Online Cultural Briefings, no. 1, 2007

By Al Jadid Magazine Staff Writers

Ban Lifted on ‘Controversial’ Lebanese Play

Lebanon has endured significant political problems since 2005, especially following the assassinations of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other major political and intellectual figures. While the country continues to experience political tension as Parliament prepares to elect a new president, few would have expected a theatrical play to add more to these tensions than the political attacks between pro-and anti-government politicians.

The play is Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué’s “How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke,” scheduled to show soon in Paris, Rome, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, but banned by Lebanon when it was initially due to premiere in mid-August. The play is a tale of militia fighters during the Lebanese Civil War. The ban was later lifted due to public outcry.

Lebanon’s Interior Ministry banned the play in a letter sent to its producers claiming the play “might trigger civil turmoil” and “name names.”

Fadi Toufiq, co-author of “Nancy,” informed NOWLebanon.com that the Interior Ministry “didn’t clarify the reasons” why the play had originally been banned. “They just gave a general cliché about unity and society or something, that this [play] would motivate people to fight each other.”

“It’s essential to talk about the Civil War, to deal with this deplorable history, not to close our eyes and not talk about it because it’s dangerous… I know that most Lebanese aren’t afraid to talk about the Civil War; they don’t agree that talking about it will make it happen again,” Toufiq added.

 Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, Tarek Mitri, also disagreed with the Interior Ministry’s decision, affirming, “Talking about the facts of history, rather than making it up as some politicians and writers do, helps us to heal.”

As a result of Mitri’s efforts and public objection, Interior Minister Hassan al-Sabeh lifted the ban.

Comedy Group Satires Post 9/11 Stereotypes

We may not know how Arab Americans have been responding to post 9/11 comedies, especially those making fun of them, never mind whether the actors are Arab-American or not. Arab Americans certainly feel they have paid a heavy price for the September terrorist attacks, including discrimination, stereotypes, and constant harassment. Thus, when a group of comedians of Arab and Iranian descent – “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour”– performed political comedy about post 9/11, the response seemed to be more receptive among comedy fans than mainstream Arab Americans.

Comedians Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader and Maz Jobrani were recently profiled in a Los Angeles Times news feature. According to the Los Angeles Times, the 9/11 attacks have prompted the comedians to dig through their own life experiences for laughs and to cut through stereotypes that have labeled them violent, fanatical and humorless along the way.

“I can always tell who the air marshal is on a flight,” jokes Cairo-born Ahmed Ahmed in his routine. “He’s the one holding a People magazine upside down and looking straight at me.”

The Los Angeles-based threesome discovered that after the attacks, they had no choice but to “tackle the issue of their national origin head-on. To avoid the issue would be emotionally dishonest,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor.

“I’m from Iran,” says California-raised Maz Jobrani, the only non-Arab of the group, “where we don’t take American Express, but we take Americans.” He cues the drum roll to let the audience in on what he knows – “this is a corny joke that plays to deeply-held stereotypes in the American psyche,” said the Christian Science Monitor.

Aron Kader, son of a Palestinian father and Mormon mother, recalls being asked to go on a Mormon mission. “Look, to an Arab, a mission is a whole different deal. Generally, we don’t come back from those.”

“Comedy is about getting people to laugh at the things that scare them the most,” Jobrani told the Christian Science Monitor.

Arab-American comedy is not new. It follows a long tradition in American popular culture, according to the Los Angeles Times, of “black, Latino, gay, and Jewish comedians who’ve helped kick down cultural doors.”

These cultural doors can make comedians “raise issues and make people think,” according to Dean Obeidallah, a collaborator and co-founder of the annual New York City-based Arab-American Comedy Festival, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

Ahmed, Kader and Jobrani, who worked their way up from small comedy clubs and have performed together since 2000, formed the multi-city “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” which debuted this past spring on Comedy Central. The trio has also joined forces with Comedy Central to do a TV version of “The Watch List,” a series of skits and performances featuring Middle Eastern comedians on Comedy Central’s internet channel “Motherload,” which proves to be another breakthrough for comics with Arab and Middle Eastern roots into the mainstream.

 

Brother Against Brother!

Ilan Hatsor’s play, “Masked,” about three Palestinian brothers torn apart by conflicting loyalties, takes place in a Palestinian village under Israeli control on the West Bank in 1990.

