From the Editors
For people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, Ziad Rahbani is the biggest celebrity there is. Some non-Lebanese may not be aware of the extent and reach of the Ziad Rahbani cult. You will find young people in Lebanon who can recite entire dialogues and songs by him. These are people who for every occasion and every episode in life can invoke an aphorism by Ziad. To be sure, Ziad was also (and remains) big for people of my generation. After all, he introduced a genre of satirical comedy that Lebanon did not know before (together with his comrade Jean Chamoun, who later became a well-known documentary filmmaker with his wife Mai Masri).
During the early years of the civil war, Chamoun and Rahbani would introduce daily brief exchanges on the radio about the current situation in Lebanon. These were smart and hilarious commentaries about political developments at the time. We used to eagerly await these daily sketches with no electricity and the sounds of bombs all around us.
Rahbani was a child prodigy. He composed music at an early age (his first song for Fairouz was “Sa’aluni al-Nas”) and wrote his first play, “Sahriye,” before the age of twenty. He grew up around the talents of his parents, but that is no guarantee for talent (his cousins, the sons of Mansour and son of Elias, are an example – no matter how hard they try to mimic Ziad’s experience they fall short, extremely). But Ziad was not only a musician: he also was a political activist from an early age.
The occasion for writing about Ziad was the airing of a two-part interview with him on the new al-Mayadeen TV station. The interview was conducted by the always serious Ghassan Ben Jeddo, which led many to criticize the choice. But the interview was quite revealing for many viewers. The link to the interview has been feverishly circulated all over the Arab Internet and appears regularly on my Facebook newsfeed. It was an important occasion for Ziad’s fans particularly that Ziad – for political, psychological and health reasons – has been avoiding the press, although he writes (semi-regularly, or regularly sometimes) in Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Ziad explained that his political awakening came during the Tal al-Zaatar siege and subsequent massacre (the massacre that followed the assault on the camp). He was present when the chief of Syrian intelligence met at the house of his parents with key personalities from the Phalanges Party. He surreptitiously recorded those meetings and even reported about them to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).(Many in Lebanon are not aware that Ziad’s early political activities were with the PFLP and its Lebanese sister party, the Socialist Arab Action Party-Lebanon, before he joined the Lebanese Communist Party.) The Israeli-Syrian collaboration in the massacre, the involvement of the Lebanese Army and the various pro-Israeli militias of the Phalanges, Guardians of the Cedar, and the Ahrar militias influenced the formation of the political views of Ziad. He worked behind the scenes for years with the PFLP and composed many songs for the front (and he did not even sign his name – his work was on volunteer basis).
Ziad’s career quickly took off and he transcended the limitations of the Rahbani brothers. His production was rich, original, brilliant but intermittent. Ziad would disappear from the scene for years and then return back again. He initially disturbed stalwart Fairouz fans by introducing her voice in a new genre of music, but the songs by Fairouz that were written and composed by Ziad became quite popular. Ziad, like his father before him, monopolized the work of Fairouz, and that was not a bad thing – for Fairouz or for her fans.
Ziad is a most inventive and original artist and speaker. His sentences are uniquely structured and he is brave enough to not cater to the masses and their preferences. Like Mahmoud Darwish, he steered his audience in the direction that he chose, for his own artistic reasons. In the recent interviews, Ziad may have shocked some by expressing his views on Syria (he supports the stance of Syrian opposition figure, Haytham al-Manna), resistance (he wholeheartedly supports Hezbollah’s model of resistance to Israel without supporting their ideology), and his criticisms of Saudi Arabia and Qatar (he was about to offer his opinions on Saudi Arabian and Qatari media before Ben Jeddo interrupted, explaining that it would be awkward for him given his past work for al-Jazeera as their Beirut bureau chief). But the revelation of the evening was when he said that the political views of Fairouz are close to his own. That must have enraged the March 14 audience.
[This article was originally published on Al Akhbar.]
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