Lebanese icon Fayrouz — the Arab world’s greatest living singer

Lebanese icon Fayrouz — the Arab world’s greatest living singer
Fayrouz performs in Beirut in 2011. (AFP)
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Updated 17 December 2022

Lebanese icon Fayrouz — the Arab world’s greatest living singer

Lebanese icon Fayrouz — the Arab world’s greatest living singer
  • For this week’s edition of our Arab Icons series, we profile one of the Arab world's most popular stars
  • The Lebanese superstar who shuns the spotlight remains an inspiration across the region for young and old alike

DUBAI: She is the Arab world’s greatest living musical icon, but Fayrouz remains an enigma. She retains a sometimes-infuriating aura of mystery, rarely giving interviews and ardently protecting the privacy of her family. On stage she appears devoid of emotion — motionless and expressionless. Those characteristics have themselves become iconic, with Fayrouz’s striking but emotionless features adorning everything from handbags and posters to Beirut’s city walls.

Born Nouhad Haddad in 1934, during the course of her career Fayrouz has recorded hundreds of songs, starred in dozens of musicals and movies, and toured the world. From 1957 onwards, when she first performed at the Baalbeck International Festival, she has become one of the Arab world’s most beloved singers. And in doing so she would unite her often-fractious homeland.



All Lebanese remember the first time they heard Fayrouz. For Tania Saleh, it was during a drive to Syria to escape the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. She remembers one song in particular — “Roudani Ila Biladi” (Take Me Back To My Homeland).

“That song really marked me,” says Saleh, a singer-songwriter and visual artist. “My mother was crying while she was driving and the song created this really intense emotional moment. And I remember thinking, ‘How can a song affect someone so much? It’s just a song.’ But it affected me, too, in a manner that I didn’t understand back then.”

Fayrouz (C) performs at Beirut's Picadilly Theatre in 1975 with William Haswani (R) and her son Ziad Rahbani (L), dressed as Ottoman policemen, in the musical play Mais el-Rim, written by the Rahbani Brothers. (AFP)

Fayrouz remained in Lebanon for the entirety of the war and refused to take sides. Although she continued to sing in venues across the world, she did not perform in Lebanon until the conflict was over. This neutrality, and the patriotic nature of many of her songs, meant she was a rare symbol of national unity, with all sides listening to her music throughout the 15 years of civil war. She was, as Saleh says, an “emotional anchor for all Lebanese during the war,” regardless of religion or political beliefs. When she released “Li Beirut“ (arranged and adapted by her son Ziad Rahbani) in 1984, Fayrouz and Beirut became inseparable. More than ever she embodied the very essence of what it meant to be Lebanese.

None of which would have been possible without the music of the Rahbani Brothers. Fayrouz, who was a chorus singer at Radio Lebanon in the early 1950s, met Mansour and Assi Rahbani through the composer Halim El-Roumi in 1951. She went on to marry Assi a few years later and together the trio would revolutionize popular Lebanese music. The Rahbani Brothers fused musical genres, including Levantine folkloric traditions and the music of Latin America, and incorporated both Western and Russian elements into their compositions. It was Fayrouz, however, who gave voice to their musical vision.



Fayrouz sang of an almost mythical Lebanon. She sang of love and desire, but also of an idealized Lebanese mountain village, of olive trees and jasmine, of vineyards and streams. “Lyrically, they created the Lebanon we now love,” says Saleh of the brothers, who followed in the footsteps of writers such as Khalil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy, who helped to forge a romanticized image of Lebanon that many of its citizens still cling to today.

As the Palestinian poet and film director Hind Shoufani notes, Fayrouz represents “the village girl, the stories of love, the fetching of fresh water, the mountain, the resistance, the power of the people; that kind of simple, beautiful daily existence that is in harmony with nature.” As such, her songs have an additional, heartbreaking poignancy, because the Lebanon she sings of bears no resemblance to the Lebanon of today. She sings of a fading dream — one that is shared by much of the Arab world.

