Imagining Lebanon Through Rahbani Musicals

By Elise Salem

In 1956 during the presidency of Camille Chamoun, the annual Baalbek Festival was launched. By 1959 Asi and Mansour Rahbani began collaborating with Nuhad Haddad (Fairuz), and combined their poems, songs and musical drama with her unforgettable voice and dancing dabke troupe to create one of Lebanon's most powerful and exportable cultural products. 

The sheer excellence of the product alone guaranteed its immortality, but its dominance within the Lebanese psyche could also be attributed to the simple vision of loveliness and nostalgia it offered. For a society confused over national identity and frustrated by unsatisfying political formulas, the Rahbanis' popular cultural alternative was gratifying and empowering. Indeed, the Rahbani musicals became the cornerstone of an intense focus on the folklore of Lebanon . 

“The Fairuz/Rahbani team's vision of Lebanon tapped into fuzzy recollections of and strong yearnings for a comforting image of the country...The Rahbanis succeeded like no one else in inspiring national pride...”

From 1960-65, the Rahbanis produced six popular musicals—“Mawsim al-'Izz” (Season of Glory, 1960); “Al-Baalbakiya” (The Woman from Baalbek, 1961); “Jisr al-Qamar” (Bridge of the Moon, 1962); “Al-Layl wa al-Qandeel” (The Night and the Lantern, 1963);“Biyya' al Khawatem” [(Seller of Rings, 1965); and “Dawaleeb al Hawa” (Wheels of the Wind, 1965). 
All are deeply rooted in a village setting, with carefully prescribed customs, locations and characters. In this setting, the mukhtar(mayor) is usually the ultimate resource and judge; he is almost always the only representative of the government. Indeed, these musicals rarely acknowledge any political system larger than the village municipality. There are no confessional tensions or any serious or specific references to political under-representation. The language is colloquial and wonderfully accessible, not only in humorous and realistic dialogues, but also in the songs written especially for Fairuz. She usually plays the part of the beautiful and wise sabiyya (young woman), who heroically restores justice to the village by the end of the play. She is always convincing, and always gets her way. The sabiyya speaks or sings the most forceful, populist lines against oppression and advocating love over injustice. 
The Fairuz/Rahbani team's vision of Lebanon tapped into fuzzy recollections of and strong yearnings for a comforting image of the country. The Rahbanis succeeded like no one else in inspiring national pride, as they seasoned their Lebanese images with memorable songs, witty dialogues, colorful costumes, and the rousing dabke dance. By the '60s, their performances were also broadcast on TV and radio, comprising a major segment of the nation's entertainment. 
However, by the late '60s, and especially after the Arab defeat in the wake of the 1967 War, it became increasingly jarring to project a Lebanon devoid of political ideology. As a result, the comforting and optimistic Rahbani musicals set in the village gradually changed. Their plays of the late '60s and early '70s included more social criticism and occasional overt political themes and commentary; moreover, the action was often moved to the city. In their attempt to capture something of the new spirit of conflict in the Arab world, these musicals often dealt with injustice and state oppression, but they remained evasive as to the source of political ills. Though the Rahbani musicals paid lip-service to the somber concerns of this era, they were only marginally interested in serious socio-political reform. The plays always ended happily, usually celebrating a wedding or reunion, and they include“Hala wal al-Malek” (Hala and the King, 1967); “ Al-Shakhs ” (The Person, 1968); “ Sah al Nawm” (Good Morning, 1970); “ Ya'eesh Ya'eesh ” (Long Live, Long Live, 1971); “ Al-Mahatta ”(The Station, 1973); “Lulu” (1974); and “Mays al-Reem," (1975). 
 In sharp contrast to the hollow reception of these later Rahbani plays, the first of Ziad Rahbani's plays, his 1974 “ Nazl al-Suroor” (Inn of Happiness) took Beirut by storm. Ziad (as he is popularly referred to), the son of Fairuz and Asi Rahbani, proved to be a powerful cultural force in Lebanon before and during the war, and is himself a fascinating contrast to his parents' generation. The theater audiences in 1974 responded enthusiastically to the pro-revolutionary cues of Ziad's play. His message rang true to the thousands who attended his plays, listened to them on cassettes, and memorized entire dialogues and songs. It rang true not because of its content, but primarily because of its style. 
What is most revolutionary, in fact, about Ziad's message is not the theme of political upheaval, for many had already voiced that ideology, but the very mode of delivery. The entire play transpires in a refreshingly familiar Lebanese colloquialism that itself becomes the most engaging and memorable aspect of the performance. His dialogue often relies on puns and witticisms; twistings of the dialect to create alternate (and ingenious) meanings. The constant contortions of the language, in fact, indicate Ziad's extreme skill as a wordsmith. Though advocating changes in Lebanon 's socio-political system, he revels in one of the most unique aspects of the nation—language itself. Ziad's insistence on utilizing to the fullest his own national dialect, toying and playing with it the way he does, reinforces his loyalty to his nation. To the Lebanese, Ziad spoke their language. 
In one sequence, the musicians Barakat and Kaisar talk sarcastically about turathna (our tradition) and proceed to list some phrases describing nature that every school child would recognize as hackneyed: al-tayr al-shadi (the warbling bird), kitf al-wadi (the shouldered valley), shalh al-zanbaq (the disrobed lily), eventually leading them to an outburst of “hayhat ya abu Zuluf,” a traditional refrain from Lebanese folklore songs. They then humorously recall the countless songs that feature romantic rendezvous at the village ayn or spring. The spring, they joke, must be positively mobbed by now. In this way, the “tradition,” so popularized by Ziad's own family, becomes a joke. 
The year 1974 also saw the performance of the Rahbani brothers' musical “Lulu,” one of their urban-centered plays that attempted to introduce a spirit of conflict. More significantly, the musical experimented with the character Fairuz played. Here, the plot takes on an unusually sinister — for the Rahbanis — tone as the heroine (Fairuz, of course) is accused of murder. Although she is found innocent in the end, the Lebanese public was not at all prepared for a categorically different Fairuz, and the play did not enjoy the kind of success the Rahbanis had been accustomed to. 
Perhaps in a desperate effort to regain their audience, the Rahbanis returned to the village again in “Mays al-Reem” (1975), after a hiatus of some ten years. Here, the heroine is still an urbanite, but she unexpectedly finds herself in a village after her car breaks down. Thus the action is, once again, set in a village milieu, where the heroine becomes engulfed in all the village ways and conflicts which she, of course, eventually resolves through her usual prescription of love and marriage. The village is similar to that of the early Rahbani plays, but Fairuz's citified character was not what the public had come to expect and want. In retrospect, this play, produced as Lebanon was just about ready to embark on war, was a stale and desperate effort to capture something of the Lebanon that was so rapidly changing. Perhaps not coincidentally, this would also be the last musical to feature Fairuz in collaboration with the Rahbanis; a rift was on the way. 

