Nobody in Lebanon’s Jabal Alarz area would have imagined that Nouhad, the tiny infant girl born to Wadi Haddad and Liza Al Boustani on the 21st of November 1935, as their first daughter, would become a household name in virtually every Arab home.

    That date of her birth is the most accurate, but it's not definite, as some sources suggest that she was born a couple of years earlier. When she was two years old, however, the family moved to Beirut where Wadi got a job at the Le Jour print house. They were poor as Fairuz remembers, but they were happy and never needy. While living in a street called Al Basta, she also recalls how she would be in the kitchen repeating the songs coming from a neighbor's radio, because at that time very few people could afford to have their own radio. Another neighbour would bang on their door complaining about “this disturbance and ugly singing”. She liked to sing the songs of Asmahan and Layla Mourad. As she grew up, She got enrolled in a public school where she joined the school's choir.

    Consequently, that was a lucky event, as In the early forties Mohamed Flayfel, the veteran composer and song writer, was preparing a radio program and was on the look for young people to join his choir. He chose to go to Fairuz’s school first because it was known for its unique student's choir. After listening to choir, Flayfel picked some of the singers and Nouhad was one of them.

    Nouhad's father was quite upset by the whole episode. Being conservative by those days standards, he rejected the idea that his daughter sings in public and refused to grant permission to Flayfel in the beginning. But Flayfel eventually convinced the father and assured him that Nouhad will only participate in singing patriotic songs and that he, Flayfel, will pay for all the expenses of her education at the national conservatoire. The conservatoire dirctor refused to take any tuition fees from Nouhad and other students referred by Flayfel. But Nouhad's education at the conservatoire didn't last. A few months later, and with the help of Flayfel, she joined the national Lebanese radio station's choir. She received her first salary: 100 Liras a month.

    Two months later, Nouhad was auditioned for solo performance. One of the station's top people, Halim Al Roumi (father of the famous singer Magda Al Roumi), was destined to play a very vital role in the life of Nouhad. In fact he realized immediately the potential of Nouhad's voice and started giving her songs of his. He also requested her to choose a stage name, and suggested either Shehrazade or Fairuz. Obviously she chose the latter.

    His most significant decision was to present her to Assy and Mansour Rahbani. Assy realized immediately the potential, but his brother didn't. Masnour later commented that he didn't have the foresight that Assy had. By 1951, she had sang songs written by Halim, Medhat Assem, Nikola Almani, Salim Elhelou, Mohamed Mohsen, Tawfick Basha, Khaled Abou Naser and many others.

    That's when Assy started considering composing songs for her. At first he and Mansour worked with her on covers of difficult Arabic songs as well as European with Arabic lyrics songs. It wasn't long before they started developing their special form of the Lebanese song. Fairuz sang the traditional songs in new musical distribution like 'Elbint Elshalabia' and also totally new songs like 'Nehna Wel Amar Jiran'.

    The Fayrouz-Rahbani legacy is a peculiarly twentieth-century cultural phenomenon. During the early postwar decades, most urban communities in the Arab world underwent rapid expansion, partly because of an influx of population from the rural areas. The city of Beirut in particular had absorbed a substantial number of people whose ethnic and social roots went back to various Lebanese villages, especially those in the mountainous regions of central and northern Lebanon. Politically and socially influential, this segment provided fertile ground for the rise of a new artistic tradition - music, dance, poetry, fashions, handicrafts - whose context was unmistakably urban but whose ration was folk and rural.

    Fayrouz's early songs featured the singer's distinct vocal timbre and lyrics expressing romantic love and nostalgia for village life. They meshed with a delicate orchestral blend in which certain Arab instruments figured prominently but which also subtly incorporated European instruments and European popular dance rythms.

    During this time an emotional relationship started to grow between Assy and Fairuz, and in July of 1954, they got married, and lived in Antelias, north of Beirut.

    With songs like Itab, Raje’aa Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers started to become famous in many countries around the Arab world. They were invited many times by the Damascus radio station to present their works. Another radio station, Sawt Al Arab from Egypt, sent their leading anchor Ahmed Saeed to Lebanon to strike a deal with the trio. In 1955 the Rahbani brothers and Fairuz went to Cairo, and it was there where they wrote the most important musical work at that time, Rajioun. Fairuz also sang many other songs including duets with the Egyptian singer Karem Mahmoud.

     Fairuz and the Rahbanis returned to Beirut, and on the first day of 1956 she gave birth to her first son Ziad. The following year she sang 'Lobnan ya Akhder Helou' in Baalbeck. That was the spark which was followed by the incredible works of the Rahbani brothers in Baalbeck. They also showed these and other works on different stages including those of the Damascus festival, Casino Du Liban, Cedars and the Piccadily theater. Fairuz also starred in three motion pictures produced in the 60's. Fairuz's talent was not limited to the Rahbani works and she sang songs that were composed by others like Philemon Wehbe, Mohamed Abdul Wahhab and Elias Rahbani.

    By the early 1960s Fayrouz was already one of the main attractions of the annual Baalbeck Festivals and a celebrity not only in Lebanon but throughout the Arab world. The dissemination of hundreds of songs, many musical plays and several films had widened her audience to include Arabs living in Europe and the Americas.

    Fairuz's social life was quite conservative. She disliked going to parties and other social gatherings, and preferred to stay home with her children. In 1971 she toured the United States with the Rahbani brothers and her troupe, and that tour was a major success. They also went on tours to every continent. Fairuz graced many stages and theaters including Albert Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Olympia in Paris.

