Ziad Rahbani: The lost artist
There is no shame in having nothing more to say. We have become accustomed to intellectuals, politicians and activists knowing everything. Very rarely do we come across a person courageous enough to say: “I don’t know.” Few people are prepared to concede the limitations of their knowledge, especially in Lebanon where everyone knows everything. Take Ziad Rahbani the artist, intellectual, and now, apparently, writer.
Even if we come across someone who knows their specific field, with time this knowledge loses value. Let us suppose Ziad Rahbani had managed to grasp the Lebanese era pioneered by his parents. His mother is Fairuz the “Voice of Lebanon”. His father is Assi Rahbani the mastermind behind Rahbani productions, who created the Lebanese “story” or the “Lebanese Dream” using music, theatre and less frequently cinema. Perhaps it would not be such a stretch of the imagination to suggest growing up surrounded by such talent, and not his political conscience was the
|He was the Christian that challenged the Christian story.|
chief factor shaping Rahbani’s rise to fame.
The Lebanese composer was not even 20 years-old when he became a star with his play Sahriyyeh [“An evening gathering”]. In 1974, he brought us the musical Nazl al-Sourour [“Happiness Hotel”], and in 1978 Bennesbe La Boukra Shou? [“So, what of tomorrow?”], in which it is claimed he predicted the outbreak of war in Lebanon. It seems to have been conveniently overlooked, however, that by this stage the war had already been going on for three years. Rahbani followed these productions in 1980 with his piece de resistance Film Ameriki Taweel [“A long American film”].
Even during his so-called rebellion against his parents, Rahbani’s behaviour was no different from any other youth at the time, especially as the world experienced a golden era of revolution in the mid-sixties and seventies. This rebellion reflected a clear artistic break in which he mocked many of the much-loved clichés of earlier Rahbani theatre, such as Al-Jara [“The neighbour”], Kulna Munhib Baad [“We all love each other”] and others. Rahbani also explored new genres of music such as jazz, turning away from more traditional forms of music favoured by the older Rahbani generation. This is another classic Rahbani feature he ridiculed, for example in his play Shi Fashel [“A failure”] (1983), the last of his “historical” plays, and whose lines were repeated by youngsters in the streets.
Soon after Rahbani’s personal life was shaken by his divorce from his wife Dalal Karam, and estrangement from his son Assi, which happened before he discovered he was not his biological son. This was followed by the death of his father Assi Rahbani in 1986. In 1989, he was shaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he had been using to read history. As a consequence, the artist did not compose anything until 1993, when he made a comeback with Bikhsous al-Karameh wal-Shaab al-Aaneed [“On dignity and the stubborn people”]. However, its reception was decidely muted compared to his earlier productions.
Meanwhile, Lebanon was undergoing a period of great change. The war that destroyed the Rahbani brothers’ (Ziad’s father and uncle) glorious image of Lebanon had ended. During the war, Rahbani had rebelled against his own image as much as he had against his family. He was the Christian that challenged the Christian story. The product of a system that took part in his own destruction, or at least caused him to join the Communist Party.
When a period of cold peace descended on the country, one whose literature had no place in the Rahbani family, Ziad was unable to grasp the new era. He tried to retrieve his previous celebrity status, but singers and politicians became the country’s stars instead. Theatre had been replaced by the Chansonniers musical-comedy troupes. The Chansonniers de la Route were a Lebanese musical comedy troupe that performed comedies about Lebanese political life during the war. Rahbani now looked to his mother Fairuz, writing and composing the music for her two albums Kifak Anta [“How are you?”](1991) and Ila Assi [“For Assi”] (1995). While Lebanon’s reconstruction was in full swing, Rahbani and Fairuz appeared to be totally absorbed with a yearning for the past.
Lebanon had given birth to a new era, but Rahbani could not fit in. He tried to become part of it when he composed two albums for his mother, Mesh Kayyin Heyk Takun [“You have changed”] (1999), and Wala Kayf [“Really?”] (2001), and he accompanied her on tour.
In 2005, after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated and the 1990 to 2005 Lebanese story came to an end, Rahbani devised another way to return to the limelight.
Writing a column in the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, he insulted his old compatriots in the Democratic left, turning them into enemies. The composer found himself entangled with Hizballah and its publication. In doing so, he showed his support for the March 8 Alliance, also known as “The Resistance”, rather than its opposition, the March 14 Alliance, known as the “Capitalists” and an extension of Hariri’s project.
However, Rahbani’s pursuits had little success. With no new songs or plays to win over the public, any remaining support was exhausted by his al-Akhbar articles which left half the country hating him,and the other half unimpressed. As artists and statesmen again rose to prominence in Lebanese society, Rahbani insulted them in language that had barely a glimpse of his earlier eloquence.
For the third time in his life, Rahbani did not catch on to the Lebanese moment, this time the one sparked by Hariri’s assassination. Even sitting in the front row on Resistance and Liberation Day 2012 with Lebanese politicians Zaher el-Khatib, Assaad Hardan and Wiam Wahhab as they watched Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, speak barely earned him a mention in the media.
Rahbani had lost at least half of the Lebanese audience, and with Hizballah’s involvement in the May 2008 events in Lebanon when armed opposition groups took over parts of west Beirut, he risked losing the Arab audience altogether.
Perhaps now is the time for Rahbani to seize the new Arab and Lebanese moment. He has declared his support for the revolution in Syria, late of course, and his resistance to the May 2008 events, very late again.
And he should not be ashamed to admit if he has absolutely no idea what is going on. Otherwise he just appears to be working in true Walid Jumblatt-style - the Druze leader is infamous for changing political sides at the drop of a hat: be siding one moment with the Hizballah-affiliated al-Manar media outlet, and the next with the Future Movement’s media organisation, al-Mustaqbal.
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.