Dima Issa, Fairouz and the Arab Diaspora: Music and Identity in the UK and Qatar (Bloomsbury Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Dima Issa (DI): I grew up listening to the music of Fairouz through my parents who would start their days by playing her songs. However, she became more meaningful to me as I left home to pursue my degrees in higher education. There was a particular moment I remember when I was on a number nine bus in London heading towards Aldwych. It was raining and cold and I felt so completely homesick—for my home in Doha where I grew up—and insignificant. The bus was full and there was just so much going on. I was overwhelmed. At that moment I played one of her songs on my iPod and a sense of comfort and familiarity just enveloped me. There is power there, power in her voice, and in her songs. Then, when I moved to the United States a year later, at the onset of the Arab uprisings my social media pages were full of either videos of her songs or pictures of the protests with her lyrics captioning them. It was as if she was narrating and contextualizing the hope and determination that was on the streets of the Arab world. I just felt that Fairouz meant so much to people, not just at a private level but at a public one as well. That is when I seriously started thinking about the role she played in the lives of Arabs around the world. This coincided with a course I was taking at the University of Southern California called Audio Culture with Professor Josh Kun. The course aimed at showcasing the ways in which historical milestones and contexts can and should be examined through sonic landscapes rather than just relying on visual archiving. In a sense this book is testament to the ways in which music and sound can provide alternative perspectives to global and local political, social, and cultural dynamics.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DI: This book is really about the lives of the Arab diaspora living in London and Doha and the ways in which music allows them to navigate different aspects of their identity. It compiles the individual stories of members of the Arab diaspora through the music of Fairouz. The interviews were often an emotional process and discussions with the participants about Fairouz brought up personal stories of loss and love. A number of other themes also emerged, like Arabness and what it means to be an Arab, as well as how listeners wanted to pass on Arabness to their children through Fairouz and her songs. The book also discusses the various sociocultural perspectives of al-watan, the nation, and the ways members of the diaspora envision different facets of al-watan by incorporating the lyrics of Fairouz’s songs that move away from a limiting political and historical discourse. The book also explores notions of authenticity, iltizam (commitment), memory, gender, and belonging through their relationships with space and time. By drawing on affect theory, memory studies, Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, and Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura,” among others, there is a solid theoretical foundation that grounds the book.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DI: My work has always examined the relationship of media and the Arab diaspora. As someone who has lived in many different places, the media has always contributed to some form of understanding of the world and my place within it. I have constantly struggled with my sense of identity and belonging and I know many others living in the diaspora also feel the same way. I think popular culture allows for this conversation of experience. Among the Arab diaspora, media consumption gives insight into sociopolitical and cultural factors that may otherwise be ignored in research, but also it allows audiences to find place within different spectrums of their identity. I have also always enjoyed more qualitative forms of research, mainly because I love hearing people’s stories. My previous work was on Turkish soap operas and the roles they played in the lives of Arab communities living in Qatar and in the United States. Through that research it was evident that belonging was a diverse process that was both lived and imagined. The Turkish soap operas gave Arab migratory audiences more room for identifying and connecting with the characters, as opposed to more Western shows, and based on this they were able to relate the shows to different points of reference in their lives.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DI: Honestly, there is no specific audience this book is targeting. It is a book about human experience at a time in which there is much global uncertainty. I hope that all readers connect to the human aspects where we are all trying to figure things out at various levels, but also that they recognize the diversity of diasporic experience and the multifaceted ways it can translate for Arab diasporic communities. I also feel like this book is archival and so I would really hope the participants and their families and friends read it as their stories are shared for all to see. There is also an academic element to the book, which I hope will open up opportunities for more research and conversation on the topics of music, identity, and the Arab diaspora.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DI: Since I am mostly based in Lebanon now, I have moved away a little bit from work on the Arab diaspora. Lebanon is a great place for research, as there is a lot going on! There are a couple of projects in the pipeline that mostly revolve around themes of soundscapes and music in Lebanon as well as exploring forms of gender representation in Lebanese media. I am also looking at the relationship of comedic performances and political discourse in Lebanon.
J: Have you met Fairouz?
DI: Not yet, but there is always hope.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 1-3)
Her voice would breeze through the air conditioning vents, brushing my bedroom curtains open, revealing the morning sun. I would sleepily make my way across the cold, tiled floor, barefoot and yawning, to my parents, who would be seated in the glassroom, overlooking the bright bougainvillea vines, vinca plants and jasmine shrubs in our garden. They would sip their Lebanese coffee as they listened to the croons and whispers from one of her CDs. My mother would sing along almost in a trance, her beautiful voice matching every note, as my father clicked his fingers and swayed his head along to the music. Her voice comforting, but sometimes overwhelming, would envelope my parents in a sentimental embrace while simultaneously commanding their constant attention. Her songs, melancholy memory and patriotic love, would take us back to narrow alleyways, cobblestones and the Mediterranean sea, to a time of innocence and peace, of stability and acceptance. Fairouz’s daily calls shaped our Lebanese heritage and cemented our displacement.
