[This article is part of a special dossier on fandom and politics in the Southwest Asian/ North African (S.W.A.N.A.) region. Read all of the pieces, as well as the introduction, here.]
Fairouz street art in Beirut
The thing with Fairouz is that you can never really pinpoint the exact moment in time when you became a fan of her work. She seems to have always been there, lurking in the shadows of your morning coffee, or on the radio as you commute through the streets of Beirut, or blaring from the old transistor your dad used to listen to during the war that has miraculously found its way unscathed to the kitchen of your house. In whatever way, Fairouz has always been part of your life as an Arab, whether you were conscious of her presence or not. Although my research has primarily focused on Arab diasporic responses to Fairouz and her music, her impact, and relevance within Lebanese households and across social media platforms cannot be ignored and must be discussed before delving into her role as an icon among broader Arab audiences.
French President Emmanuel Macaron Meeting with Fairouz at Her Home after the Beirut Port Explosion. Photograph: Soazig de la Moissonniere / Présidence de la Republique.
After the Port Explosion in Beirut on 4 August 2020, which killed over 200 people and displaced thousands, French President Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to Lebanon, which had already been reeling from years of corruption and political turmoil. One of the first places he went to was Fairouz’ home, where he bestowed upon the singer France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor. Social media was aflutter with images of the visit, mostly because of the rare sighting of Fairouz, who is known to be reserved and private. Macron’s visit was no accident, as he relayed to the press the symbolism of Fairouz for France and what she represented to the former colonizer: the so-called ‘golden era’ of Lebanon in, which the country was flourishing, economically, socially, and culturally.
The representation of Fairouz is best understood through John Fiske’s concept of the ‘figure’. As a ‘figure’, Fairouz possesses ‘infinitely reproducible signifiers’ (Fiske, 1994, p. 69), which can be interpreted by her fans and non-fans alike in various forms. Those ‘signifiers’ are based on ‘historical fortuitousness’, but are not necessarily produced solely through the actions of the ‘figure’ (Ibid., p. 72). As Fiske (1994) argues, ‘the body of the individual is comparatively powerless in determining the way he or she is to be figured’ (p. 71). Although Fairouz’ ‘figure’ was one which was strategically created and produced by her writing, management, and production team, her figure has transcended those constructs through the versatile reception of her music and also by the ‘social structures and cultural practices’ of a ‘participatory culture’ (Jenkins, 2019).
Fairouz has never meant only one thing. The best example of this is the ability of a politically polarized country like Lebanon to appropriate her music equally with each party claiming her songs as their own. In addition, and through my research among members of the Arab diaspora, Fairouz as a ‘figure’ signifies a range of things that move beyond her nationality as a Lebanese singer. However, through the framework of fandom and with the increase of visibility and availability, Fairouz resonates in different forms among her listeners in the diasporic community, away from the environment in which she is commonly associated with. In other words, Fairouz is not only significant in Lebanon, but her resonance is fortified in spatio-temporal settings that move beyond the borders of Lebanon.
Image of the Port after the Explosion Alongside a Statue Showcasing Lebanese Immigrant
A Poster of Fairouz by Artist Achraf Amiri Seen on the Streets of London
With the expansion of social networking sites and the increase of content creation among users coupled with the uprisings and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa since January 2011, Fairouz, her music, and her videos, have gained visibility across a diverse range of new contexts. At the onset of the uprisings in January 2011, I was a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Geographically distant from Tahrir Square and Sidi Bouzid, I spent a lot of time-consuming news, contacting friends, and trying to access any information I could find. It was my Facebook page that mostly caught my attention and specifically the newsfeed, which was decorated with Fairouz’ images, lyrics, and songs. Videos of the protests from around the Arab world were edited, using her music as the audio track. People uploaded scenes from her plays and verses from her songs that seemed to describe the events unfolding on the streets.
Regardless of the format, the presence of Fairouz as an aural and visual narrator at such a pivotal moment in the Arab world is significant. Although her songs about patriotism and resistance are decades old, fandom in this context needs to be seen as what Tarik Sabry (2012) calls ‘territorialisation’ and ‘deterritorialisation’. It is the ability of the figure of Fairouz to ‘dislocate’ from a certain ‘discourse’ and to occupy another (2012, p. 13). It is a way in which through fandom, Fairouz can shapeshift to take on new contexts and express new meanings. This fluidity Fairouz possesses is catalyzed through her ability to create and occupy affective space. In parallel, the affective-ness of Fairouz is dependent on socio-political cultural, and economic dynamics within different spaces.