Fayrouz and her husband Assi Rahbani (second from right) arrive at Orly Airport in France in 1975 and are met by French impresario Johnny Stark (R). (Getty)

That vision was rooted in Lebanon’s golden age, with Fayrouz intimately linked to the formation of a national cultural identity in the years following independence from France. As the acclaimed indie-music producer Zeid Hamdan says, Fayrouz would carry that identity “with elegance and depth like no other singer.”

Fayrouz and the Rahbani Brothers changed popular Arabic music forever. Umm Kulthoum, another icon of the Arab world, sang songs of love that could last for up to an hour and were deeply embedded in the tarab tradition. The songs of Fayrouz and the Rahbani Brothers, however, were far shorter, utilized the Lebanese dialect, and embraced new melodic forms.

“As a musician, I am very inspired by the dialect that Fayrouz sings,” says Hamdan, "arguably best known as one half of the trip-hop duo Soapkills. “It’s not only classical Arabic, it’s often modern Lebanese, and the Rahbanis — from Assi to Ziad — used the Lebanese dialect in a very clever way throughout their repertoire.”

Fayrouz performs at Kuwait's Ice Skating Arena late 03 May 2001. (AFP)

Hamdan was introduced to Fayrouz in the late 1990s by Yasmine Hamdan (no relation), his Soapkills partner. Encouraged by her, he bought a double K7 cassette of Fayrouz’s “Andaloussiyat” and immediately fell in love with three tracks, one of which was “Ya Man Hawa.”

“The lyrics are simply incredible,” he says. “It’s a form of poetry that is several hundred years old called muwashshah and I wish I could do justice to the beauty of the words.” Another was “Yara El Jadayel,” on which, at a certain point, Fayrouz “sings at a very high pitch and very softly, the melody almost whispered on a piano arpeggio”.

It is the wonder and versatility of Fayrouz’s voice that continues to entrance audiences across the world. El-Roumi thought her voice so beautiful that he gave her the nickname Fayrouz (Arabic for turquoise) and went on to become the first person to compose for her.



“Fayrouz has one of the most distinctive voices in the Arab world,” says Egyptian-Belgian singer Natacha Atlas, who has worked with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Nitin Sawhney. “One can always tell that it’s (her) voice. It is as delicate as it is beautiful and strong, and her voice’s ability to (carry) such strong emotions is always extraordinary. She is one of my greatest influences. When I hear her, I often melt in tears at the sheer beauty of her voice and how it also evokes a deep nostalgia in me for the Middle East as it once was, and how everything has changed almost beyond recognition.”

Fayrouz’s fame outside of the Levant can also be traced back to her support of the Palestinian cause. As early as 1957, Fayrouz and the Rahbani Brothers released “Rajioun” (We Will Return), a collection of pro-Palestinian anthems. This was followed in 1967 by the release of “Al-Quds Fil Bal” (Jerusalem In My Heart), and as recently as 2018 she was still dedicating songs to Palestinians killed on Gaza’s border with Israel.

When her husband’s health began to fail in the 1970s, Fayrouz began to collaborate more closely with her son Ziad — the eldest of her four children. One of the albums composed and arranged by him was “Wahdon,” which was released on the Zida record label in 1979 and includes the song “Al Bosta.”



“I cherish and love her experience with Ziad,” says Saleh. “The albums that she did with him took her to jazz and bossa nova and sometimes to funk. This gave Fayrouz another dimension — that of the risk taker. She went out of her comfort zone, and that is very rare.”

This helped to cement her reputation with a younger generation and she continues to evoke a deep sense of nostalgia, not only among the Lebanese, but across the Levant and North Africa. Many Lebanese still start their day listening to Fayrouz’s songs and, despite family disputes over royalties, her controversial performance in Damascus in 2008, and accusations of plagiarism directed at the Rahbani family, her status as a cultural icon endures. When the French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon in 2020, he chose the home of Fayrouz as one of his first ports of call, not those of the country’s political leaders.