In 1953, at just eighteen years old, my father, the eldest of eight children, left his small town of Amioun, in the north of Lebanon, to provide for his family. Almost twelve years later he married my mother, and together they built a life for my sisters and me, filled with love, food and Fairouz. It was through Fairouz and her music that we felt a sense of belonging and un-belonging. On religious holidays, like Easter and Christmas, it was Fairouz’s hymns that would complement our lavish meals. Her Easter songs, hauntingly poignant, would move women and men to tears, while her Christmas songs would add to the merriment of the occasion, prompting dancing and cheering. At dinner parties, her voice would serve as the audible ambience, occasionally halting conversations while guests joined her in song. On long drives through the Qatari desert, Fairouz kept us company, providing a sonic contrast to the barren sandy roads, with her vivid descriptions of lush greenery and village life. On CDs, cassette tapes and videos, my parents kept Fairouz close and accessible.
As a teenager, who grew up outside of Lebanon and attended international schools, Fairouz and her songs were foreign to me. She was part of something I felt no affiliation with. A world far away from my Nirvana CDs and Guns N’ Roses mix-tapes.
In my eyes, she was for my Arabic-speaking parents – for a generation who were constantly looking for something they had left behind. It was a feeling I did not share, that is, until I left home in my twenties and travelled to pursue my masters’ degree in London and then Los Angeles. Fairouz was there to comfort me, to recognize and single me out during my feelings of insignificance in big unfamiliar cities, whether on the bus, on the tube or in the confines of an empty house. Through my weathered earphones, Fairouz became both the means through which I could travel to the warmth of home and, simultaneously, the destination point.
However, Fairouz’s voice does not remain confined to the private sphere of families or the home. Among Arabs, Fairouz is a harbourer of both public and private issues, symbiotically collapsing and redefining the two. The appeal of her voice is never denied but, for most listeners, Fairouz’s pull is found in the content of her music, serving as a reminder of family and home, of one’s individuality, of one’s position in a community, and, possibly, in the diaspora, of one’s inability to gain complete integration. With technological development over the past few decades, and in the waves of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, since January 2011, Fairouz has been appropriated by different media and in various contexts. I remember sitting on my bed in my room in a rented house I shared with two roommates in Echo Park at the onset of the Arab uprisings. I felt far. Distant. Physically removed from Tahrir Square and Sidi Bouzid, but I was emotionally invested, connected, present. Pouring over news sites and messaging friends, hungry for any information I could find. During my search I found a slew of pages on social networking sites, adorned with Fairouz’s visuals, quotes and melodies. Footage and images of protests from around the Arab world were juxtaposed with her music. Users uploaded videos of her plays, while some merely typed out lines from her songs. In whatever format, Fairouz became a tool of expression, a symbol for protest and a dream of a better world. Utilizing Fairouz’s voice and songs as a form of storytelling is not a new concept; her songs about Palestine and Lebanon, of war and destruction, have been seen as a defiant force for years. But here it was alive and living, positioning the protests through lyrics that were written decades before.
Amidst the tumultuous wave of events across the Arab world since January 2011, and bearing in mind attitudes towards Arabs in the Western world since 11 September 2001 (and arguably before), Fairouz could not be more significant. Through her songs, Fairouz offers her listeners a space in which to engage, reflecting on the past but making room for the present and future. In the depths of a crumbling economy, a fraudulent government and a global pandemic, a bomb destroyed the Port of Beirut in Lebanon on 4 August 2020. Estimated to be the equivalent of 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of TNT – a tenth of the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima – the explosion killed hundreds, displaced thousands and badly damaged buildings, homes and property within its six-mile radius. The country went into mourning. Making matters worse, the Lebanese government took no responsibility, or even commented on the atrocity, sparking further anger and frustration among an already exhausted population. Weeks after the blast, French president Emmanuel Macaron paid a visit to Lebanon. His first official visit was to Fairouz’s home, where he awarded the singer with the French Legion of Honour, the highest of awards. The visit was seen as symbolic, a nostalgic appraisal of the Lebanon she had sung for and about all her life. A hopeful, idyllic and romanticized Lebanon, a stark contrast to the Lebanon of today, which was corrupt, broken and filled with despair. More importantly, the award showcased the strength of Fairouz, her emblematic position, what she stood for and what she meant, not just for Lebanon but also for her listeners across the world.
There is extensive research on Fairouz in both English and Arabic. However, it mostly focuses on her biography or discography, or discusses her relationship with Assi and Mansour Rahbani, her son Ziad, or studies her songs, through either a literary or ethnomusicology perspective. Consequently, there was a need for an audience reception study to examine the ways in which the singer factors in the lives of her listeners.
This book is not aimed at elucidating any more information about Fairouz, but, rather, it is a means through which to understand the lives of members of the Arab diaspora who listen to her music and feel a sense of belonging in her songs. Belonging here is seen as a form of negotiation, which is reliant on both individual and global factors that can converge and diverge on different planes of social construction and identity. Not only will this book explore how Fairouz’s music assists in the understanding and construction of identity, but it will also shed light on how this identity factors within migratory environments.
Placing the Arab diaspora of Doha and London at the forefront, I investigate the role Fairouz’s music plays in their lives while simultaneously shedding light on the circumstances shaping their diasporic experiences.