Fairouz’ relevance was also apparent during the October 17 2019 uprisings in Lebanon, and after the 4 August 2020 port explosion, where the voice of Fairouz was heard over video vignettes showcasing the devastation across the country on Lebanese social media sites. It was Fairouz’ music which provided the soundtrack to cater to the helplessness of the situation, while also offering messages of hope. This is an affective form of fandom. Similar to the way in which superheroes are called on in times of distress, Fairouz is there with her nostalgic melodies fighting for accountability of those in power and describing a more peaceful time.
Fairouz has been around even before newer technologies took over soundscapes, her music has been remixed and reworked for years in nightclubs, bars and sound studios across the world. However, newer technologies have given opportunities for her music to be shared and appropriated to a wider generational and globalized audience. Speaking broadly to themes of identity and social positioning, Fairouz is able to transgress boundaries of nation, religion, gender, and political affiliation to create a communal space that her fans could access according to their own individual positionings.
Although these new technologies allow for Fairouz to disseminate across a spectrum of audiences, her music also operates at an internal level, especially in discussions with diasporic audiences. Fairouz is able to transport her audiences spatially as well as temporally. She is a reversion back to notions of ‘home’ and ‘watan’, taking her listeners on a journey through themes of identity and authenticity, an almost paradoxical inward globalization that her audiences refer back to through affective fandom. So although Fairouz can be accessed through different forms of media, she also affectively resides in the hearts and minds of her listeners, who are able to utilize her music to understand and make sense of their experiences in the world around them.
Negotiation of meaning in the songs of Fairouz is very dependent on the political groups that listen to her. Through her music and her sheltered persona, Fairouz is able to straddle multiple political and cultural identities, because she has not affiliated herself to just one ideology. Her songs about the Palestinian cause, as well as about resistance, triumph and solidarity are key constituents in placing her at the helm of understanding ‘Arabness’ and iltizam (commitment), but even then she gives her listeners room to interpret her songs freely. As a ‘figure’, Fairouz takes on multiple meanings. There is a fluidity to her songs, which allows them to resonate across various and in some cases opposing vantage points. However, fandom in Lebanon can also be antagonistic especially when representations of the nation are at stake.
Inclusive Versus Exclusive Fandom
Music played a huge role during the 17 October 2019 Lebanese uprisings and the soundscapes heard across the country. This was significant on a number of levels. Firstly, older music by more classical artists was sampled, mashed up, and juxtaposed by activists on social media platforms and by DJs on the streets during the protests. These were younger perspectives on notions of identity that at times deviated from those of older generations. After the port explosion in Beirut on 4 August 2020 that killed hundreds of people and damaged thousands of buildings, local Lebanese death metal band Kimaera covered a famous Lebanese song by Majida Al Roumi, ‘Beirut Set El Donya’, (written by Nizar Qabbani), causing controversy among Al Roumi’s management and fans who were appalled by what they labeled a ‘blasphemous’ take on the song with its ‘death metal fundamentals’. Such sonic disputes highlight themes revolving around nationhood and its representations among different generations of fans. The soundscapes during the uprisings were also contested, further showcasing the lack of ‘unity’ among the protesters. As a country divided on so many religious, political, and ideological fronts, Lebanon is unable to unite under a common narrative, and the way that this is evident, is by exploring the ways in which various forms of fandom intersect, collide, and oppose each other.
Death metal band Kimeara featuring Cheryl Khairallah performing “Ya Beirut.”
[Note: An earlier version of this article was published in Henry Jenkins' "Global Fandom Jamboree Series" in 2022.]
Fiske, J. (1994). Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Jenkins, H. (2019, September 4). Back to School Special: Fandom, Participatory Culture and Web 2.0. Confessions of an ACA-Fan. Retrieved on 4 September 2021, from http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2019/8/28/back-to-school-special-fandom-participatory-culture-and-web-20-h66e3
Sabry, T. (2012). ‘Arab Cultural Studies: Between ‘Reterritorialisation’ and ‘Deterritorialisation’’. In Sabry, T. (Ed.), Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the