“They described this beautiful Lebanon and they made us dream that this is our country, which was actually just a picture they had created,” says Saleh of Fayrouz and the Rahbani Brothers. “We were looking for it: ‘Where is this Lebanon you are talking about guys?’ We were always trying to find it but we never did. But thankfully they did create this image, because the bond that we have with our country is mainly because of them.”

British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi discusses her debut feature ‘The Teacher’

Farah Nabulsi on the set of 'The Teacher' (Supplied)
Farah Nabulsi on the set of 'The Teacher' (Supplied)
Updated 05 December 2023

British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi discusses her debut feature ‘The Teacher’

Farah Nabulsi on the set of 'The Teacher' (Supplied)
  • ‘What’s happening in Palestine can’t be ignored anymore,’ Nabulsi says
  • The Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s debut feature premieres at the Red Sea International Film Festival on Dec. 5

DUBAI: As the war in Gaza stretches into its second month, “The Teacher,” the feature debut of Oscar-nominated British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi, which screened in competition at the Red Sea International Film Festival this week, could hardly have had a timelier airing in the region.

“The Teacher” is the latest entry in the canon of films chronicling the contemporary Palestinian experience under occupation, and dives into many themes that have been the subject of global discussion as the conflict rages on. In it, a member of the Israeli Defense Forces is held hostage in the West Bank as his parents fight for his release, international aid workers grapple with their role in supporting justice, and a seasoned schoolteacher struggles to keep his community together as local settlers wage a campaign of violence.

But for Nabulsi, who was herself put into the global spotlight after the success of her debut short film “The Present” in 2020, “The Teacher” was never intended as a political statement. First and foremost, the film exists as an exploration of the human condition, as ordinary people are forced to contend with extraordinary circumstances. Its meaning, ultimately, is left for the viewer to decide.

“I did not make this film with a message,” Nabulsi tells Arab News. “I didn’t even set out to make a political film, but, by default, any film about Palestine is going to be considered political somehow. It can certainly be interpreted as including statements about the socio-political environment we exist in, but it is storytelling first and foremost, not an essay. I’m more interested in the individual journeys of people in that landscape, the human dynamics and the emotional experiences.

“If I can create one moment that an audience member is left contemplating long after the film ends, if I’ve created one character whose humanity forges a genuine connection to this situation for the viewer, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do,” she continues. “If the film does contain a deeper meaning, it should be a personal one that the viewer comes to on their own. That’s what exists in the movies that inspired me, and that’s what I want in my movies, too.”

While Nabulsi did enter filmmaking with the idea of highlighting the plight of the Palestinian people — turning her back on investment banking after an illuminating trip to the West Bank — she could never have predicted the journey her first short would take. “The Present” garnered awards at nearly every festival in which it screened, and ended up earning a BAFTA, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Film. Soon after that, it was trending worldwide on Netflix, with former CIA director John Brennan even penning a New York Times opinion piece about it entitled “Why Biden Must Watch This Palestinian Movie.”

“I came to filmmaking late, but the deeper I got into it, the more it became clear to me that the industry has a graveyard of brilliant films that no one will ever see — films that people poured their hearts and souls into, but that, for one reason or another, never captured the world’s attention,” Nabulsi says. “It was astounding what happened to ‘The Present,’ but I’m keenly aware that I can’t rest on my previous accolades and expect the same formula to be repeated each time. And if I try to pander to that same audience in order to provoke the same result, it will do me no good either.

“In approaching a follow up, I had to unburden myself from all of that success. I’ll be grateful forever for what that film gave me, but to hold myself to that with every subsequent endeavor would be ridiculous,” she continues. “In order tell the next story, I had to focus on doing justice to these characters and their plight, I had to be sure that my artistic expression never lost its integrity, and then let the chips fall where they may.”

