Dr. John Waterbury's Speech Introducing Fairuz
June 25, 2005
Fairuz was born Nouhad Haddad. Her father was a typesetter. As a young child, her father moved the family to Zuqaq al-Blat, an old neighborhood in Beirut where those of modest means of all denominations have for generations found company and shelter. Like all geniuses, Nouhad made her talents as a singer known from an early age.
The man who discovered her was Muhammad Fleifel. One of his contributions was to have taught her how to chant verses from the Koran according to what is known as tajwid, the high style of Koranic intonation in classical Arabic.
Early in her career she pioneered in the wedding of eastern Arab and western melodic forms - what we would now call fusion - and she sang with the Bianco orchestra from Argentina, tunes originally composed for dancing, like La Compersita and the tango, La Boheme. This first took place on October 1, 1951, and she was already in collaboration with the two Rahbani brothers, Assi and Mansour.
It was Halim Al-Rumi, the head of the Lebanese Radio Station, who suggested that she take the "stage name" Fairuz (which means "turquoise"), because her voice reminded him of a precious stone. At first she thought he was joking, but later on she took his advice.
In the summer of 1957, she faced an audience in the open for the first time, standing at the base of one of the six columns that comprise the temple of Jupiter in Baalbek. It was the largest audience that had ever gathered at the Roman temple. Under a crescent moon, Fairuz, flooded with blue light, began to sing, in a calm, confident voice, Lubnan Ya Akhdar Hilo (O Green, Sweet Lebanon).
Whereas before her talent had found expression through the lyrics and music of the two Lebanese brothers 'Assi and Mansour Rahbani, now the most creative poets of the Arab world rushed to compose lyrics to be interpreted by her voice. The list of those who have written lyrics for one or more of her over 800 songs includes Omar Abu Risha, Qablan Mkarzil, Nizar Qabbani, Michel Trad, Sa'id Aql, Joseph Harb, As'ad Saba, Badawi al-Jabal, Abu Salma, and other contemporary poets. She has also sung works by Kahlil Gibran, Mikha'il Nu'aimeh, Elias Abu Shabaka, Harun H. Rashid, and Boulus Salameh, as well as by such ancient classical poets as Ibn Dhuraiq al Baghdadi, Ibn Jubair, and Ayadmur al-Muhyawi. Fayruz's list of composers has expanded to include Tawfiq al-Basha, Philemon Wahbeh, Zaki Nasif, Khalid Abul Nasr, George Daher, Muhammad 'Abd al Wahab, Halim al-Rumi, and now her own son, Ziad.
The Fairuz of today, like the Fairuz of yesteryear, continues to attend mass in the village church at Antilias. There, every year, during Holy Week she sings to the devout villagers with a dedication that perhaps is equaled only by their simple piety. It is this dedication which consistently refines her talent and continues to set Fairuz apart. Her brother, Joseph Haddad, wrote in his memoirs of a moving scene:
Fairuz's father never liked her singing in public. At the age of 14 she gave a public recital, and her brother and mother lured her father to attend. "We arrived there on time, the curtain went up and after a short while Nouhad appeared on the stage, and that was the biggest shock of his life, seeing his own daughter standing majestically, singing a variety of songs and receiving her diploma. I looked at his face to see tears flowing down his cheeks. He was the happiest of all the audience, but never admitted that."
Ya Fairuz, ya hibbaynaki fi saif, hibbaynaki fi shiti. Rah nhabbik da'iman.
Fairuz has prepared brief remarks, and I may call on the greatest voice of AUB, Dean George Najjar of the Business School, to read them. [An English translation of Dean Najjar's introduction and Fairuz's remarks follows.]
Dean George Najjar: Just for those of you who do not already know it, President Waterbury is known for his understatements. To be asked to deliver the address of one of the greatest artists of all times in Lebanon is a great honor that I really cherish. This is as valuable to me as my belief is strong that her epic voice and the Rahbani genius are now part of the symbolic fabric of Lebanon, much like the cedar tree and the flag.