Na’im, the middle brother, joined the Tigers of the Revolution after an Israeli soldier killed their 7-year-old brother at a banned rally. He returns to the village to confront his older brother, Daoud, on suspicion that he is a spy for the Israelis. The youngest of the three, Khalid, tries to keep them connected.

According to the New York Times, the play steers clear of making blatant political statements or moral judgments. Hatsor, an Israeli who understands the Palestinian dilemma, grasps the “decisions few in his audience will ever have to face, but which Palestinians trying to survive in the occupied territories confront daily.”

“Masked,” which is still playing at the DR2 Theater in Manhattan, is directed by Ami Dayan. The characters are played by Arian Moayed, Sanjit De Silva and Daoud Heidami.

 

Satellite Democracy!

While one group of observers points to the way new television shows have positively influenced the cultural attitudes of men and women in the Arab world, another finds a gap between what is seen on the screen and the reality of society at home.   

One top-rated Arab TV program, “Kalam Nawaem,” which translates as “Sweet Talk,” is one of these shows. It is roughly similar to America’s hit, “The View,” featuring Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg (coming soon to the program) and, previously, the controversial Rosie O’Donnell.

The hosts consist of four Arab women from different backgrounds: a Palestinian actress, Farah Bseiso; a Lebanese TV veteran, Rania Barghout; an Egyptian magazine editor, Fawzia Salama; and a Saudi graduate student working on her Ph.D. in literature, Muna Abu Sulayman – the only one wearing a hijab.

Because all four come from different backgrounds and life experiences, Arab women are seeing themselves represented on TV for the first time. According to MSN’s Lifestyle.com, more than half of Arab women are illiterate, so TV serves as “their window on the wider world.” A Saudi Arabian woman, for example, can watch her sisters do what she is not allowed by law – vote, drive, or go out unveiled.

The women of “Kalam Nawaem” draw viewers by confronting taboos and taking on controversial issues. “These four kind-looking mommies, sitting and chatting on a warm yellow couch, have tackled the most difficult issues, from homosexuality to incest, from abuse to murder,” host Sulayman wrote to the Middle East Broadcasters Journal.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “all of this, it would seem, is part of a larger feminist movement sped along by media.”

“Kalam Nawaem” airs on the Dubai-based Arab satellite network MBC, which is also available to viewers in the United States. The program launched in 2002 and is produced in Beirut and Cairo. “Kalam Nawaem”was featured as a part of PBS’s documentary, “Dishing Democracy.”

 

New Improvisational Film Deals with “Reality” of Iraq Conflict

Since the Iraq war began in 2003, Hollywood has generated more films exploring the intricacies of this war than any other past conflict, even though it is still ongoing. These particular war movies depict a hunger that has emerged from the growing opposition and unpopularity of the Iraq war, which has cost tens of thousands of lives, and the desire to expose its injustices.

Several mainstream films are about the heroism and struggles of American soldiers, including the upcoming film “No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah,” starring Harrison Ford, while documentaries tend to focus on the aftermath of the conflict and the suffering of the Iraqi people, such as “Iraq in Fragments” and “About Baghdad.” “Battle for Haditha,” an upcoming film about the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians, notably stands out as a new genre of unconventional cinema.

Directed by independent filmmaker Nick Broomfield, “Haditha” is unconventional in that it attempts to portray the day-to-day life of Iraqis as much as those of the Americans caught up in the war. Its cast includes actual former U.S. Marines who served in Iraq and Iraqi refugees who paint the picture of the struggle between the insurgents and the Americans by using improvisation.

The movie is filmed in a countryside town of Jordan where the actors live in barracks and are filmed chumming around with each other and preparing for patrols – an all too familiar scenario for these aspiring actors. There is no script, so the troops’ repartee becomes the dialogue.

Eric Mehalacopoulos, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq and plays the role of Sgt. Ross, tells the Los Angeles Times, “This is surreal. This is like a reality-television program. Every time something stupid happens, they’re there filming.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi actors live inside rented roadside houses and are asked to improvise when U.S. troops carry out surprise raids on their homes or gun down relatives.

Falah Flaya, who plays a Sunni insurgent, still resides in Baghdad. “We have all suffered so much in Iraq. This is my chance to show the world what is happening to my country,” said Flaya.

Ex-Marine Elliot Ruiz, whose leg was badly wounded in an insurgent attack but has fully recovered despite doctors’ predictions, said “Haditha” exposes several truths about the Iraq war.