    In the late 70's however, Fairuz's relationship with Assy and Mansour deteriorated and this reflected on their work bond. She continued singing the Rahbani songs as well as her son's Ziad creative and mainly jazz influenced songs. In that period, she started working with Zaki Nassif and Mohamed Mohsen.

    During the Lebanese civil war, Fairuz decided to remain in Beirut even though she had the financial ability to live abroad, even after her own house was hit with a missile. Fairuz didn't sing in Lebanon during most of the years of the war because she didn't want to imply taking sides. When the civil war ended, she held a concert in Beirut in 1994, and returned to Baalbeck in 1998, where her concerts were a smashing success.

    One of her well known fans, Irani journalist Hossein Shahidi, wrote after attending her performance in Paris:

"The sound of longing for the Lebanese mountains" and "the voice of the human condition" are only two of the descriptions used by the Lebanese singer Fairuz's millions of fans in the Arab world - and beyond. For me, her voice is a reminder of some of the best years of my life, spent in beautiful Beirut. It is the sound of sunshine over the deep Mediterranean blue, and of the warm, moist, slightly salty, almost sensual, air that rises from the sea and fills the Lebanese coastline.

    I was lucky to be in Beirut in the early 1970s, when the city was at a cultural peak, enjoying the best of what the east and the west had to offer. And Fairuz was singing one charming song after another, mostly cheerful melodies about youthful love, and the odd sad tune about lovers torn apart by the hands of fate.

    Her name, meaning turquoise, was a perfect symbol of her delicate figure, cascading hair and finely sculpted face.

    Then came the civil war, ending tens of thousands of lives, not to mention the disruption it caused to much of Lebanon's artistic and intellectual activity. But Fairuz remained unscathed. Throughout the war, her voice could be heard loud and clear from rival warring factions' radio stations, or many a neighbourhood loudspeaker, praising the glory and beauty of Lebanon, or stirring passions about Palestine, recalling Jerusalem and all it holds dear to people of many faiths.

    Her performances, though, stopped until after the war, when she sang in Beirut's city centre, which had been part of the front line and the scene of the most intense fighting.
    So it was natural that on hearing - from some Parisian friends on a visit to London - that Fairuz would be performing in Paris at the end of June, I should want to cross the channel, for the first time in 15 years, to hear her. Only a few days before the concert, my partner and I learned that because of high demand, our friends had been able to buy only two tickets - for the two of us.

    In their apartment in Paris, we discovered that we were being given the tickets - $150 each - as gifts. And these were not the most expensive. It is a sign of Fairuz's popularity that, in spite of the high prices, a second night had been added to her performance.

    Much to our surprise, the prestigious concert hall, Salle Pleyel, was not packed by people in luxury clothes arriving in limousines. Most members of the audience were dressed casually, many of them young couples holding hands. Some were older, no doubt with memories of their youth coloured by the romantic songs of Fairuz, herself now in her mid-sixties, having recorded hundreds of songs and appeared in more than 20 musicals, and three movies.

    From my seat, high up in the back of the gallery, it was difficult to see Fairuz's face clearly, but the contours suggested she was as beautiful as ever. She first appeared in a maroon outfit that rather blended in with the background. But then she put on a beige, bridal, gown that did more justice to her, especially in contrast with the red carpet on which she would glide onto the stage.

    The concert opened with her most famous song about Jerusalem "Zahrat al Madaaen" - The Flower of the Cities - shortened, and slower in rhythm.  A few other songs had also been re-arranged by Fairuz's son, Ziad Rahbani, who for many years has been writing much of her music, and conducted the 30-strong orchestra and chorus. But what was missing in tempo was more than made up for by the warmth of Fairuz's voice, and her emotional engagement.

    The audience response became stronger as time went by. Towards the end, many were weeping as she sang of the Palestinians, greeting them as "Oh you, the people of the Occupied Land". One of the two phrases she sang most powerfully, as fresh as it was some thirty years ago, was about returning to Palestine immediately.

    She sounded equally passionate about personal love, especially in a song about love not having gone away, in spite of the years gone by. The refrain, which she sang at the top of her voice, said: "I've been missing you".

    Responding to four calls for encores, she returned to the theme of Palestine three times, once with the challenging opening line, "A sword shall be drawn; and horns shall be blown; and the bells of return shall ring: now, now - not tomorrow."

Fairuz in the eyes of other celebrities

    "After years of thirst, a voice like fresh water has arrived. A cloud, a love-letter from another planet: Fairuz has overwhelmed us with ecstasy. Names and figures of speech remain too small to define her. She alone is our agency of goodwill, to which those of us looking for love and poetry belong. When Fairuz sings, mountains and rivers follow her voice, the mosque and the church, the oil-jars and loaves of bread; through her, every one of us is made to blossom, and once we were no more than sand; men drop their weapons and apologize. Upon hearing her voice, it is our childhood which is being molded anew."

The late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani

    "The voice of Fairuz embodies love, I include in the word "love": nostalgia, sublimation, remorse, pardon, seduction, innocence, repression, goodness, prayer and desire. Other sang love more than Fairuz did, but each of her songs intrinsically celebrates love. Her voice inspires internal communication of which no tiny particle is squandered on superficiality. Every time a person falls in love he thinks he is the first to know love. Every you listen to Fairuz you feel that her voice was just born for you. In my estranged country her voice was my only friend.

The late Lebanese poet Unsi Al Haj




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