Lebanese diva arouses emotion, controversy in Syria

Mon Jan 28, 2008 6:35pm EST
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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz performed to a sell-out crowd in the Syrian capital on Monday, defying politicians who criticized her for going to what they consider enemy territory.

The Arab diva, who burst onto the music scene on Damascus Radio in 1952, returned to the Syrian stage after an absence of two decades, and moved many of her fans in the Opera House audience to tears.

She played the lead role in "Sah al-Nom," a musical satire about a careless ruler who is challenged by a poor woman, and received a standing ovation. The show was performed as part of cultural celebrations in the ancient city of Damascus, chosen as the 2008 Arab Capital of Culture.

"Fairouz transcends politics. In Damascus she has been always treated as an empress," Syrian sculptor Mostapha Ali told Reuters.

Fairouz, who is in her 70s and is a cultural icon of the Arab world, aroused controversy by accepting the invitation from the Baathist government in Damascus at a time of increased tension between Syria and its neighbor Lebanon.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accused Fairouz of playing into the hands of Syrian intelligence services he blamed for a series of political assassinations in Lebanon.

Another Lebanese member of parliament said Fairouz should not perform for "Lebanon's jailers," a reference to Syrian dominance and military presence in Lebanon for most of the period from 1976 until Syrian troops withdrew in 2005.

A group of Syrian political activists also called on Fairouz to boycott Damascus, pointing to a renewed crackdown on dissidents. Just one hour before the play began, intelligence officers arrested leading opposition figure Riad Seif.   Continued...

<p>Lebanese diva Fairouz (R) performs in the musical "Sah al-Nom" at the opera house in Damascus January 28, 2008. The sold-out performance was the first appearance for the Arab singing legend in Syria for two decades. REUTERS/Ramzi Haidar/Pool</p>