The film is based on Haditha, the Anbar province town where 24 Iraqi civilians – including women and children – were allegedly massacred by U.S. Marines in 2005. Director Broomfield told The Hollywood Reporter that he met with some of the survivors of the massacre who had a lot of material, giving him a very detailed idea of what happened.

The British director admitted to Time Out London that he was at first judgmental against the Marines, “but the deeper I dug into the whole story, the harder I realized it was to take a side,” said Broomfield. He goes on to state that these soldiers were very poor kids who had never been outside of the U.S. before. “They had no idea what they were doing in Iraq, and they felt let down by the Marine Corps. It was hard to condemn them out of hand as cold-blooded killers.”

One of Broomfield’s objectives for this film was to explore the complex dynamics on the ground from a political and military standpoint. According to Time Out London, he doesn’t see Haditha as an isolated case but rather as a symbol of a wider crisis.

“I think there have been lots of Hadithas, and there are lots of Hadithas every year. The difference with this event is that the aftermath just happened to be filmed and now there’s an inquiry. It’s much more convenient for the U.S. government and the Marine Corps to make scapegoats of these guys than actually deal with its policy and rules of engagement in Iraq. I’m sure it happens on a lesser scale every single day,” stated Broomfield to Time Out London.

Broomfield is a multi-award winning filmmaker also known for directing “Ghosts,” about the Chinese cocklepickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay, and “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” the story of America’s first female serial killer, among others.

“Battle for Haditha” received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September. 

 

Playing Politics with Art

Art has a tendency to become political fodder, especially when the subject coincides with politically significant events. This tendency was exemplified last year with the successful performance of the musical “Sah al-Noum” (Rise and Shine) by the legendary Lebanese diva Fairuz.

The play has had an unlucky history of being either halted or interrupted by unexpected events, and as a consequence had not been suitably debuted for nearly 40 years. It is little surprise, then, that when the play was performed this past December in Beirut, in the midst of a country on the verge of civil war, opposing factions declared the performance a political coup.

“Sah al-Noum” was originally set to open in 1970, a time that inauspiciously coincided with Egyptian president Jamal Abd al-Nasser’s death. The play’s debut was delayed until the mid 1970s, but in 1975, the production was cut short by the Lebanese civil war. Then, in the summer of 2006, “Sah al-Noum,” with Fairuz in the leading role, was to be the key performance in the 50th anniversary celebration of the annual Baalbeck International Festival. However, once again history intervened as war between Israel and Hezbullah put the Baalbeck Festival and Fairuz’s much anticipated performance on hold.

The performance was rescheduled for December 2, but nearly fell through when, on December 1, thousands of anti-government protesters, primarily members of Hezbullah, gathered in downtown Beirut demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Contrary to fears that “Sah al-Noum” would again be postponed, the play went on as scheduled in the Biel Auditorium, mere feet from congregations of protesters. Both pro- and anti-government forces hailed the performance and interpreted the theme of the play as supporting their respective causes. 

Incidentally, the theme of the play is hardly relevant to the crisis Lebanon has been facing since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “Sah al-Noum” is the story of an Arab leader who, because of slothfulness and an inane bureaucratic process, fails to address his subjects’ needs. The ruler spends more time sleeping than attending to his responsibilities, waking only once a month for a single night in which he attends to his duties. His subjects, meanwhile, gather and wait for him to approve their petitions. During his single night of work, he stamps only three petitions, to avoid wearing out the seal, and then proceeds back to sleep. Many of his subjects’ petitions remain unstamped. Krunful, the character played by Fairuz, is among those awaiting the ruler’s approval. She needs a stamp on her petition in order to repair her roof before winter sets in. Impatient with the ruler’s indifference, Krunful steals the ruler’s stamp, and endorses her own petition along with those of the other subjects. She then throws the seal into a well.

Both groups, the Opposition and the 14th of March Coalition attempted to exploit the performance to vindicate their political positions. An anti-government publication, Al Diyar declared, “Fairuz defeated the absolutist ruler with her voice,” while a pro-government newspaper, An Nahar hailed Fairuz for “breaking through the siege of the city.” Though the play addresses issues of corruption and abuse of power, a commonality found in almost all Middle Eastern states, to compare Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to the mythical ruler in “Sah al-Noum” is a stretch, at best!