Yet Fairuz was a desexed goddess, an undeniably virtuous prophet. Interestingly, the Rahbanis experimented with that image as the image of Lebanon itself was changing. As Lebanon increasingly became associated, in the cultural imagination, with Beirut , and as Beirut increasingly harbored the conflicting regional ideologies, it was only a matter of time before someone like Fairuz's own son Ziad would come along to question the myth of simple, village-like, innocent Lebanon .

The fact that Fairuz was one of Lebanon 's most visible symbols suggests that, like all symbols, it was both too simple and too complicated. As women remained on the periphery of the socio-political sphere, one could be surprised that a woman was the most potent cultural presence. Yet Fairuz was a de-sexed goddess, an undeniably virtuous prophet. Interestingly, the Rahbanis experimented with that image as the image of Lebanon itself was changing. As Lebanon increasingly became associated, in the cultural imagination, with Beirut , and as Beirut increasingly harbored the conflicting regional ideologies, it was only a matter of time before someone like Fairuz's own son Ziad would come along to question the myth of simple, village-like, innocent Lebanon . Nonetheless, the conflicts were not strong enough to totally obliterate a sense of a Lebanese “shared culture.” Indeed, the son who seemingly critiqued his family's version of Lebanon also promoted their most important contribution, an acknowledgment of a Lebanese culture. 
Ziad Rahbani's next play, the 1978 “ Bilnisbi la Bukra Shou? ” (So, What About Tomorrow?) further illustrates the importance of culture, as represented by the “new” language. Here, the most memorable segments of the play are actually the songs in colloquial Lebanese dialect, quickly committed to memory by most Lebanese, irrespective of class, religion or political inclination. The vegetable vendor, Ramez, sings the famous “ Tghayyar Hawana ” (Our Times have Changed) song with the popular line: “ Sarat hayati kulha shee bahdali . . .” (My whole life has become a mess/an insult. ). He also sings the satirical and pastoral “L`a hadeer al bosta” (To the Drone of the Bus) and “L`ayshi wahda Balak” [She's Living Alone without You]. These songs would become some of the most popular songs in Lebanon for the next ten years, the years while Lebanon was at war with itself. What is noteworthy is not the context from which the songs were pulled — the ideologically heavy play of Ziad Rahbani — but the simple and refreshing diction and music along with everyday and humorous situations with which most Lebanese could identify. The special kind of Arabic that Ziad popularized helped sustain and even promote a Lebanese identity; at the same time the themes of his play were seriously undercutting the current Lebanese system. In short, the power of the language trumped the weakness of the plot. 
As for the earlier generation of Rahbanis, their musicals continued to falter, and for the first five years of the war they did not produce any musicals. Their last two plays were the 1980 “Al-Muamara Mustamirra”(The Plot Continues) and 1981's “Al-Rabi al-Sabi” (The Seventh Spring. ). Both incorporate war scenes with checkpoints, armed figures and family victims, but they are thematically and stylistically timid, lacking any overt political statements, and even virtually doing away with the memorable poetic language that captured the Lebanese imagination for decades. By contrast, the play and musical by Ziad Rahbani, “Film Ameerki Tawil” (Long American Film, 1980), was another relative success. Set in a hospital in the slums of southern Beirut , patients, staff, and visitors engage in conversations about the “situation.” Their absurd political analyses reflect the crazy times in which they live. The confusion in the ward parallels the confusion in the political arena; political parties, confessionalism, partition and conspiracy theories all ring true — and false. 
