Sunday, December 03, 2006

Fairuz in Beirut, 2

Another account of Fairouz's performance of Sah al-Nom in Beirut, by the inimitable Jim Quilty, writing in the Daily Star (Beirut).

Musical comedy, both timeless and timely
Fairouz returns to Beirut stage with a revival of the Rahbani brothers' 'Sah al-Nom'

By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
Monday, December 04, 2006

BEIRUT: "Sah al-Nom," a musical comedy starring Fairouz, directed by Ziad Rahbani and written by Assi and Mansour Rahbani, began a three-night run at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL) on Friday night. It opened to somewhat less than a capacity crowd, a fact that says more about the prevailing political environment than the reputation and popularity of the artists involved.

Like so much of the Rahbani brothers' work, this play could be termed an allegorical fairytale. The writer-composers favored village idylls for their settings - places where folks burst into choral song at the drop of a hat and fall naturally into dabkeh-inflected dance.

"Sah al-Nom" is set in such a place. At center stage is a grand villa, in miniature, called the "Qasr al-Nom" (the Palace of Sleep) where the aging local wali (or lord) lives, apparently spending most of his time sleeping.

From time to time, though, he does rouse himself to actually rule. With great ceremony, he and his retainers assemble a court in the village square and hold a diwan where the villagers can approach him with their petitions.

The lord isn't exactly the model of enlightened governance. He listens to the villagers' petitions but seems as likely to relieve a petitioner of some possession he has taken a fancy to as to grant his wish. If it suits him, though, the lord grants the supplicant's wishes and stamps the document with his much-prized royal seal.

While most of the villagers seem content with their lot, one umbrella-toting village girl named Rumfoul (Fairouz) is a nagging inconvenience to the wali. Forever petitioning to have the roof of her house fixed, she carries the umbrella, she explains, to protect her from the elements.

Exhausted after listening to a few supplicants, the lord orders his retainers to leave him to sleep outside in his throne. Once he's asleep, Rumfoul swipes his royal seal and stamps the petitions of all the supplicants - all but one. Mischief done, she throws the seal down a well.

In Act II the wali wakes up from another long slumber and repeats the diwan ritual, only to realize his seal is missing. This causes all manner of grief and confusion, since without the seal he has no authority to rule.

One of the villagers - whose petition Rumfoul has torn up - suspects she has the seal and squeals on her. The lord confronts her and she admits to having thrown the seal down the well. With the help of the other villagers, then, she goes into the well to retrieve it.

The wali is so delighted to have regained his authority that, rather than having Rumfoul put in irons, he makes her the keeper of his seal when he's asleep. "When you were in the well," he says, "I wasn't thinking about the seal at all. I was worried about you."

There are any number of ways to approach "Sah al-Nom." It is, first of all, populist political satire - critical, then, but entertaining as well.

As a piece of restored popular theater, the revival's production values are about as sharp as you could hope for - particularly in the acoustic nightmare that is BIEL. The stage design of faux "mountain architecture" looks more genuine than some of the restored buildings in Solidere and the performance seems utterly true to the stage conventions of the 1960s and 70s.

Like the Rahbanis' music, the costuming is folksy and contemporary at once. The dancing (there's plenty of that) is crisp and tasteful, without the excesses of the more self-conscious neo-folk dance productions. The acting is both stylised and folksy and the spoken and sung text blends about as seamlessly as possible.

There were those in the audience who were of the opinion that the songs were performed in playback - "lip-synching" for those of the Milli Vanilli generation. These opinions couldn't be confirmed or denied when The Daily Star went to press.

If these songs were indeed taped in the studio before the show, though, the stage direction ensured that they were not obviously so. Nor is it difficult to discern why there would be pressure to pre-record - one informed estimate has it that Nouhad Haddad, the woman who became Fairouz, was born in 1935.

A lot has happened since this sweet little riff on Lebanon's neo-feudal political system was first staged 36 years ago.

On one hand Fairouz, the Rahbani brothers and Ziad Rahbani became cultural icons without peer in Lebanon. The distinction comes from the fact that, though their work has been politically engaged, they continued to be loved by Lebanese regardless of their sectarian, tribal or class association.

As such, their stature harkens back to a period when the things that divided Lebanese seemed less important than what unified them - whether to one another, the Palestinians or the wider Arab world.

"Sah al-Nom" - the plays of Assi and Mansour Rahbani generally, in fact - has thus accumulated layers of significance that make it a good deal thicker than it was when originally devised.

This musical's weight increases still more when you augment these combined layers of meaning with the piece's recent production history.

The Baalbek Festival announced that "Sah al-Nom" would open its 2006 season. When Baalbek fell victim to the July-August war with Israel, the metaphorical weight, especially for Lebanese of a certain generation, was much greater than you'd ascribe to a mere play.

Baalbek announced that it would stage the play in December - before anyone knew that the opening night would correspond with an open-ended opposition sit-in involving hundreds of thousands of Lebanese in Downtown Beirut.

By the time it opened on Friday evening, then, this work of childlike playfulness had become the artistic equivalent of a black hole - a play that absorbs any meaning you care to project onto it.

All the more reason, arguably, that the star's voice should sound as strong as possible.

It is highly informative of the Lebanese condition that (based on the number of times the audience burst into applause on Friday evening) "Sah al-Nom" still resonates with audiences in late 2006.

The orange tinge of Rumfoul's dress and umbrella, on the other hand, was surely no more than a trick of the stage lights.


ali said...

Why is Jim "inimitable" ? Tell us what you know about him

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot

Elissa said...

thanks a lot :)