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Fairouz at Baalbeck 1998
Feyrouz at Baalbeck
by Tarek Chemaly

Attending one of Feyrouz's concert in Baalbeck makes me one of the people who were able to enjoy her two post-war performances she gave in Lebanon so far. The first was the memorable, yet technically frail, concert in downtown Beirut which she gave on the 17th of September 1994. At the time, the country was seized with a breeze of enthusiasm, and hopes were riding high on the eventual outcomes of the reconstruction process which was taking over the land; all over Beirut at least. Four years later, and with too many deceptions to count, the Lebanese needed a dose of Feyrouz and of Rahbani civic education to feel "Lebanese" again in all the glory which the trio consisting of the Rahbani brothers - namely Assi and Mansour - and Feyrouz, gave throughout a staggering career.
Scheduled for six official nights and one night for the citizen's of Baalbeck, Feyrouz was to sing condensed snippets of classic plays written and composed by the Rahbani brothers. The choice of plays was based upon "force majeure" reasons, chief of which was death. Indeed, the original cast of the plays witnessed the loss of many landmarks of the Rahbani theater. Disappearance of Assi Rahbani, Nasri Chamseddine, and Philimon Wehbe all pillars of the classic plays forced Feyrouz, daughter Rima, brother in law Mansour Rahbani and his younger brother Elias to chose parts of plays were the deceased had limited contribution.
Elias Rahbani is a renowned composer himself but was never considered as part of the Rahbani brothers legend was also to assume position of Maestro for the two hundred and fifty musicians present during the concert, even if Feyrouz was recorded earlier during tedious studio sessions attended by her lawyer too.
The show was supposed to kick start at eight thirty, but on the 16th of August it only started at ten minutes past nine. The public too did not stick to the appointed time with people still coming as the performance was starting.
Feyrouz, a living Lebanese legend, was applauded at each of her appearances especially her first where she stood at the highest point of the stage singing "I came back to Baalbeck after twenty years". The last time Feyrouz gave a concert at Baalbeck, in the setting of its Roman temples, was in 1974 which makes it twenty four years and not twenty as she said. But who's counting? might a profane ask, All of the Lebanese population the answer might be. For Feyrouz's coming back is viewed by the public as a sign of health to a country succumbing to countless social and economic problems. Any Lebanese, regardless of area of origin, religious background and socio-economic class knows most of Feyrouz's repertoire by heart since Lebanese radio stations made it a tradition to start broadcasting with at least one hour of Feyrouz's easy listening, happy go lucky tunes not mentioning that her songs were also heavily played during the war due to their patriotic nature.
However, most Lebanese have never heard the full plays and would fail to locate which classic hit stems from which play especially that the songs are mostly played out of context. Feyrouz's band consisted of more than a hundred dancers, technical staff and actors featuring the presence of renowned Lebanese actor Antoine Kerbej one of the survivors of the original crew performing the roles of "Fatek the conqueror" and the Nero inspired character of "Ghayboub the king" in "Jbel el souwwan" and "Natouret al mafatih" respectively the two plays succeeding to opener "Jisr el kamar".
In total, fifty minutes were played of "jisr el kamar" followed by thirty five minutes of "Jbel el souwwan" before pausing for around twenty minutes. Then almost half an hour of "Natouret el mafatih" and a finale consisting of three new songs two of which were written by Mansour al Rahbani. The highlight of the new songs is entitled "Akher marra ghannaytellak" (the last time I sang for you) is about a Lebanon that used to be green and includes many references to old Rahbani songs about a Lebanon filled with values and ethic codes which sadly never found translation on the ground.
The downside of the show remains the directing, especially the part pertaining to the unnecessary video projections during the plays which forced the Italian director to include movable set elements able to reflect the shown projections. The said elements had little role but to overcrowd the scene during the rest of the performance.
Another gray point is one of Feyrouz's new songs "Ma'ak" (with you) written and composed by Elias Rahbani which is far from the high standards Feyrouz accustomed her audience to, especially that it contrasted with the rest of the show. Everything else however, deserves a perfect score.
At the end of the enchanting show, some of the audience asked for an encore. It is known though that asking for an encore with Feyrouz is like asking for the moon. Strangely, under that starry night in Baalbeck the moon seemed so close one can reach it.
While going back to Beirut in the Pullman one woman was shouting at her young children who apparently hassled her all through the concert that she "wouldn't take them anywhere with her again, even if God was throwing a concert". The thought appealed to me being curious to know whether God was able to top the Goddess.