Ziad continues his humorous and punning language games. In one scene, for example, two patients scorn the confessional group ( taifi ) and ply the word until it becomes “flooded” (also in Arabic “taifi” ). In the course of the dialogue, political agendas and ideological positions are whittled down to words, puns, and bizarre expressions. In another scene, the patients Rachid and Nizar discuss the latter's membership in a party. Is it the “Social” or the “National” Movement? Well, it is the National Movement but it can also be Social! When Rachid seems disbelieving that the Movement can encompass so much: “What . . . Why . . . For what . . . all these movements, boy?” Nizar replies, “These are for the society, to develop society, the struggle, to defeat conspiracies, imperialism, reactionism, all of it!” Rachid finally resigns himself to this sweeping agenda; he obviously likes the sound of the rhetoric, and concludes with a frankly untranslatable line: “Ah . . . look . . . I very much, I mean, like to encourage these things.” ( Ah . . . walla layk . . . ana shee kteer yalni bhibb shajji' hal sheel. ) The astoundingly familiar colloquial validates whatever nonsense Rachid has just uttered. 
With his humor still intact, Ziad has added an element of bitter cynicism to the socio-political fabric of his fictional world. Whereas the two earlier plays produced in the '70s laughed at that system, the need for war or revolution seemed partially, at least, understandable, even justifiable. But after five years of war, it had become increasingly difficult to locate any redeeming or restorative qualities to revolution; nor was it clear anymore who the enemies and allies were. As one of Ziad's characters cries out, “No one understands anything any more.” The war had set everything in flux. How could one continue to adopt the same formats, the same rhetoric, the same language, when one's reality was so categorically altered? Any affirmation seemed hypocritical. 
The situation was especially bleak after the devastating 1982 Israeli Invasion. Indeed, Ziad's 1983 play“Shee Fashil” (What a Failure) consciously takes on the myths propagated by his family and turns them clearly on their head. The main character, Nour, is the director of a musical he is in the process of rehearsing. The musical is a typically “folkloric” setting complete with village, mukhtar (mayor), sabiyyi(young woman), all dressed in “traditional” garb. The villagers are happy, frequently breaking into song and dabke dance, until the disaster occurs: the symbolic village jug is stolen from the square. This obviously ridiculous crisis is set against 1983 Beirut , where the actors and stage crew have to deal with Israeli occupation, a divided city, unsafe roads, shelling, etc. With a plot and a dramatic mood reminiscent of his own family's musicals, Ziad Rahbani resurrects the hero mayor and the savior young woman (who was usually played by Ziad's own mother). A journalist from the French Beirut daily L'Orient le Jour praises Nour's play for “ le vrais folklore libanais.” 
As Nour's rehearsals continue, we learn that the jug thief is a ghareeb (stranger. ). The characters wonder, could there be a hidden meaning here? In fact, in a hilarious interview between the unsuspecting Nour and a leftist journalist (from Assafir newspaper), the latter deduces that the play is a sophisticated political critique and the “outsider” must mean the aggressor Israel. The French-speaking journalist above, however, interprets the “outsider” to be the Palestinian ( le falastinian ) who was invited into Lebanon only to cause a rift among the Lebanese. “Whatever,” is Nour's response—he's too busy putting the final touches on the still-messy production. 

As for the earlier generation of Rahbanis, their musicals continued to falter, and for the first five years of the war they did not produce any musicals. Their last two plays ... both incorporate war scenes with checkpoints, armed figures and family victims, but they are thematically and stylistically timid, lacking any overt political statements, and even virtually doing away with the memorable poetic language that captured the Lebanese imagination for decades.