It's clear to Nabulsi that “The Teacher” will not be as easy for audiences to process as “The Present” proved to be. The latter followed a father named Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his daughter Yasmine (Miriam Kanj) as they made their way through checkpoints in the West Bank in order to bring home a gift for her mother, leading to a final conflict with border patrol agents that ends with a surprisingly optimistic result. “The Teacher” features Bakri in the title role playing something much closer to an “anti-hero,” in Nabulsi’s words, and resolves in a far more complicated fashion.

“There’s a lot to absorb compared to the simple story of ‘The Present.’ There are a couple layers of injustice in ‘The Teacher’ and with these various characters and journeys on both sides of the conflict, there’s a lot to digest — especially if you’re not familiar with the reality on the ground,” says Nabulsi.

“But even as people may have wildly different interpretations of the film, I think a lot of people are coming from a place of goodwill and good intentions. Most who will watch a film like this just want to understand, because what’s happening in Palestine can’t be ignored anymore. And with what’s happening in Gaza now, though the timing of the film is coincidental, people are more focused on these issues than perhaps ever before,” she continues.

Now that the film is completed and continuing its acclaimed run on the festival circuit, Nabulsi is able to sit back and begin to chart her own journey. “The Teacher” was an experience of personal growth too, one in which she developed not only as an artist, but as a person.

“If you looked at the runtimes of (my) two films, you’d say (‘The Teacher’) should be six times harder, but it was honestly hundreds of times more difficult. Perhaps I have myself to blame — I put so much pressure on myself, wore so many hats from beginning to end, and spent three years living and breathing this film, all day each day. And the sacrifices that come with that are heavy,” says Nabulsi.

“Sometimes it’s not easy to enjoy the journey. But there are moments — truly beautiful moments. I think I’ve become more able to recognize those triumphs and appreciate them, and then, when they’re over, get down the mountain and get ready to start again,” she continues. “And as difficult as this can all get, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that nothing great can come without hardship.”


Chris Hemsworth shares career insights at RSIFF 

Chris Hemsworth shares career insights at RSIFF 
Updated 05 December 2023

Chris Hemsworth shares career insights at RSIFF 

Chris Hemsworth shares career insights at RSIFF 

JEDDAH: Marvel superstar Chris Hemsworth held a panel discussion during the Red Sea International Film Festival this week — and he gave fans insight on his career choices during the talk.  

Moderated by director Baz Luhrmann, who is also the head of the jury for this year’s edition of the film festival, the pair discussed Hemsworth’s involvement in the upcoming “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” movie. “There’s a lot of anticipation for myself and from the fanbase that has been there for the 45 years,” Hemsworth said. 

Luhrmann and Hemsworth also addressed how “Mad Max” franchise director, George Miller, was brave enough to create a fictional universe from scratch, with Hemsworth adding:  

 “Taking leap, doing something different, thinking outside the box. The fear and the anxiety that comes with that is something to face and overcoming that and choosing to tell a story from your perspective, to be influenced by other people but not to be directly mimicking anyone else … there’s courage to that.” 

Hemsworth later shared with the audience that the escapism offered by films attracted him to the art of storytelling from a young age — he also noted that the ability to shapeshift and inhabit different characters is part of the reason he got into the film industry. 

“From a very young age, whether it would be books or television films, I enjoyed the fantasy, I enjoyed the escapism, the journey that the narrative and the story would take me one,” he said.  

“I think the vivid imagination of me as young kid carried through and still does now and that was the attraction to inhabit different spaces and different worlds and be taken on a journey,” he added. 

 Hemsworth appeared at the festival as part of the In Conversation series that has already featured the likes of US actor Will Smith, Bollywood star Katrina Kaif and Arab stars Amina Khalil and Yasmine Sabri. 

Amal Clooney glitters on 2023 Fashion Awards red carpet  

Amal Clooney glitters on 2023 Fashion Awards red carpet  
Updated 05 December 2023

Amal Clooney glitters on 2023 Fashion Awards red carpet  

Amal Clooney glitters on 2023 Fashion Awards red carpet  

DUBAI: Lebanese British human rights lawyer Amal Clooney this week wore a glittering gown as she attended The Fashion Awards 2023 in London. 

