Fairuz celebrates her 81st birthday today. Tomorrow, the Republic of Lebanon celebrates its 73rd. The near coincidence of the two events is more than just symbolic.
In a country that suffered from a presidential vacuum for over two years, Fairuz has remained as something of an eternal figurehead, something of a monarch. That's why you're likely going to see a much bigger outpouring of felicitations over her birthday (there are more than 500 tweets with the hashtag فيروز# today) than over the country's contentious independence.
There's a good reason for that: her career, now in its seventh decade, has been an unwavering symbol of coexistence in a country of ever-shifting alliances and political fault-lines. Her verses map out lines of solidarity that have coursed through the country, and the rest of the region, too--which is why the celebratory tweets extend far beyond Lebanon.
And we haven't even begun to talk about her tremendous vocal ability which, in so soothing our frustrated souls, is itself a political act.
Here's a small breakdown:
1. Her vocals are a remarkable musical feat that seep into the hearts of a nation
Believe it or not, Fairuz got some of her formative training in Quranic recitation. It's something that would not only entrench her vocal ability in the Oriental style, but also likely helped position her as a Christian Arab that transcended sect and state boundaries.
In her teens, she was discovered by the musician-composer-playwright duo Mansour and Assi Al Rahbani. They took her under their wing and together they were able to "dramatically impact music and composition and style in modern Eastern Arab art and popular music," setting the stage for 20th century Arab music and theater.
It was an electrifying artistic mix of which her son, the artistic prodigy Ziad Al Rahbani, would become a part. Through the years, and long after the passing of the Rahbani brothers, it was Fairuz's hypnotic voice that endured, and it has continued to be the object of musicological fascination.
"She can produce the kind of ornaments and the delicacies of pitch and intonation that are so much a part of Arab music with great ease, and her singing very often feels effortless," Virginia Danielson, an expert on Middle Eastern music at Harvard University, told NPR in 2010.
2. Refusing to perform in a divided Lebanon of the Civil War
For 15 years, Fairuz refused to perform in Lebanon. Why, when it would seem that the country needed her serene voice more than ever? Because giving a concert in a divided Lebanon would inevitably mean that she favored one side over another. She stood for peace, and not even her commercial interests could get in the way of that.
She did, however, give concerts outside Lebanon at this time, most famously, in a tour of the United States in 1981.
3. For better or for worse, she remained in Lebanon
Just because Fairuz didn't give concerts inside Lebanon, doesn't mean she left. Lest one think that she refused performances for her own safety.
Fairuz's love for the country showed in her actions, and not just in the hauntingly beautiful verses that she sang:
A greeting from my heart to Beirut
Greetings to the sea and to the houses
To a rock, which is like an old sailor’s face
She is made from the people’s soul..from wine
She is from his sweat…a bread and Jasmine
So how does her taste become? A taste of fire and smoke
4. She is a symbol of religious coexistence
Fairuz sang at nearly every Good Friday prayer in Lebanon, but her reverence for Islam's holiest symbols would shine through her songs in ways rarely seen, not even among her Muslim contemporaries.
She sang for Mecca in Ghanniyat Makkah (song for Mecca), and frequently had verses that waxed lyrical about Christianity and Islam in the same breath. For a region in the crossfires of sectarian war, colonization and competing nationalism, her melodies offered a buoyancy to rise above it all.
5. Solidarity with the Palestinian plight
The Rahbanis' song "Raji'un", sung by Fairuz, cemented the musical trio's ties with Jerusalem. In 1972, they would produce an entire album dedicated to Palestine called Jerusalem in My Heart.
But it likely her most crushingly emotive song, Zahrat el Madaen, that made the Rahbani's connection with Palestine not only clear, but effective. The medley, dedicated to Jerusalem, was penned by the Lebanese poet, Said Akl. It is considered a masterpiece, one that made the plight of dispossessed Palestinians acutely felt in an unprecedented way.
Fairuz is, of course, monumental, and no list of achievements does her status justice. What we mean to say is, thank you, Sayyida Fairuz, and we wish you many happy years to come.