Is Lebanese icon Fairuz a fading voice?
It might be nothing, or it might just be the perfect metaphor. On a usually busy corner of Armenia Street in Beirut, a mural depicting the iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz is now semi-hidden, obscured by plant pots, chairs and scribbled graffiti.
I point it out from a busy bar across the street and Salma, a 22-year-old Beirut student, half-smiles and muses “I hadn’t noticed it before, but I’m not surprised.”
The short pause in our conversation is replaced with a pulsating American club track bluring out of the bar’s speakers. “Not a lot of people my age would admit they listen to Fairuz these days. She is our parent’s generation,” says Salma.
The street art is the work of Yazan Halwani who—along with other artists such as Sabah and Khalil Gibran—sought to fill Beirut with murals of Lebanese cultural icons they believed would inspire and unite the next generation. As the Arab-world’s best-selling singers Fairuz is undoubtedly one of those icons. In Lebanon and abroad she remains a representative of the country’s identity. As Halwani once put it “she’s a symbol of Lebanese identity not soured by sectarianism”.
As a transcendent star stitched into the tapestry of Arabic pop-culture, her popularity has spawned a rather unique tradition where many Lebanese families, taxi drivers, and workers start their days with her music.
On Spotify and YouTube you can find popular playlists titled ‘Fairuz Morning Songs’ created specifically for this ritual. Although, today with the maturing of a new generation, people like Salma believe that perhaps it has now had its time. “That is something our parents do,” she says, “but that won’t be happening in 10 years, at least not in Beirut.”
While a shift in tastes is not particularly dramatic—new generations have always sought music styles that will define and differentiate them from their elders—it is Fairuz’s longevity that is impressive.
“These days people have no respect for the classics. Kids today would rather listen to trash! They forget what we fought for to get here.”
With a career spanning 50 years, and more than 150 million records sold, Fairuz has been three types of icon to three generations: the first during the glamour and optimism of the Golden Age; then to that generation’s children, who either heard her from abroad, or amidst the sounds of sobbing and ammunition; and finally following the war when her image became a de facto matriarch of a new Lebanon looking for reinvention. For three generations, she has remained relevant.
Today, however, Halwani believes the singer is considered a symbol of the “old days of East Beirut”—the city’s cultural and creative centre, still responsible for cultivating much of Lebanon’s artistic output.
The city’s eastern areas, Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhail feel considerably like hip areas of London or New York, rather than old Beirut—think minimalist boutiques, Birkenstock-saddled hipsters, and blaring pop music—shattering any preconceptions held by first-time visitors to the city. It is ironically Western-looking in temperament, and yet somehow self-contained. As a result, hearing songs like ‘Sah el Nom’ in East Beirut today makes less and less sense.
A little further up the same street in Gemmayzeh sits a typical fruit cocktail bar. It is owned and run by Mr Makhlouf, an endearing and talkative man from the generation who lived through the country’s war in 1982. “There are two people who represent the Lebanese identity,” he explains, “Khalil Gibran and Fairuz. Her music is part of our identity—it brought us together as a people.”
He continues, “The country and the city is changing too rapidly now.”
He pauses to take out his phone and shows me an App dedicated to Fairuz. The app’s sole function is to stream all of her music. As the song ‘Wa Habibi’ starts to play, an employee behind the counter starts to chuckle; both men share a moment of friendly banter.
“There are two people who represent the Lebanese identity — Khalil Gibran and Fairuz.”
“You see,” says Makhlouf nodding in the direction of his employee, “these days people have no respect for the classics. Kids today would rather listen to trash! They forget what we fought for to get here.”
It is a familiar lament from people of Makhlouf’s generation—stressing the importance of the country’s civil war.
It was during that time when Fairuz was seen as the great unifier, appreciated by Maronites and Muslims alike—one of the only instances of inter-city ceasefire was the crossing of her deceased husband’s funeral hearse. Makhlouf echoes a sentiment given by many of his generation when asked about why the new generation are turning away from Fairuz. “You should be asking: why they are so ashamed to be Lebanese?” he says with a shaking his head.
As an artist Fairuz notoriously produced Lebanese and Arab nationalist songs throughout her career. But is her standing in today’s youth culture really an affront to patriotism? To the younger generation, Makhlouf’s diagnosis seems a little harsh.
Nour S., a twenty-three-year-old barmaid at one of Beirut’s biggest techno clubs attributes it more to apathy than contempt for the past.
“It’s not like we only play American songs. Alternative Lebanese music is having a real moment. Bands like Mashrou’ Leila are writing music
that fits into the issues of today, like feminism or the displacement of Syrians,” she says. Nour explains how perhaps young people simply now consider Fairuz a bit old-fashioned.
“You should be asking: why they are so ashamed to be Lebanese?”
“We can’t relate to it, and so it sounds a bit silly and perhaps a bit oversentimental. Imagine if you heard Bob Dylan singing about the Vietnam War every day, whether it was in a taxi or at breakfast. It’s time to move on.”
Those two words ‘move on’ sit at the very heart of the argument.
In a wider sense, Beirut has moved on. Today, its famous Corniche looks nothing like it did in the past, with investment from the Gulf and China leading to new building developments. East Beirut continues to gentrify and enter the start-up market, inviting opportunities for the tech-industry to expand in the Middle East, and there is a rise in foreign-born European nationals living in the country.
Modern Beirut is a dynamic, thriving city with serious aspirations to shake off its scars and fix the bullet-holes which are still fresh from the Israel conflict in 2006. Fairuz is part of that Beirut; part of that time when sentimentality was a sort of comfort; when it meant unity; when—if you believe Makhlouf’s arguement—it was part of being Lebanese.
Indeed in one of her most popular tracks, ‘Li Beirut’, the singer reflects on her home: For Beirut… A glory of ashes, my city has turned out its lamp.
For many of a new generation, the place she sung about no longer exists. Modern Beirut is hungry for creating new sounds and seeking foreign influences that will challenge Fairuz’s deity-like monopoly on Lebanon’s music culture. The lamp is back on, except now it is more of a spotlight.
Perhaps that is a good thing. Fairuz is famously sought after in moments of sectarian despair or revolt, and by-and-large that isn’t the Lebanon of today—well, not right now, at least.
“It’s not like we only play American songs. Alternative Lebanese music is having a real moment. Bands like Mashrou’ Leila are writing music that fits into the issues of today, like feminism or the displacement of Syrians.”
Could there be a Fairuz-revival? It does happen, after all. When icons from the past become unfashionable, they become re-adopted by another generation. It happened in Greece with Nana Mouskouri, in France with Johnny Halliday (it took Halliday’s death for young people to play his music again) and no Egyptian student will tell you they dislike Umm Kulthum.
Meanwhile, vintage Fairuz records are notoriously rare and pricey in Lebanon, with people often paying upward of $40. This indicates a strong collectors’ market (considering how many records she sold, it’s hard to come by a vintage Fairuz LP in Lebanon). Fairuz has all the potential to be an Arab-feminist symbol, too.
Back at the bar, there is a pensive lull in the conversation. Perhaps running through her last point about the dwindling diet of Fairuz’s morning songs, Salma points back to the mural still obscured by graffiti and plant pots and says, “Look, they can cover her up and replace the image all they like but, the truth is, she’ll still be there underneath it all.”