The 45-year-old philanthropist wore a head-turning bronze-and-gold Atelier Versace gown that was covered in circular metallic paillettes. She had her hair down and opted for voluminous waves.  

For the accessories, she donned Cartier jewelry.  

Ashley Roberts, who wore a Lebanese creation, attended the event in London. (AFP)

The event, which took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall, was also attended by Danish model Mona Tougaard, who is of Turkish, Somali and Ethiopian descent.  

She wore a sheer white dress from Maison Alaia’s Spring/Summer 2023 ready-to-wear collection.   

Meanwhile, US singer and TV presenter Ashley Roberts stepped out in a fully sequined floor-length gown from Lebanese couturier Georges Hobeika’s Fall/Winter 2023 ready-to-wear collection. The color palette of the dress ranged from deep black to vibrant shades of purple, blue and green. 

The fashion event honors industry leaders and young creative talent.  

Spanish luxury brand Loewe’s creative director Jonathan Anderson won the designer of the year prize, Reuters reported.  

Anderson, who founded the fashion label JW Anderson, arrived accompanied by actress Taylor Russell. 

Italian designer Valentino Garavani, known to the world simply as Valentino, was honored with this year’s outstanding achievement award. Founder of the eponymous brand, the 91-year-old has dressed the rich and famous, created a business empire and introduced a new color to the fashion world, the so-called “Valentino Red.” 

American Paloma Elsesser was named model of the year.  

The 2023 edition of the award show was hosted by British television presenter Maya Jama and musician Kojey Radical and featured a performance by singer Sam Smith. 

Stars attending the event also included actors Anne Hathaway, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tessa Thompson and Pamela Anderson, model Kate Moss and race car driver Lewis Hamilton.  

The show is a fundraiser for the British Fashion Council (BFC) Foundation which focuses on supporting the UK’s fashion industry. 

Filmmaker Talal Almusaad talks ‘weird, psychedelic’ short film ‘Salem’s Legs’ at RSIFF

Filmmaker Talal Almusaad talks ‘weird, psychedelic’ short film ‘Salem’s Legs’ at RSIFF
Updated 05 December 2023

Filmmaker Talal Almusaad talks ‘weird, psychedelic’ short film ‘Salem’s Legs’ at RSIFF

Filmmaker Talal Almusaad talks ‘weird, psychedelic’ short film ‘Salem’s Legs’ at RSIFF

RIYADH: At just 18, Saudi filmmaker Talal Almusaad is making his cinema debut with a short film titled “Salem’s Legs” at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

Almusaad was raised in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran at a time when cinemas were nonexistent in the Kingdom. Nevertheless, he saw films, notably the “Halloween” movie franchise, during visits to Bahrain. He cites Hollywood film giants Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino as among his favorite directors.

“From childhood, all I wanted to do was tell stories,” Almusaad, who is based in Riyadh, told Arab News. 

The fledgling director said that he is interested in making films about Saudi culture for non-Arab audiences, but also wants to surprise Arab audiences with “creepy and weird” plots.

“I want to make something new in Saudi cinema,” he said.

“Salem’s Legs,” which runs for just five minutes, is an Arabic-language dark comedy about two young friends, Salem and Mohammed. When the former swallows an anonymous pill and collapses, Mohammed panics and believes that his friend has died. He tries to get rid of Salem’s body by rolling it up in a carpet. Their adventures lead them to the Saudi desert.

‘Salem’s Legs,’ which runs for just five minutes, is an Arabic-language dark comedy. (Supplied)

“It’s a weird, psychedelic movie. You can even see that in our poster,” said the director of the fluorescent pop-art design.

“There is no message in the film, but that is the message: You don’t have to do a film with a message just to brag and say you’re an artist.”

