|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
9 - 15 May 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Metamorphoses on the GulfFairuz, Arab nationalists and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Amira Howeidy experiences a new Dubai
On the evening of 29 April, singer Fairuz appeared on stage draped in a long cream gown, richly embroidered with gold thread, and a matching headscarf adorning her red hair. She walked swiftly and gracefully to the microphone and sang Zahrat Al-Mada'en (Jerusalem) with a deep, firm and sweet voice. "Jerusalem, the city of prayers, I pray," she sang, her voice filled with melancholy. Then she paused and lowered her eyes towards the ground. As she stood there with her arms slightly outstretched and her palms facing upward, the auditorium fell completely silent, as though the audience was holding its collective breath or holding back tears. The impression was unmistakable; the sorrow expressed by the much-loved icon of the Arabic music scene, as she stood there in her shimmering white robes, carried a poignancy reminiscent of the Virgin Mary's grief as depicted in the art of almost two millennia.
BRAVE NEW WORLD: (clockwise from top) Burj Al-Arab, the most luxurious hotel in the world, the symbol of a new Dubai; Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, addresses the 2nd Arab Media Summit; Lebanese singer Julia Boutros singing at the Arab Journalism Award gala; the Dubai Global Village project, would-be home to the annual Dubai Shopping Festival; the Global Village's entrance; Fairuz pays homage to the Palestinian resistance at the American University in Dubai last April
The venue was not Beirut, the centre of Fairuz's homeland and the cultural capital of the Arab world. Nor was it Cairo, the Arab world's historic and political centre. It was the auditorium of the American University in Dubai (AUD).
If this city was viewed to epitomise "petro-dollar culture," a catch-phrase used by the Lebanese and Egyptian cultural and intellectual elite, in particular, who barely recognise the Gulf as sharing in Arab suffering or even the Arab-Israeli conflict, today they have a very different story to tell.
Not only was Fairuz performing at a critical moment in the Palestinian struggle, but also she was saluting the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and their resistance at a time when a deal was being brokered back in the West Bank. In the front rows of the auditorium sat heavyweight journalists and publishers along with other luminaries from the Arab cultural and intellectual spheres. "Arafat let us down, she never did," someone whispered.
She sang for Jerusalem, for Palestine, for the resistance. "Greetings to you, the people of the occupied land who are rooted in their homes, my heart is with you" -- words that drew frenzied applause. "The catastrophe heightened, expanded, is glaring, is crucifying."
Singing of dispossession -- "Return me to my home" -- Fairuz brought tears to her audience. "She can melt the rocks," commented Jihad Al-Khazen, columnist for the London based daily Al-Hayat.
The Lebanese artist sang for love, "If earth is round, my love, surely we will meet again," and, "I loved you in the summer, I loved you in winter." Along with the tears, nostalgia filled the air for hours as her voice stirred a nation's collective memory.
And they wouldn't allow her to go.
Non-stop applause demanded encores. She complied. Again. She complied. And again. Fairuz said her good-byes and then returned four times to sing for the audience, who would not have enough. "If this were an Arab leader, he wouldn't get this much applause," quipped a famous Arab journalist to his companion as they sat in the bus that was waiting to drive them and other journalists from the Arab Media Summit back to the hotel. "Nor would he comply with our curtain calls," he added as an afterthought.
Another journalist remarked, "The concert was truer and more powerful than 100 Arab emergency summits. She lived up to her reputation; unified us, which is why her listeners believe her and respond to every political message she sends. Is any Arab leader capable of that?"
No one answered the question and silence prevailed as the bus drove out of Dubai's media and Internet cities where AUD's newly-constructed building complex is strategically located.
"I looked around me and saw Amr Moussa, secretary- general of the Arab League, Ahmed El-Robai', Mohamed El-Sakr, Talal Salman and Salaheddin Hafez and I thought to myself, we represent the majority of pan-Arabists. If Clovis Maqsoud had joined us, we would have been complete," wrote Al-Khazen last Sunday in his second column devoted to his reflections on the Arab Media Summit, the Arab Journalism Award and the Fairuz concert.
It was the first time since Israel's incursion into the West Bank on 29 March and its subsequent acts of genocide, vandalism and siege of Palestinian towns -- atrocities compared to the massacres in Sabra and Shatila and Israel's occupation of Palestine in 1948 -- that Fairuz, a longtime and undisputed symbol of Arab pride, appeared on stage.
Says Al-Khazen, "Fairuz sang for Jerusalem, so I cried... I haven't cried since 1971... I covered my face with my hands, embarrassed by my weakness, so that the people around me wouldn't see [my tears]. I felt a bit better during the intermission when the lights were turned on and I saw how many others, like me, had also been crying."
Israel's massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp, its destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and daily killings of Palestinians over the past six weeks, were still fresh in people's minds. For 50 years Fairuz has been singing to the Arab world during its wars and at times of peace. Arabs of many generations adulate her; and for a great many of them her music has come to express their very sense of their Arab identity. So when the second Intifada erupted in September 2000, her songs dominated TV and radio throughout the region. When Israel killed Mohamed Al-Dorra, Fairuz consoled the Arab world. Although she sang for love and life, her songs about Palestine possibly constituted the single area of Arab consensus regarding this highly volatile cause.
Dubai's newfound image is the result of concerted promotion efforts. In recent years it has succeeded in projecting itself as being open for business and has attracted investment not only from within the region, but also internationally. A paradise of free trade, tax-free zones, flexible laws, cutting edge infrastructure, quality services and incredibly fast construction operations, Dubai has been positioning itself as the region's business, IT and media hub. Its ultra-luxurious hotel, Burj Al-Arab, has, since its opening two years ago, become the symbol of this business success story.
Adding some cultural depth to this profile was, consequently, the challenge facing Dubai. Inviting key figures of the Arab and also Western media to an annual event like the Arab Media Summit and the Arab Media Awards, for the second year running, seems to have clinched this goal.
Is Dubai the Arab world's forthcoming cultural capital? "No" is the immediate reply. It's a venue for cultural events which need skilled organisation and money. While those factors are lacking in the other more obvious Arab capitals which boast history, heritage and identity, they are Dubai's hallmark. Last week, Fairuz and the Arab Media Summit. This week, UB40, a British pop group. And in two weeks, the city will host the eighth Gulf Cooperation Council's e-government and Internet electronic forum at which the keynote speaker will be Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel prize winner. Then in 2003, Dubai will be the venue for the annual conference of the World Bank and IMF.
The exhaustive list goes on. And Dubai grows.
It might not be producing culture, and it is not making a substantial contribution to Arab journalism, but it is emerging as the region's Mecca of business, culture and the arts.
Even so, who would have predicted that Dubai would become the place where outrage against the Palestinians' plight was so passionately communicated and where top intellectuals are keen to meet.
Paradoxes aside, Arab journalists, pan-Arabists or not, went home with positive memories of what many of them considered to have been the most successful congregation of Arab and Western intellectuals in years... And no, their bags were not heavy with dates or any of the usual purchases associated with the Gulf. Instead, they were weighed down by a collection of new Arabic translations, including Homer's Iliad and Ovid's Metamorphoses -- courtesy of the hosts.
On one of Dubai's many highways, a huge promotional billboard reads, "The world has a new address, welcome."
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