Surge and Interest in  Arab-American Theater

One area to receive heightened attention since September 11, 2001 is Arab-American theater, as evinced in an article in the New York Times. Not only is Arab-American theater contributing to the American understanding of Arab culture, it is serving as a unifying force amongst distinct Arab communities.

Prior to September 11, there was a noticeable dearth of Arab-American theatrical performances.  One reaon for this may have been the perception by Arab-American playwrights that there was limited public interest, as Jamil Khoury, founder of the Silk Road Theater in Chicago, told Dinitia Smith of the Times. Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Council of American-Islamic Relations, claims that Muslim conservatism, with its traditional aversion to representation of the human form, may have been an additional factor contributing to the limited scope of Arab-American theater.

In the wake of September 11, Arab-American playwrights have emerged in greater  numbers, grappling with the common theme of self-identity in America, and feeling compelled to confront stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in their work. Playwright Yussef El Guindi’s most recent play, “Back of the Throat,” was inspired by his experiences immediately after 9/11. With the Patriot Act, the questioning of his friends, and a general air of suspicion, El Guindi began to wonder what would happen to him if he were to be investigated by the FBI. The trials of his main character, Khaled, are based on those machinations.

Nibras, a New York-based theater collective, performed the ensemble piece “Sajjil,” Arabic for “Record,” which is based on interviews with Arabs and non-Arabs about what they think when they hear the word “Arab.” Nibras includes Najla Said, daughter of the late scholar Edward Said, who recently wrote a performance piece based on her first visit to Palestine, and Nathalie Handal, a playwright who wrote “Between our Lips,” a production about a Palestinian woman who is executed for having murdered her husband.

The increased attention that Arab-American theater has commanded has also resulted in a coming-together of Arab communities in the United States. Heather Raffo, a playwright who is half-Iraqi and raised Catholic, wrote and acted in a play about contemporary Iraqi women called “Nine Parts of Desire.” She told Smith, “Prior to September 11, I felt the Arab community was a lot like the Mideast itself, made up of insular communities. But since that time, it’s become an immediate, all inclusive community, wanting to create together.”

 

Amidst Controversy, Abu Dhabi Drives to Become Arab World’s Cultural Center

Abu Dhabi may soon become the new arts capital of the world if a $27 billion, 670-acre development project for Saadiyat Island (Island of Happiness) is successful.  However, this project has been met with criticism, mainly concerning the commercialization of art, and secondarily over censorship of intellectual and artistic content by the conservative Abu Dhabi government.

The project, although still in the beginning phases and yet to be approved, has hired Thomas Krens, Director of the Guggenheim Foundation, as a consultant. He has called on world famous architects Frank Gehry, to construct a Guggenheim Museum, Tadao Ando, to build a maritime museum, Jean Nouvel, to create a classical museum that could serve as a Middle-Eastern outpost of Paris’ Louvre, and the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, to develop a performing arts center.  If all goes well, Saadiyat Island will be completed by 2012. Thus far, a $1.3 billion agreement has been made by the French government and Abu Dhabi that will allow Saadiyat Island use of the Louvre’s name, management experience, and works of art for the next thirty years, according to the New York Times.

Project organizers are hoping the development will turn Abu Dhabi into a prominent tourist destination, on a par with Dubai.  However, cynics deem the project an unabashed attempt to augment tourist revenue.   The Associated Press reported that critics of the Louvre deal claim that art is being exploited for “trade and diplomacy.”  Some are concerned with the precedents being set by this money-for-culture deal.  Klaus Dieter Lehmann, who is head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told Bloomburg News that the “Abu Dhabi museum threatens the traditional nonmarket-driven cooperation among cultural museums.”  Additional concerns have been raised as to the conservative nature of Abu Dhabi, and whether the government will interfere with the artistic and intellectual content of future exhibits, as reported by the New York Times.  However, a spokesperson for the Abu Dhabi tourism authority told the Times that, “In principle, there are no restrictions, but both sides will decide on what is shown.”

Besides the $1.3 billion in additional revenue, Abu Dhabi will also provide France with funding for two major cultural projects in France.  It is reported that a $32.5 million donation will be made to refurbish a wing of the Louvre, and financing will also be provided for the creation of an Abu Dhabi art research center in France.

