Fairuz, Li Beirut and Lebanese Nationalism

Thursday 21 November 201905:24 pm
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In 1994, the nightingale of the East had finally returned to Lebanon. She came, she sang, she stole hearts. She performed for those who had been yearning to hear her voice throughout the darkest years of the Lebanese Civil War. Nouhad Haddad, also known as Fairuz, held her first concert in over 15 years in her country. Her presence exceeded music. The concert was tightly wound up in notions of national unity and reconciliation. Strategically performing at the crossroad between East and West Beirut (at Martyr’s Square), Fairuz created a sense of optimism and hope for the Lebanon. Her voice became a mode of healing. L’express described this concert as one that built on the “the desire of peace and nostalgia for the golden years of Lebanon before the war”, where she performed for “the 50,000 gathered at her feet and the 200,000 ghosts of the war”. For many people, the return of Fairuz meant the return of Lebanon as they knew it.

In order to recognize how Fairuz came to represent as this symbol of Lebanon, we must take an in depth look at the history of Fairuz and her career as a reflection of Lebanese Nationalism and specifically how she channeled this through her song “Li Beirut”. Fairuz, born in 1935 in Jabal al Arz, to a Maronite Christian family, started singing on local radio stations and small school concerts. She soon emerged as a national icon after performing at the Ba‘albek Festival in 1957, which saw her take on different roles from traditional village life of Lebanon. Her voice and her star presence acted as a “counterweight to the hegemony of Egyptian artists, led by Oum Kalthoum‎, in the world of Arab music” (Levanoni). Not only Fairuz’s music was considerably shorter than the usual 20-min long Egyptian song of the era, but it introduced themes beyond the traditional Egyptian themes of love and desire. Of course some of Fairuz’s most popular songs are filled with love and desire, a number of them are traditional Arab folklores reimagined as songs and pay homage to the idea of a home in the Arab world and in Lebanon specifically. In doing so, she connected Arab communities not only within the Arab world, but also in the diaspora, redefining “how Arabs perceived themselves and their history” (Al Yafai).

Fairuz and Storytelling 

Fairuz’s various forms of storytelling trough a local and regional socio-political lens became the exact reason why her music began resonating with the Arab world, which was still healing from the scars of colonialism and the creation of Israel. Following her songs about Palestine such as “Raj’ioun” or “Zahrat Al Madaen”, Fairuz established herself as an icon for the whole Arab world. As such, her songs became a rallying call for Palestinian nationalism. At this moment in history, Lebanese nationalism as heavily intertwined with Arab Nationalism of the region and hence, Fairuz’s songs reflected this intimate relationship between the two forms of nationalism. To be Lebanese was to have a unique identity within the confines of the larger Arab world, which had just undergone the process of being divided up by colonial powers.

At the eve of the 70s, Lebanese Nationalism was changing and it began crippling amass the sectarian violence that became the norm in the country. In 1975, her hometown of Beirut was split into the Christian East and the Muslim West, with boundaries gaining such rigid separation that it became almost impossible to pass through them.

When Fairuz Refused to Leave 

Many artists and performers had left Lebanon due to the dangers of war and sought shelter in Europe of the Americas. However, Fairuz refused to leave and instead chose to remain in her country, in war torn Beirut specifically, showing her dedication to Lebanon (she has houses on both sides of the green line). Yet in a country where the people were fighting along sectarian lines and loyalties were being drawn based on one’s religious affiliation, many people expected Fairuz to support the Christian factions over the Muslims (Al Yafai). However, she did not explicitly chose a side and did not perform in Lebanon until the war was over.

She took the civil war personally, and that contributed to the great influence she gained in Lebanon and the wider world. 

This history of Fairuz and her life is essential to understanding why she gained such influence in Lebanon and the wider Arab world. Not only did she persisted during the Civil War, but she took the war personally, which is further reflected in her songs released throughout the civil war, but most specifically in Li Beirut, released in 1984. Li Beirut translates to “To Beirut” and it was released at the height of the war in Beirut. Throughout the civil war, the song became an expression of how Lebanese Nationalism was being corrupted and the people was paying the ultimate prize for it. Through the lyrics of the song, Fairuz utilizes nostalgia and illustrates how the war was an assault on her beloved city of Beirut, and by extension upon Lebanon and herself.

