Fairouz, long the doyenne of Arab singers, traveled to Syria last week to appear in a six-day run beginning Monday at the Damascus Opera House of her classic 1970 musical "Sah al-Nom," an Arabic expression for "Did you sleep well?" Her appearance is a highlight of a series of cultural events in Syria this year to mark UNESCO designating Damascus as the 2008 Arab capital of culture.
Her decision to sing in Damascus, however, has caused a split in her huge fan base in Lebanon between those arguing that Fairouz should not perform before the rulers of a country blamed for a string of assassinations in Lebanon over the past three years, and others who maintain that the Lebanese diva is above politics and should sing wherever she wishes.
The spat hardened on Friday when a top Lebanese police officer became the latest victim of the bomb assassinations that have blighted Lebanon for over three years. Capt. Wissam Eid, head of the technical department in the paramilitary Internal Security Forces, died along with five other people when a powerful car bomb exploded beside his vehicle in a Beirut suburb.
Lebanon's gridlocked pro- and anti-Syrian factions have been unable to elect a new president since November, and the crisis continues to defy regional and international mediation.
"Those who love Lebanon do not sing for its jailers," says anti-Syrian legislator Akram Shehayeb. "Our ambassador to the stars, you painted for us the dream nation, so don't scatter that dream like the dictators of Damascus scattered our dreams of a democratic free country."
A poll conducted last week by the "Now Lebanon" Web portal, which is sympathetic to the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition in Lebanon, found that 67 percent of respondents were against Fairouz appearing in Damascus.
"Simply, this is not the moment for a musical love-in," a Now Lebanon editorial said. "Fairouz must decide. She is a Lebanese icon, and, as such she must repay the people who have backed her and who love her with a modicum of solidarity."
Born Nohad Haddad, she was given the stage name Fairouz, Arabic for Turquoise, by an early mentor. Her first major concert was in 1957. She became an instant sensation and, in collaboration with her musician husband, Assi Rahbani, and his brother Mansour, her acclaim rose during the 1960s and 1970s.
Fairouz has consistently remained aloof from politics, saying her music was for the people only. Apart from a single concert in 1978, she famously refused to sing in Lebanon during the 1975-90 civil war in disgust at the warring militias, who continued to adore her nonetheless.
Her songs are regularly played during times of difficulty in Lebanon, and, for older generations, they evoke a nostalgia for Lebanon's golden years in the 1950s and 1960s.
A recluse who has given only three interviews in her five-decade career, Fairouz has not responded to her critics. However, her former musical partner Mansour Rahbani said her decision to sing in Damascus was "a message of love and peace from Lebanon to Syria. A message of friendship, not subservience."
Certainly, Syrians are delighted that Fairouz is back in Damascus, her first appearance in the Syrian capital since 1982.
"The Syrians are thrilled, especially the Damascenes," says Sami Moubayed, a historian of Syria's postindependence period in the 1950s. "She reminds them of the 'good old days'," adding that apart from "nostalgia, talent, her gigantic standing [and] heavenly voice ... everybody is pleased that she is defying the anti-Syrian team in Lebanon and coming."
Still, for most ardent fans, Fairouz is a symbol of unity rather than division and her standing will doubtless outlast the current quarrel. As the famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani once wrote: "When Fairouz sings, mountains and rivers follow her voice, the mosque and the church, the oil jar and loaves of bread. Through her, every one of us is made to blossom, and once we were no more than sand; men drop their weapons and apologize. Upon hearing her voice, our childhood is molded anew."