An Aging Chanteuse in the Mideast Vortex

Her cascading voice is said to evoke flowing rivers; her luminous, impassive face has been likened to the moon; her graceful bearing projects a message of peace in a war-torn world. Lebanon’s Fayrouz is not only a legend and the most beloved living Arab singer; she is a symbol of Lebanon itself. So why, oh why, many Lebanese lament, is she performing in Syria?

They’re unlikely to get answer, because Fayrouz — who this week launched a nine-day concert series at the National Opera House in the capital of the country many Lebanese accuse of trying to control their own — doesn’t give interviews. Born Nouhad Haddad, Fayrouz (whose stage name means “turquoise” in Arabic) had always remained above politics. She refused to perform privately for princes, plutocrats and presidents, and expressed her revulsion at the killers on all sides of Lebanon’s sectarian civil war by refusing to perform in her native land at all for the best part of two decades. That stance, and her adaptation of traditional Levantine music, has made her a national treasure revered by Lebanese of every sect and station— which is why her Syrian tour is so upsetting to those looking to break the grip of Damascus on Lebanese politics.

Fayrouz, now 72, came out of retirement for the Syrian concerts, which she billed as a message of friendship from the people of Lebanon to the people of Syria. And that makes her tour a feather in the cap for the regime of President Bashar al Assad, which has faced international isolation over its role in Lebanon. Lebanon, of course, is not really accepted by Syria as a separate nation state. The ruling Ba’ath Party has long viewed it as an illegitimate creation of Britain and France who carved up Greater Syria at the end of World War I. It refuses to send an ambassador to Beirut, or to officially delineate a border between the two states. And Syrian soldiers occupied Lebanon from 1975 until 2005, when foreign pressure forced their withdrawal.

Fayrouz’s performances in Damascus to coincide with city’s designation by UNESCO as Arab Cultural Capital for 2008 have boosted Syria’s claim to be, as its slogan goes, “the beating heart of Arabism.” But that may not be her only message. Fayrouz’s choice of material, a musical play called Sah al-Nom (“Did You Sleep Well?”) is actually rather subversive. The play is a fable set in a Levantine village where nothing can happen without the official stamp of the governor — who wakes from sleep just once a month at full moon to approve two or three of the many petitions presented by the villagers, before dozing off again. When a girl, Qurnfil (played by Fayrouz) steals the stamp and approves all the petitions — to mend a roof, to free a prisoner, to build a nightclub — the village flourishes, until the governor wakes and discovers the loss of his symbol of authority. He orders his soldiers to arrest and execute Qurnfil, but they refuse to do so, because the order lacks the official stamp.

The mystery is why Syria’s authoritarian bureaucracy would allow Fayrouz to perform a play satirizing authoritarianism and bureaucracy. A compromise, perhaps, between the government desire for the prize of hosting Fayrouz, and the artist’s need to maintain her credibility at home? Or is the Syrian regime so firmly in control that it can tolerate some subtle lampooning in the national opera house? The play’s anti-establishment message certainly seemed lost on the government officials and other members of the Damascene elite on the night TIME attended. When the play’s village governor declared that “the people have a right to complain, but the authorities have a right to close their ears,” the audience actually applauded.

The show, however, was anti-climatic. The lavish orchestras of yesteryear were gone, as was the famous voice — both the music and the vocals were pre-recorded. For an audience member not raised in the mythology of Fayrouz, the sight of a 72-year-old woman lip-synching her way through the part of a village girl was less than thrilling. And the story of Sah al-Nom conjures up an idyllic past magically free of sectarian or ethnic strife and foreign occupations, and largely unconnected to contemporary realities.

For all the Lebanese dismayed by Fayrouz singing for the Syrians, there are many others who embrace them as a bulwark against Israel and its Western allies. The power struggle unfolding in Lebanon is not a contest between freedom and authoritarianism, but a nastier sectarian struggle of neighbor against neighbor, in which no one can stand above the fray. So, the grim message in Fayrouz’s Syria tour may well be that not even an erstwhile symbol of elusive consensus can remain all things to all Lebanese.

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