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LEBANON: Untouchable diva in political cross-fire

January 14, 2008 |  8:13 am

Lebanon is a highly divided nation where people of various religions constantly bicker over almost everything. The one thing Lebanese of all stripes have long agreed on has been their unconditional devotion to the country's greatest pop music diva, Fairouz.

Well, apparently, not anymore. After their beloved 70-something mega-star decided to sing late this month in the country's much-derided neighbor, Syria, even she has been soiled by Lebanon's political mudfight.

In an open letter published recently in Lebanese newspapers, a staunch political critic of the Damascus goverment, lawmaker Akram Shehayeb, urged the star not to sing before what he called "Lebanon's jailers," a reference to long-standing allegations that Syria meddles in Lebanese affairs.

"You have been crowned inside the hearts of the free Arabs," he wrote. "So don't drop this crown in favor of the jailers of Damascus."

The letter sparked a row between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian fans of Fairouz, who argued for or against their beloved singer performing in Damascus.

Many Lebanese hold Syria responsible for a string of assassinations against politicians and journalists. Although the Syrian army was driven out of the country in March 2005, many still consider the Syrian ruling Baathist party as the main factor of instability in Lebanon.

However, for another segment of the  Lebanese, especially the Shiite Muslim community supportive of the militant group Hezbollah, Syria is hailed by many as one of the few remaining forces resisting the U.S. and Israel.

Fairouz has captured the hearts of Arabs with her warm, nostalgic voice for more than 50 years. But she has never publicly uttered any political opinion. She's managed to remain neutral even in the most difficult times, refusing to sing in Lebanon when the country was falling apart during the civil war between 1975 and 1990.

This may explain why some of her admirers saw her decision as an unacceptable act of partisanship. One commentator called Fairuz's scheduled performance in Damascus shameful:

Fairouz will sing for Syria, the enemy that has spoiled our festivals on a yearly basis, that stole Beirut's soul and kicked out its youth and assassinated its finest young men & women.

For others in the frenetic Lebanese blogosphere, art and politics should not be mixed. One commentator at the Beirut Spring website argued that people should ease up on Fairouz. She'll sing for the Syrian people, he wrote, and not the government:

The fact that Syria's ruling regime is reprehensible is no excuse for us to indulge in petty, childish and ultimately backfiring stances. What cause is Mr. Shehayyeb serving by punishing a people for their ruler's choices?

Ironically, Fairouz will be performing a musical that humorously attacks tyrannical rulers. The musical, called "Sah Annom" which translates roughly into "I hope you slept well," tells the tale of a king who spends his time sleeping and wakes up only a few hours every month to listen to his people's needs. Thanks to the courage and generosity of one young woman, played by Fairouz, the king ends up regretting his despotic acts and becomes a better ruler.

For some, the symbolic value of the play makes its performance in Syria timely. One writer at the popular Lebanon Update blog wonders whether the musical could prod the Syrian people to question their own government:

The play is a fierce attack on the Arab regimes that are often associated with abuse of power and lackluster interest in the well-being of the people by the leaders. Calling for a boycott of this play seems to be counterproductive. Better to let the audience see this story of a king who doesn't do anything for his people unless the price is right. Let the audience have a good laugh (the play is seriously funny) and let them go home thinking who the king reminded them of.

— Raed Rafei in Beirut

Video: A snippet showing the pop music diva Fairouz singing in an earlier production of the play "Sah Annom," which will open in Damascus this month, much to the consternation of some of her Lebanese fans.