The Saadiyat Island project coordinators advocate the project’s importance.  Sheik Sultan bin Tahnoon Al-Nahyan, chief of the tourist and development authority, pointedly notes that with the realities facing former Arab cultural centers, from Beirut to Baghdad, Abu Dhabi could become a crucial center for Arab cultural exploration.  French officials also view the project as something of a cultural coup, with cultural minister and cosigner of the Saadiyat Island deal, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, claiming that the project represents the globalization of French culture.

Shakespeare Customized for today’s Arab world

British-Kuwaiti playwright Sulayman al-Bassam has a tendency of taking stories from the past and reweaving them into dramatic works that sharply resonate with the political realities of the modern Middle East. His first major play, “The Mirror for Princes” used the classic Arabic translation of the fable “Kalila wa Dimna” by Abdullah Ibn al Muqaffa (an 8th century intellectual who wrote during the Abbasid period) to comment on issues of censure and tyranny.  His newest work, “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,” continues in this tradition.

The play mirrors Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” but is set in an anonymous modern-day oil-rich Gulf state. Bassam’s characters, just as Shakespeare’s, navigate a feudal atmosphere of tribal alliances, family infighting, and tyranny, and bring to question issues of leadership, religion, and foreign intervention.

Originally, Bassam had hoped to feature a likeness of Sadaam Hussein as a thinly disguised version of Richard III, but later abandoned the idea after conducting further research into historic parallels between the two rulers. Even so, Bassam’s Richard III, played by Syrian actor Fayez Kazak, reminded several critics of the deposed dictator.

The “Richard III” performance breaks new ground for Bassam, as it is the first of his major works to be performed in Arabic. The first two of his plays to receive widespread attention were penned in English. He had feared that writing his plays in Arabic would jeopardize their production due to the provocative nature of their subject matter. 

Even still, Bassam told the Associated Foreign Press that “couching” his work in Shakespeare offers a “veil of security” in exploring inflammatory or taboo themes.  “Richard III” is his second work to directly adopt a plotline from Shakespeare, his first being the “Al-Hamlet Summit.” He told the New York Times that exploring such contemporary themes in Arab politics set as a modern-day production would be risky, saying, “You could write such a play, but you’d be best advised to set it in England in the 1400’s.”

 

Legacy of Edward Said: Music as a Tool of Peace

Passing through metal detectors is usually an activity reserved for airline passengers, not concert-goers. However, this is exactly what audience members had to do before entering Carnegie Hall to attend a performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, as reported by the New York Times. Even the names of the performers were not published in the program due to concerns for their safety.

The security measures taken for the concert bear witness to the unique composition of the Orchestra. It is the product of a collaborative effort taken by two renowned and controversial figures - Argentinian-Israeli composer Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said.

In 1999, the two men had a chance encounter in the lobby of a London hotel which resulted in friendship and in a shared determination to use music (Said was a music critic for The Nation magazine and played the piano as well) to promote cross-cultural understanding between Arab and Israeli youth. Together they created the West-Eastern Divan Workshop.

The Workshop first met in August 1999. Talented musicians from across the Middle East, ages 14 to 25, were invited to meet in Weimar, Germany, for an intensive music workshop. They were coached by members of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, and attended master classes taught by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Said and Barenboim gave nightly cultural lectures. Although Said passed away in September of 2003, the Barenboim-Said Foundation continues to work towards Said’s goal. The program has since been moved to Seville, where the Andalusian government and a private foundation have provided for the creation of the West-Eastern Divan Government. The summer workshop continues each year in Seville and serves musicians from such diverse countries as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Israel.

The orchestra has received critical acclaim, and not just because of its political message.  The Los Angeles Times called the Carnegie Hall performance “brilliant,” noting that, “Their technical accomplishment comes as a surprise,” and commended the performances of the orchestra’s soloists.

Oscar for ‘West Bank Story’!

When Ari Sandel set out to create a project for his senior thesis at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, he probably had no idea that it would lead to the Academy Award. However, his film, “West Bank Story” did just that, winning him an Oscar on February 25 for Best Live Action Short.

Sandel told the Jewish Journal that in creating the film, he wanted to focus on the politics of the Middle East. But, he told Oscar.com that he wanted the film to be a departure from conventional, more dismal portrayals of the Middle East. He said his goal was to, “convey [his] belief that peace in the Middle East can and will happen,” and decided that using comedy would be the best way to do so.

Sandel added that he began the film with just the title in mind. Then, to develop a premise that would allow for a hopeful outlook, he and his co-writer, Kim Ray, began to consider the similarities between Israelis and Palestinians. He told the Jewish Journal that, “the answer was a love of food…and after that, everything fell in place.”