The plotline was put together by scriptwriter Nawaf Alzahrani and the film features three actors, Mohammed Alajmi, Salem Alattas, and Norah Abdalaziz.

“I told the group, ‘Let’s make something we love. Don’t think about if we win or lose at the Red Sea Festival.’”

The film was shot in just 48 hours and will be screened at Vox Cinema in the Red Sea Mall on Dec. 5 and 8.

It is a surreal experience for Almusaad to showcase his work at the festival, as he only recently graduated from high school and hopes to study filmmaking abroad.

He would like to shoot one more film in his homeland, which has recently undergone a major transformation in terms of cinema access and production. At the festival alone, there are more than five Saudi feature films screening this year.

“If you told me five years ago that many filmmakers will do films in Saudi Arabia, I would not have believed that. It’s crazy,” Almusaad said.

Short animation ‘Saleeg’ heads back to Saudi Arabia after international screenings

Short animation ‘Saleeg’ heads back to Saudi Arabia after international screenings
Updated 05 December 2023

Short animation ‘Saleeg’ heads back to Saudi Arabia after international screenings

Short animation ‘Saleeg’ heads back to Saudi Arabia after international screenings

JEDDAH: With Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival in full swing, Saudi Arabia’s up-and-coming talents are firmly in the spotlight.

Among the selection of Saudi films screening at the event, which runs until Dec. 9, “Saleeg,” a captivating short animation directed by Afnan Bawyan, stands out. This short masterpiece, running just shy of 10 minutes and produced in 2022, employs diverse puppetry techniques and was created in Amsterdam at 5 A.M. Studios.

“Saleeg” is showing in the “New Saudi, New Cinema: Shorts” category among the other 19 shorts from the Kingdom.

Saudi film director Afnan Bawyan  expressed her excitement about screening “Saleeg” in Jeddah, the city that inspired the film’s creation. In an interview with Arab News before the screening, she anticipated a profound connection between the local audience and the narrative, given its roots in Jeddah and the west of Saudi Arabia.

“I am thrilled to participate in the Red Sea International Film Festival as it signifies the inaugural screening of my film in Jeddah, the city that inspired its creation. I am optimistic that the audience in Jeddah and the Saudi western region will perceive the film uniquely and forge a deeper connection with the narrative and characters compared to any other audience as they will be able to relate to it,” Bawyan said.

The film’s title draws inspiration from the traditional Saudi Hijazi dish saleeg, which originates in Taif in the Makkah region. In the film, 60-year-old Hajer is preparing saleeg for dinner with her son. In need of vegetables, she rushes outside when she hears the grocer’s bell, but forgets to cover the pot. Meanwhile in the kitchen, the rice has fallen into the boiling water where it has expanded, overflowed and is soon flooding through the house and out into the yard, carrying Hajer with it.

The film is a family drama with voices in a Saudi dialect of Arabic, subtitled in Urdu, Tigrigna and English, and it made its mark on the international stage with a premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France earlier this year.

The film poster for Saudi animation 'Saleeg.' Supplied

“The film has been fortunate to receive significant publicity, especially after its screening at Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France,” the director said.

“Saleeg” was also screened in the Saudi Cultural Exhibition in Paris and at the Film Criticism Conference in Riyadh and took part in more than 15 Saudi, Arab, and international film festivals.

The work discusses various issues in Saudi society, including rapid urbanization and the tension between traditional and contemporary ways of living, particularly how the elderly is affected.

Behind this film stands a director who, despite a background in chemistry, embarked on a self-taught journey into filmmaking, enhanced by attending workshops by the Saudi Film Commission.

Crafting the stop-motion film demanded over 65 days of meticulous work, she said. Bawyan’s expertise as a script supervisor for seven Saudi feature films laid the foundation for her debut as a writer and director with “Saleeg,” which was co-produced with animation writer and producer Mariam Khayat.

Looking ahead, Bawyan is working on a clutch of projects, including a new short-animated film set in her hometown, Makkah.