When the producer Nazih realizes that the play is costing too much money, he curses “folklore” and then strongly suggests that Nour put in some “sex” to draw a crowd. But Nour persists that this is a simple village play with no place for sex. Nazih suggests a hot affair between the mayor and the Sabiyyi, but Nour dissuades him. Perhaps the patriotism and nationalism of the villagers against the “outsider” will excite the public, offers Nazih, besides “you've certainly put in something on the South, right?” Nour hits himself on the head with an “oops, I totally forgot to” response. He agrees the situation must be remedied. After all the South is the hottest issue in town these days. There's still time to add a quick line. Nazih is pleased: “Our area [West Beirut] supports this kind of thing, just insert a short sentence; you can remove it when we perform in East Beirut .” So Nour gets to work to compose an arousing sentence on the South that he then teaches to the resistant actor playing the role of the Mayor. The line keeps changing, but goes something like this: “Oh South, Oh South . . . Oh wound of the little [no big] nation. Oh you who stand alone in the middle of the heart...” But by now the play is in total chaos and tensions are rising as opening night approaches. 
Suddenly Abu Zuluf (the traditional symbol of the village) appears on stage, in person, to furiously attack Nour for his stupid play. (The underlined words are originally in English). “Can't you all leave me alone,” he screams: “I turn on Lebanese TV and get a goat. I change the channel and don't get a goat but people singing Abu Zuluf. Shit , what is this? I turn on the radio and find a sheep; I move the dial and the sheep moves with it and they're all singing Abu Zuluf. Shit , what's this?” He continues reprimanding Nour for gathering all these people, donning them with shirwals (traditional Mount Lebanon pants) and making them sing these old songs: “Hey, who told you I ride on a donkey? What are these rumors you're spreading about me? I have a Kawazaki-900 ZX, with incredible take off speed, man .” 
Nour trembles as Abu Zuluf continues his tirade against the persistently idealized village in Lebanese myth and folklore: “Hey, by what right do you make plays and stick us in the valley and the village, while you're off having a good time? Who told you I'm still able to live in the village and the valley? I went up once to the valley and the guys training [for the militias] caught me and almost killed me! You think I still dare to go up to some valley? What valley are you talking about in your plays, man ?” 
When Nour meekly replies that he means the valley “full of love,” Abu Zuluf responds scornfully, “Love in the valley. Love in the village. Love in the square. Where are you getting all this love from, man ? Stop writing these useless plays full of lies.” He concludes, “Mr. Nour. There are satellites recording your backwardness from morning until night. In the name of Lebanese tradition I curse you.... Lebanon cannot progress with your goats standing in the way!” 
Finally, Abu Zuluf makes Nour strip and put on traditional garb and go to one of these villages. Nour is petrified, as the village chosen is not of his religious persuasion. “Oh, don't worry,” Abu Zuluf sarcastically replies, “Just stand in the village square and recite your play.” 
The caustic humor is reinforced throughout by the language. Ziad typically adopts the colloquialisms of his generation and effectively captures village and mountain dialects as well. Additionally, he brilliantly, in the character of Abu Zuluf, scorns the clichéd rhymes of traditional, self- glorifying Lebanese songs and poetry. “We're in 1983, for God's sake, can't you think of any new words to use after “layali” [nights]? Have you ever thought of using “mallali” [troop carrier]?” Nour feebly answers that a troop carrier just doesn't fit in the song. “Really, so can the song fit in the troop carrier, then?” 
In the ‘90s, the work of Ziad Rahbani continued to be critical of and cynical about the regime and current societal trends, as one can see in his 1993 “Bi-Khusous al-Karami wa al- Sha'b al-Anid” (With Regard to Honor and the Stubborn People) and his 1994 “Lawla Fushatul Amali” (If Not for the Space of Hope. ). Both, however, have not been popular with most audiences, probably because Ziad's plays had become increasingly bleak and condemning of Lebanese society itself. 
In the meantime, Fairuz continues to dazzle and, more significantly, to generate and rejuvenate sentiments for Lebanon . Her popularity remains high in both Lebanon and abroad, as shown by her momentous appearance in Las Vegas this past spring. She is still a symbol of what, according to many, is “best” about Lebanon. Interestingly enough, she is not estranged from her son. On the contrary, he continues to write and produce many of her songs. They are an odd mother-and-son team, for sure. Together they offer a complex dynamic of what the nation is — both a memory and a mirage. Two generations of Rahbanis have imagined the nation, helping to create in the collective memory, for better or for worse, something unique of Lebanon .

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, no. 29 (Fall 1999) 
Copyright © by Al Jadid (1999)


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