Lebanese diva arouses emotion, controversy in Syria

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz performed to a sell-out crowd in the Syrian capital on Monday, defying politicians who criticized her for going to what they consider enemy territory.

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The Arab diva, who burst onto the music scene on Damascus Radio in 1952, returned to the Syrian stage after an absence of two decades, and moved many of her fans in the Opera House audience to tears.

She played the lead role in “Sah al-Nom”, a musical satire about a careless ruler who is challenged by a poor woman, and received a standing ovation. The show was performed as part of cultural celebrations in the ancient city of Damascus, chosen as the 2008 Arab Capital of Culture.

“Fairouz transcends politics. In Damascus she has been always treated as an empress,” Syrian sculptor Mostapha Ali told Reuters.

Fairouz, who is in her 70s and is a cultural icon of the Arab world, aroused controversy by accepting the invitation from the Baathist government in Damascus at a time of increased tension between Syria and its neighbor Lebanon.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accused Fairouz of playing into the hands of Syrian intelligence services he blamed for a series of political assassinations in Lebanon.

Another Lebanese member of parliament said Fairouz should not perform for “Lebanon’s jailers”, a reference to Syrian dominance and military presence in Lebanon for most of the period from 1976 until Syrian troops withdrew in 2005.

A group of Syrian political activists also called on Fairouz to boycott Damascus, pointing to a renewed crackdown on dissidents. Just one hour before the play began, intelligence officers arrested leading opposition figure Riad Seif.

Ten other dissidents were charged earlier in the day with undermining the state, and could face long prison sentences.

Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdelnour said Fairouz performed for the Syrian people, not its rulers.

“The Syrians consider Fairouz one of their own. Before they studied geography and went to school they learned about Syria’s rivers and mountains from listening to her songs,” Abdelnour said.

Fairouz has not responded to the criticism. She last performed in Syria in the 1980s, during the iron rule of President Hafez al-Assad, father of current President Bashar al-Assad, when Syrian troops were still in Lebanon.

The gaunt, enigmatic Fairouz with her trademark long red hair is considered a national treasure in Lebanon. When she returned to Lebanon’s Baalbak cultural festival in 1998 for the first time since the 1975-1990 civil war, Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper described her return as “catharsis on a national scale”.

“The high point of my life was when broke through a crowd in London and kissed Fairouz’s hands,” said leading Syrian painter Fadi al-Yazigi, who has sought to organize joint exhibitions with Lebanese artists to counter political tension between the two countries.

The late Egyptian composer Mohammad Abdelwahab called Fairouz “our ambassador to the stars”. She is Lebanon’s biggest artistic export and her recent collaboration with her son Ziad has appealed to a more international audience.

The musical she performed on Monday was composed by her late husband Assi al-Rahbani and re-arranged by Ziad, whose musical creations have ranged from political musicals to jazz.

Editing by Caroline Drees