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Playing Politics with Art
By Al Jadid Staff
Art has a tendency to become political fodder, especially when the subject coincides with politically significant events. This tendency was exemplified this 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 in 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 Gamal 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!
--By Al Jadid Staff
This essay appeared in Al Jadid,Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)