In Jerusalem recently I overheard a vocal music of such rare beauty that I had to stop and listen. The voice, a solemn-sounding Arabic soprano, radiated a hushed intensity of emotion and, it seemed, a deep religious sorrow. I have no Arabic, but words from the New Testament, “christos”, “Mary”, were discernable. The voice belonged to Fairuz, the Edith Piaf-like diva of the Arabic world, who was born in Beirut in 1934 to a Christian Maronite mother and a Syriac Orthodox father. Her celebrity-like mono-moniker – Fairuz – is Arabic for the precious gem “Turquoise”. She is unquestionably the greatest living diva of the Middle East.



The music came from an album of eight Easter hymns sung by Fairuz in a number of Beirut churches between 1962-1965. Recorded live, Good Friday Eastern Sacred Songs draws inspiration from all three of Lebanon’s main Christian rites: Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic. The album powerfully conveys the sorrows of the Easter liturgy and the saving hope of Christ’s cross and Passion. The album’s most beautiful hymn, ‘Wa Habibi’ (Oh My Love), imagines Mary as she addresses her son in his dying moments. Over a church harmonium and male voice choir, Fairuz offers tender words of maternal grief.



‘Wa Habibi’, also known as ‘The Mother’s Lament’, is performed by Fairuz every Good Friday in Beirut, and remains a high point in the Syriac-Maronite liturgy. In performance, Fairuz is supremely gorgeous and powerful because (unlike most popular singers in the west) she manages to keep still. At times, she seems so poised in front of the microphone as to be almost aloof from the songs she sings. The slightest raising of her arms or movement of her shoulders in time to the music is enough to make her more alluring and sensual than almost any Arabic vocalist before or since. The exception is the Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum, who was mourned by millions of Arabs from Morocco to Iraq on her death in 1975: Fairuz is to the Levantines what Kulthum was to the Egyptians.



Her indelibly beautiful voice with its precise diction and phrasing lagging behind the beat is admirably suited to recitals of the Easter hymns. Released in 1967 on the Lebanese ‘Voix de L’Orient’ label, Good Friday Eastern Sacred Songs is one of the greatest yet least-known popular religious recordings of our time. The album is, pre-eminently, a hosanna to the great gift of Easter: hope. The burial of Christ in the Easter sepulcher, the divine surprise of the resurrection: Fairuz sings of these in pained, personal tones.

To her legion Arabic fans, the auburn-haired Fairuz, now 85, evokes prosperous days before religious conflicts wrecked the region and forced many Arabs into exile. Lebanese society was torn apart by the 15-year-long civil war from 1975-1990. Fairuz then had two houses in Beirut, one in the Muslim west side and one in the Christian east; which house she stayed in depended on the direction of sniper fire on the day. Even as churches were vandalized and iconostasis set ablaze, Fairuz refused to leave the divided city. She took a stance against pro-Israeli Maronite Phalangists, and backed some Arabic groups.



The civil war only strengthened Fairuz’s status as a singer adored by Arabs of all religious and political persuasions. While Muslims and Christians sought to kill each other in Beirut, radio stations broadcast her song ‘To Beirut’, a sour-sweet love letter to a paradise lost of lazy rivers and olive groves, bathed in a roseate glow of romance. Such an idyllic Lebanon existed only in nostalgic memory, but Fairuz helped immeasurably to build Lebanon’s identity after independence from colonial France in 1943. She remains an icon especially to Lebanese in the diaspora (the “Fairuz” restaurant in London’s Marylebone is named after her).

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