BEIRUT, (AP) — Across four decades, Fairouz’s songs of freedom, justice and love transfixed Arab audiences, moved millions to tears and gave hope to the Lebanese during the darkest days of their 15-year civil war.
At 75, the Lebanese singer still performed, seemingly impervious to age — until now, when a fight over royalties within the Arab world’s most famous musical family threatens to silence Lebanon’s most beloved diva.
The fans are outraged.
It is a familiar story the world over — heirs fighting over an inheritance — but in this case it involves a cultural icon whose songs changed the musical landscape of the Arab world.
The Rahbani family quarrel is being played out on newspaper pages and tabloids in the region, angering many for whom Fairouz is an untouchable figure.
“If it was someone else we might have talked about who’s right or wrong and what the law says, but not in this case because Fairouz is not an ordinary person,” said Egyptian film star Elham Shahine, who took part in a demonstration in Beirut Monday calling on Fairouz to keep singing.
“Fairouz is above all laws,” she added.
Most of Fairouz’s songs were penned by her late husband, Assi Rahbani, and his brother Mansour, together known as “The Rahbani Brothers,” and now her nephews are accusing her of not asking their permission to sing that repertoire or paying them the necessary royalties.
Assi died in 1986 and when Mansour passed away in January 2009, the long simmering family dispute boiled over.
This summer, Fairouz had planned to perform at the Casino du Liban “Ya’ish Ya’ish” (Long Live, Long Live), a 1970 musical written by the Rahbani brothers. But her nephews sent a letter to the Casino’s administration reminding them that such a performance would require the approval of the heirs.
Mansour’s sons — Marwan, Ghadi and Oussama — decline to say how much money is owed, but they are demanding remuneration for each time the diva performs songs or any of the musical plays from the Rahbani repertoire.
“All what we are asking for is our intellectual property rights and this is something we will not give up,” Oussama, also a musician, told The Associated Press.
He accused Fairouz of trying to wipe out Mansour’s name from the Rahbani brothers’ legacy.
“We love her and want her to sing, but if she — the symbol of Lebanon and the Rahbani family — is not going to protect the intellectual property rights of the Rahbani brothers, who will?” he asked.
Oussama says the late Mansour had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” with Fairouz over several performances she made when he was alive. But he cited two instances in 2008, when she performed in Damascus and in Sharjah and did not pay.
Rima Rahbani, a director and the daughter of Fairouz and Assi, accused the heirs of greed and said there was no formal system of direct payments to the brothers from Fairouz herself.
In a telephone interview with The AP, she said Mansour’s heirs should collect their money from Sacem, a Paris-based organization whose job is to collect royalty payments and redistribute them to the original authors. Mansour had joined Sacem in 1963.
“Sacem should collect the fees from the producers, not from Fairouz, and after the performances are made, not before,” she said.
“Name one artist in the world who has to ask the permission of the heirs when they want to sing songs that were written for them,” she said.
Fans have been outraged over what they see as a ban silencing Fairouz. Online forums exploded with messages of adoration and support.
“Who has the right to ban the light of the sun from the earth?” wrote one fan. “Fairouz is the sound of Lebanon. There is no Lebanon on the map without her,” wrote another.
On Monday, Fairouz’s fans including Lebanese and Arab artists held up pictures of her and banners reading “the voice of angels confronting greed,” as they played her songs in the background.
“We adore Fairouz and breathe Fairouz. She is a part of our national heritage and a part of every Lebanese and only God can silence her voice,” said Lebanese actress Roula Hamadeh.
The anger over the financial dispute within the family is not limited to Lebanon.
Simon Elias, a 48-year-old Syrian businessman, said stopping Fairouz from singing is a mistake. “Her voice does not belong to the Rahbani family. It is a national treasure,” he said.
Fairouz, a reclusive figure who very rarely appears in public or gives interviews, has stayed silent on the issue. But her daughter Rima says Fairouz is suing her nephews for damages from the cancellation of the Casino du Liban performance.
“They want to wipe out Assi’s legacy and silence Fairouz,” she said. “This will never happen.”