"Imagine how phenomenal it could have been, had you had the opportunity to host Edith Piaf of France, Maria Callas of Greece or Oum Kalthoum of Egypt in your show."
Quoting a message I had sent to Oprah Winfrey a couple of years ago when I watched Fayrouz perform her latest musical in Jordan. Obviously, my message was ignored, and I can understand why, but my incentive to plead for such an exotic encounter was way beyond my longstanding passion for Fayrouz … I was actually suggesting a better Western comprehension of our Arabic culture.
In an age of globalization, it only takes few fanatics to ruin an entire nation's reputation. Once misconceptions are born, prejudice follows right away, and then discrimination, bigotry and persecution start building so fast. In no time, wars break out, and thousands of innocent people get killed … I guess, we are already there, but hopefully, not yet at the point of no return. Nevertheless, to modify an existing stereotype is much harder than creating them. It's a long process, and again, in an age of globalization … it's probably close to impossible.
As an Iraqi living in the West, I've learnt to deal with labeling on a daily basis, even when it's subtle and unspoken, it's still there … I can feel it, and I spare no effort to prove it wrong. I'd written articles and I'm working on a book. I tell everyone Islam is just a religion, as imperfectly interpreted and manipulated as any other religion could be, and being an Arab is merely an ethnicity, I'm as good or bad as any other human being of any other ethnicity, color or race might be, but my words fall short … in the end, I'm just an individual, and the damage is beyond my repair.
In the United States, a poor African American girl has come a long way to headline as one of the most powerful and influential women in her country and subsequently, the world at large. Her show is weekly watched by an estimated audience of thirty million viewers, and most impressively, she has just played a big role in helping the young senator from Illinois to become the first African American president in the history of the United States … how on earth could I reckon a better forum?
But why nominate Fayrouz to be on the show? Why not an Arab historian, a politician or even a Muslim theologian who could technically clear the misconceptions instead of the timid-seventy-four-year-old-Christian-Lebanese Diva who has a reputation for abhorring the media that her last television interview was eleven years ago on a documentary by French Frédéric Mitterrand.
This very question (why Fayrouz?) had risen almost a decade ago, precisely in 1999. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, fifteen world figures have been invited to sign a solemn appeal in Geneva Town Hall. Fayrouz and Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan represented the Arab World, but instead of delivering a speech, Fayrouz chose to sing the words of another legendary Lebanese: Khalil Gibran
"The earth delights to feel your bare feet, and the winds long to play with your hair"
I simply wish Fayrouz, through her art and history would shed some light on our Arabic culture … it's not a culture of hatred and blood, although in some of its aspects, it may appear to be so, but the land had always been the cradle of civilizations, and in my opinion, it still is a valid womb to conceive and produce arts and beauty for humanity.
However, Fayrouz is neither a pregnant young man, nor had her skin turned blue, and obviously, she will never jump on the famous couch during the interview! She might have undergone a plastic surgery to reshape her Roman nose in the seventies of the last century, and has been having occasional face-lifting during the past few years, but I doubt that it's the makeover Oprah's producers have in mind. These stories do make money, there must be the "WOW" factor to keep the wheels of the multi-million-dollar business rolling, and it's a tough competition out there … there is absolutely no place for compliments.
I strongly believe that her story does have infinite dramatic features within. I mean, come to think of it; in this hectic part of our world, where wars scarcely cease breaking out; a poor Christian Lebanese villager girl with merely the gift of a divine voice permeates the hearts of peoples known for their strict religiousness and narrow chauvinism for over fifty years of her career now, that a voyager from Iraq in the east to the Moroccan coast of the Atlantic ocean in the west, would witness nations of different backgrounds, religions and dialects subdue to the voice of "Lebanon's ambassadress to the stars" coming from every radio, announcing the birth of a new day each and every morning … is not that dazzling enough?
I guess a big part of Fayrouz legend should be attributed to her motherland; Lebanon. The small mountainous green piece of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea had long been the gate where different cultures met and intertwined since the days of its early inhabitants; the Phoenicians, the pioneer traders who conquered the sea and granted humanity its first alphabet. Fayrouz singing is just like Lebanon, a synthesis of the East and the West, while her voice is but a reflection of its nature … strong as its mountains, clear as its crystal springs and deep as its pre-biblical history.