“To Beirut,

From my heart a greeting of peace to Beirut

And kisses to the sea and the houses,

To a rock shaped liked the face of an old fisherman”

She starts the song with a greeting of peace to Beirut, indicating this song is a direct response to the war that was inflicted upon the city and made it so unrestful. She continues to mention the physical features of Beirut, from its coastal line to the old houses of Beirut, to the famous Pigeon rocks that have since become national icons of Lebanon (Marsi). Continuing the song, Fairuz sings:

“She [Beirut] is wine from the spirit of the people [of Lebanon]

From its sweat [of the people], she is bread and jasmine.

So how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke”

By situating Beirut’s importance in Lebanon’s identity, Fairuz makes the case of how that identity has been perverted because of war. Asking how did this happen to Beirut, she implies that no one truly understands the war as it is and the confusion that persisted throughout the war.

Continuing onwards, Fairuz visualizes what Beirut has suffered in the next few verses;

“Of blood, of a child held in its palm,

My city has extinguished its lantern,

She [Beirut] closed her door,

Became at night alone

Alone with the night”

By referring to Beirut with feminine pronouns and giving her the status of a mother that is holding the blood of a child in her hand, Fairuz explicitly situates Beirut within a female’s body and juxtaposes it with the war that was destroying the city. This verse directly positions Beirut as the Madonna and the blood of its child, Lebanon, lying in her hand. Hence, through this song, Fairuz not only discusses Beirut but uses the city as a metaphor for her country, which has been at the heart of her artistic life for many years.

“Oh, embrace me; you are mine"

Through this song, Fairuz was able to envision Beirut as more than just a physical place; it became a living breathing women who could feel the war destroying her and thus, the lyrics of the song acted as an eulogy to historic city. The expression ‘alone with the night’ refers to the darkness the veiled Beirut; physically in terms of the smoke from bombs and grenades, and symbolically from the destruction of the peace that once was present in the city. In the final few verses of the song, Fairuz sings:

“Oh, embrace me; you are mine

My banner, and the stone of tomorrow, and the waves of my travel.

The wounds of my people have blossomed

The mothers’ tears have blossomed

You, Beirut, are mine

You are mine

Oh, embrace me” (Fairuz).

Fairuz and Beirut are inseparable in her songs, especially in "Li Beirut," and in a time where Beirut has fallen due to the war, Fairuz offers solace to the city with an embrace

This ending reiterates how Beirut and Fairuz are inseparable and they are one; her past was Beirut and her future is Beirut, and in a time where Beirut has fallen due to the war, Fairuz offers solace to the city with an embrace. The significance of this line lies in the analysis where both the singer, Fairuz, and the city, Beirut, are female bodies that only find comfort in each other presence and thus, rendering the war a masculine threat. Moreover, Beirut is again positioned as a mother and Fairuz sings that her tears are blossoming, implying that the war will come to end because of the shared pain everyone had seeing the city get destroyed and torn apart. The song ends with the singer asking Beirut to embrace her, finding peace and comfort in her being.

For Fairuz, this song represented the pinnacle of what Lebanon lost during the Civil War and it needed to be recovered. Hence, when she chose to return to Martyr’s square in 1994, it was this song that was sung and helped bridge the gap between the two sects of her country. In a country that is still suffering from the continuous unrest, Fairuz provides moments of peace and pride in the Lebanon that continues to live through her song.

Sources: “L’Express” ; Al Yafai, F. “Fairuz: Lebanon's quavering voice.” The National. 2010; Soukaina Rachidi, “Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers: Musical Legends Who Shaped Modern Lebanese Identity”. Inside Arabia. 2019; Federica Marsi, “Exiled hero of Beirut's suicide rock: 'I am the son of Raouche'.” Middle East Eye. 28 April 2016. Retrieved via .

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