -- Tracy Chahwan, Sirene Moukheiber, Rawand Issa and Razan Wehbi – they produced the book, which can be downloaded for free. The innovative work combines the results of Daou’s research with accompanying comics.

Macron at Fairouz's home in Beirut, Saturday.

After interviewing dozens of feminist activists, the authors created four fictional personal narratives that grapple with the issues that women in Lebanon face. In interviews with the authors, they explained that their goal was to make boring theoretical material accessible to modern readers and relevant to the daily lives of women in Lebanon – "Where to Marie?" deals with hairstyles, politics, economic difficulties and transportation.

In the book the authors also note the silent history of women’s participation in the establishment of independent Lebanon and undermine the accepted male narrative that gives Lebanese men sole responsibility for achieving independence. The heroine of the book, a fictitious character named Lara -- a young, educated, well-dressed and coiffed woman of the 1950s – criticizes other women, too. In one picture she talks about a female relative who once said to her “my women’s rights are my gold jewelry and my housemaid. Thanks to them I have become more determined to work for women’s rights.”

Fairouz’s first selfie post does not make her a social media presence, but it certainly brings her closer to the young population that has distanced itself from the icons of the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps now, at her advanced age, she will serve as an example of women’s success, and not only in music.

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