When Fayrouz started singing almost half a century ago, Lebanon has been living its golden age, it was known as "Switzerland of the Orient" while its capital; Beirut, was called "Paris of the Orient". The city hosted the first American University in the region (1866) where progressive ideologies interacted freely before they spread via the university's alumni throughout the rest of the Arab World. It was the fertile soil for a new school of singing to be born, and thus came Fayrouz and the Rahbani Brothers; her late husband Asi and brother-in-law Mansour.
In 1975 a vicious civil war broke out in Lebanon, it lasted for almost fifteen years, during which; Beirut became a city of death. Fayrouz refused to leave her beloved country though her house was seriously damaged by a rocket once … she said: "I could never have replaced my homeland, not even with safety". Nevertheless, she was the only Lebanese welcome into both East and West Beirut since the beautiful city split in two.
During the long years of war, she refused to sing in Lebanon; a precious country torn apart, she avoided alignment to any of the conflicting political parties, and therefore became an icon of Lebanon's unity. In 2005, the American University in Beirut awarded an honorary doctoral degree to Fayrouz "whose voice has united people despite war, strife and borders."
The petite lady had performed in the world's most prestigious venues from the ancient Roman amphitheater of Baalbek in Lebanon, where she premiered and earned her famous title "the seventh pillar of Baalbek" to the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall of London, L'Olympia of Paris, the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall of New York, La Place des Arts of Montreal, the Herodeon at the Acropolis of Athens and the Light and Sound Theater at the Giza Pyramids of Egypt. From Sydney to Buenos Aires she toured the world several times and received unprecedented global recognition.
When I was a little child, Fayrouz came to sing in Baghdad, and people still remember that she refused to sing until a huge picture of the president was removed from above the stage. As an Iraqi, I know of many people who'd been fed alive to starving dogs just because they dared to whisper a joke about the president, but Fayrouz was an exception to the rule! She was also the first Arab singer, who never sang for a king, a president or any political figure, but instead; she sang for cities and people … from Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman, Alexandria, Kuwait to Baghdad and Mecca, her patriotic songs became like national anthems.
I am sure many of Fayrouz fans would ridicule my suggestion. They'd say Fayrouz needs no recognition from Oprah's audience, she's much bigger. Today she is almost considered as a saint, sanctified by her fans around the Arab World that when she leads the Good Friday mass every year in Beirut, people of all denominations and religions gather in thousands in and outside the church to listen to the Lady sing her celestial hymns over a beloved Son on the cross.
When her late mentor and husband Asi was hospitalized for stroke in 1972 rumors had it that Fayrouz put both a Bible and a Koran next to his bed. Ironically though, Fayrouz had been imaged as a radical or even a communist symbol for years due to the avant-garde nature of her music, which was mostly embraced by the revolutionary Arab youth during the early years of her career.
In 2008, Hizbullah's guerilla rioted all over Beirut, its militants besieged Beirut international airport when the Lady, as known today, came back from the United Arab Emirates. Both the Arabs and the Lebanese held their breath when they heard the news, but in a short time, the rebels and the government came to a temporary truce, they escorted her to her house and carried on fighting afterwards! Fayrouz wasn't happy to hear that … she wasn't happy either when a questionnaire among the Lebanese showed that most of them nominated her for a president. She said "what good it does if they consented to love me yet hated one another?"
Now having harbored an aspiration about the perfect forum and the perfect delegate doesn't mean my mission is accomplished in any way. I can't reach neither of the "Ladies" in question, who by the way, happened to share many things in common. Eventually, I'm but a big dreamer entirely out of means and resources … or almost!
For a long time I used to despise social network websites, I used to think of them as a waste of time and effort, but I guess it is time to change my opinion, grab every possible chance and apply some pragmatism! I will launch a group on Facebook titled "Why Fayrouz should be on Oprah Winfrey's show" hopefully, with the support of Fayrouz huge fan base there we will be able to make such big a dream come true someday, and until that day comes, I'll keep my fingers crossed and give it a go.
* Written for AlArabiya.net