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Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Lebanese come together to honor diva

Associated Press
Tue Dec 5, 6:40 AM ET

Lebanese come together to honor diva
By DONNA ABU-NASR, Associated Press Writer

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Her voice brought together under one roof both
supporters of the beleaguered government and opponents trying to
topple it. Yet in this tense country, sharp disputes break out
even at a performance by Fairouz, Lebanon's premier diva and the
star of a musical about a corrupt government.

Last weekend's three-night run of "Sah el-Nom," loosely
translated as "A Good Night's Sleep," was supposed to open an
annual summer festival in the ancient city of Baalbek.
Israel's July-August offensive on Lebanon forced the organizers
to postpone until December, hoping that by then calm would prevail.

But opening night coincided with a new crisis that many fear
could tear apart the country — the start of an open-ended sit-in
led by the Syrian- and
Iran-backed Hezbollah to bring down the U.S.-supported government
of Fuad Saniora. The opposition claims the government is
ineffective and unrepresentative, while Saniora's supporters call
the Hezbollah protest a pro-Syrian coup.

Despite the political upheaval, Fairouz' fans flocked past
checkpoints to a concert hall only a few hundred yards from the
scene of the sit-in.

"Fairouz is a symbol of Lebanon. That's why I came to see her,"
said Cyril Joudieh, a 37-year-old software developer and musician.

"We came here and we found life," said Roger Hayek, a 33-year-old
carpenter. "Had we stayed at home watching the news on TV, we
would've thought there is no life."

The 6,000-strong audience erupted into deafening applause when
Fairouz glided onto the stage for the final performance Sunday
night. The 72-year-old singer has attained near mythic status
since the 1975-1990 civil war, when adoring her songs was the
only thing all sides in the fight could agree on.

That appeared to still be the case.

After the show, each side in the audience claimed the heroes as
their own and insisted the villain personified the leaders of the
opposite camp. The musical is an allegory about corrupt leaders
last performed in Lebanon 30 years ago.

"Sah el-Nom" was staged for the first time in 1970, playing for
only a few days before the death of Egyptian President Gamal
Abdul-Naser, an Arab icon, forced the producers to cancel it.

The play, laced with the foot-thumping traditional dabke dance,
tells the story of a lazy and autocratic ruler who wakes up from
a deep sleep only when the moon is full. He listens to petitions
from his subjects and forces them to give him bribes and
services, then grants only three petitions each time — stamping
them with his seal — before returning to his slumber.

The heroine, Qoronfol — Arabic for "carnation" and played by
Fairouz — steals the ruler's seal, the symbol of his power, and
stamps petitions freely. She then throws the seal down a well.

After she's found out, she retrieves the seal. Instead of
carrying out his threat to punish her, the ruler — chastened by
her act — makes her the keeper of his seal during his sleep.

The two-hour musical resonated with the highly politicized audience.

For Hezbollah sympathizers, the story reflected what they see as
the ineffectiveness and unfairness of Saniora's government.
Government backers, however, saw it as a depiction of the empty
promises of the allies of
Syria, which dominated Lebanon for decades.

"The theme of the play corresponds with what's going on today,"
said Marlene Khalil, a 42-year-old computer specialist who had
taken part in the pro-Hezbollah sit-in hours before the
performance. "Those in power, like the ruler in the play, are
always a target of criticism."

But Hayek, the carpenter who was sitting right behind her, said
he is a big supporter of the government and the ruler in the play
"is just like the leaders" of the other camp.

The musical ended with a thunderous standing ovation that almost
succeeded in making the audience forget the turmoil in their country.

But as they switched on their cell phones while streaming out of
the hall, many received calls from worried family members who
informed them that a Shiite protester had been killed in a
shooting in a Sunni neighborhood and that they should hurry home
for fear of revenge acts.

Even audience member Michel Hayek, Lebanon's most famous psychic
— who several months ago predicted there would be a wave of
protests and an attempt to overthrow the government — did not
have a word of comfort for the Lebanese who had showered him with
questions about the situation.

"It's as if it's Lebanon's fate to suffer and the fate of its
people to remain fragmented," he said.

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