Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Sunday, December 03, 2006
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.
New York Times, December 3, 2006
A Diva Brightens a Dark Time in Beirut
By KATHERINE ZOEPF
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 2 — As she stepped onto the stage, a tiny figure in apricot-colored silk, some in the audience broke into tears, while others clapped and cheered. As she lifted her lace parasol, turned her famous hooded eyes to the balcony, and her song began, ululations of joy erupted from several elderly Lebanese ladies in formal evening dress seated near the stage.
Fayrouz was performing in Beirut again at last, and her country, it seemed, had never needed her more.
In recent days, armored personnel carriers have moved into position along highway on-ramps, at major Beirut intersections and on a bridge overlooking the Hezbollah demonstrators at Martyrs’ Square, and fears and rumors that civil war might return have swirled. All the while, Beirutis of every sectarian stripe seemed to agree on this: Fayrouz must sing as planned.
In the Arab world, the emotional resonance this 70ish diva commands is difficult to overstate. Many of the great anthems of Palestinian and Lebanese nationalism — not factionalism — are her songs. Passengers on cheap overnight buses between Syrian cities know that morning has come and their destination lies near when the driver turns on Fayrouz.
From Damascus to Ramalla to Amman, Fayrouz’s unmistakable deep, quavering tones echo from radios and tape decks in cafes, shops and taxi cabs, reminding people of the long-lost rhythms of village life and the longer-lost, golden years of peace.
“Fayrouz is the music of our lives,” said a young Arab Israeli man in Haifa last week, who gave his name as Said. “She plays from dawn till midnight, every day, everywhere we go. She is the symbol of Lebanon and of Palestine. We all love her.”
Just how true that is in Lebanon seemed clear on Friday night, as she took the stage before tens of thousands of people at a convention center on the Beirut waterfront, to perform in “Sah el Nom,” a musical comedy. They had braved the demonstrations, blocked roads and multiple security checks to occupy white plastic chairs while scores of soldiers with AK-47s patrolled outside.
Some came from Beirut, some from Saida, a mainly Sunni town considered the gateway to southern Lebanon. Rosine Hajjar, 28, a psychotherapist from the Bekaa Valley, a predominantly Shiite region, said she had planned and saved for months for this night.
“Fayrouz is a dream for all Lebanese people,” Ms. Hajjar said. “She is majestic, she is mysterious, and it is very rare to see her. There were so many rumors this weekend of a coup d’état. But Fayrouz refused to cancel, and my sisters and I are so happy. Whether there is a new civil war or not, I feel sure that this will be the first and last time in my life that I will ever see her.”
Amal Hachem, 29, a lawyer from a Christian neighborhood in Beirut, said: “The fact that Fayrouz went ahead with this means a lot for Lebanese people. She is the symbol of Lebanon. Lebanon in war, Lebanon in peace, and Lebanon in revolution. She brings us together.”
“Sah el Nom” concerns a self-serving king who demands impossible favors when his people ask for help, but who comes to change his ways through the intervention of a good, brave village woman, played by Fayrouz.
But even symbolism and inspiration sometimes have to take a back seat to age and the sound requirements of a convention center. As the performance progressed, there were hisses and whispers — soon hushed by diehard admirers — as her lips occasionally moved out of time to the voice singing from the speakers, or as she focused on dancing, and the voice sang on.
Born more than 70 years ago — no one seems certain just how many — as Nouhad Haddad, she was dubbed Fayrouz, or Turquoise, by an early musical mentor. For more than 50 years, she and several family members — her husband, the composer Assi Rahbani, his brother Mansour, a lyricist, and a son, Ziad — have been the musical royal family of the Levant. The Rahbani brothers wrote most of the material that Fayrouz has regularly performed throughout her career, including “Sah el Nom.”
They are the rarest of public figures in Lebanon: artists whose standing is above politics. Throughout the 15 years of Lebanon’s civil war, they never took sides.
Fayrouz was to sing in “Sah el Nom” at the ancient Roman acropolis in Baalbeck, where an international music, theater and dance festival is held each summer. But the Israeli-Hezbollah war began that very evening, and the performance was canceled.
Throughout the 34-day war, Fayrouz’s patriotic songs, including “To Beirut” and “The True Lebanon Is Coming,” were everywhere. But she never appeared.
The festival’s organizers decided to move the program to Beirut. Fayrouz had not performed here since 1994, and ticket sales were frantic.
May Arida, the festival’s president, watched as the audience filed in on Friday night. “We knew there would be some fear,” she said. “We didn’t make the decision until yesterday, but we finally decided that the show must go on. In a difficult time, we need Fayrouz.”