Thus imagined were the two West Bank food stands, the Israeli Kosher King and the Palestinian Hummus Hut, which served as a setting for the film. The story follows David, an Israeli soldier, who falls in love with Fatima, a Palestinian worker at the Hummus Hut. The 21-minute production follows a similar plot line to Leonard Bernstein’s “West-Side Story.”

Sandel was faced with the challenge of creating a low-budget film with a foreign setting in Los Angeles, but managed with the help of his family and assistance from movie studios that were interested in the plot.

Sandal’s next challenge was getting the film played. Sandel told Oscar.com that, “People warned me that I would piss off everyone on BOTH sides, that I would kill my career before it started… and most of all they told me that you can’t make a comedy out of the tragedy in the Middle East.” Despite Sandel’s initial concerns about the film, it successfully debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, was screened in the Dubai Film Festival, and went on to be shown at more than 100 film festivals. The film has won 25 awards at those festivals, and the Oscar makes 26.

One More Propaganda Film

 

College campuses across the United States have long served as centers for debate on the Middle East. Recently, a film titled, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” fueled more controversy. The film, produced by Canadian-born Raphael Shore, and directed by Wayne Kopping, deals with radical Islam, explicitly comparing it to Nazism. In one example, images of Nazi rallies are juxtaposed with modern news footage of children being encouraged to become suicide bombers. When Shore was unable to find distribution through traditional channels, he told the New York Times that he decided to turn to college campuses for an outlet for the film.

Criticism has been widespread, and detractors say the film is merely a propaganda piece. At Pace University in New York, administrators pressured Jewish student organization Hillel to cancel the screening for fear of hate crimes against Muslims. At the same time, the film’s supporters testify to its importance. One sympathizer told the New York Times that, “It is an urgent issue that is widely avoided by academia.” The film’s factual accuracy has been challenged.

While the film has been contentious, it has also managed to spark a dialogue between disparate student groups, as noted by The DailyBruin, the U.C.L.A. student paper. When “Obsession” was screened on that campus, more than 300 people attended, as did dozens of protestors. The group, “Students for Justice in Palestine,” later hosted a roundtable discussion on the film, and included student members from “Bruins for Israel.”

The Baalbeck Festival Goes on in Beirut with Fairuz

The summer of 2006 was eagerly awaited in Beirut. After the political turmoil and violence of the previous year, the summer was to be a celebration. It was a chance to take a deep breath and rejoice in Lebanon’s freedom from Syrian domination, and the beginning of a new life. A season of booming tourism was anticipated, with people flocking to take part in Beirut’s thriving cultural scene and popular festivals.

One of the summer’s highlights is always the Baalbeck International Festival, this year celebrating its 50th “golden” anniversary, and its outdoor performances set amongst the picturesque historic temple ruins.  Lebanon’s beloved diva, Fairuz, was set to star in a sold-out three-night run in “Sah al-Nom,” a musical she had not performed in over 30 years. 

Instead of thousands of revelers gathering in Baalbeck this year, Israeli bombs dropped.  In the blink of an eye, joyous anticipation turned into horror and fear, and the Baalbeck International Festival had become another casualty in this latest war.

This was not the first time the festival had been interrupted due to war: the first was during the 1958 civil war, and then again during the 1975 civil war – that time for 15 years.  However, each time the festival has re-emerged and continued its distinguished tradition.

This year is no exception. Lebanon’s treasured Fairuz will perform in a re-scheduled production of “Sah al-Nom” later this year  in Beirut (exact date and location have not yet been confirmed.) 

Fairuz will pick up where she left off – “Sah al-Nom” was the last musical Fairuz had performed in Beirut; it was ironically cut short by the 1975 civil war.  At the time, the play – a criticism of Arab rulers and their ambivalence toward their people’s needs – was not considered particularly successful. 

When asked by a reporter why the Baalbeck International Festival had chosen to feature this particular musical, the festival’s media director responded that the last time the play was shown (at the Piccadilly Theater in Beirut) it was preempted by the war, thus few people had the opportunity to see it.  This time, war will not prove a death-knell and the show will go on.

As the country looks forward to Fairuz’s highly anticipated performance in “Sah al-Nom,” it is a good time to revisit an Al Jadid magazine article by Sami Asmar, “Fairuz: a Voice, a Star, a Mystery.”


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