Ziad Rahbani: His life as a performance

Ziad Rahbani: His life as a performance
Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani has become a controversial figure.
6 min read
11 October, 2014
Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani [al-Araby al-Jadeed].

There is no doubt that Ziad Rahbani has earned his fame on the merit of his musical and theatrical genius. The acclaim he constantly receives reflects his work as an artist, and not his political opinions, his personal life or his controversial behaviour.


Having said this, it is impossible to separate Rahbani’s work from his political and ideological convictions. He could not have achieved his unique musical and theatrical style if he had not inherited and rebelled against the ‘Rahbani establishment’. He made a bold and decisive break from its romantic ideology, shifting its focus from the countryside to the heart of the city. The artist totally remodelled the language and the message of the theatre of the earlier Rahbani generation, propelled by his political
estrangement from their ideals.



We could argue Rahbani’s political conscience had the greatest influence on his music, by drawing on aspects of local folklore, religious and national identity, and echoing the language of the people on the streets. It was his political conscience that shattered the delusional, nostalgic theatre of the Rahbani school of thought by calling out from the depths of urban life and remoulding it into the theatre we know today.


Rahbani also used his theatrical productions to make prophesies, reflecting his remarkable gift of perception and capacity to peer into the future. This was always done with flair: provoking, shocking, challenging, yet still managing to convince the audience. In doing so, he coined a language that emphatically portrayed the ever-changing political and social circumstances in his country.


This encapsulated the general mood towards Ziad Rahbani and his work from both a Lebanese and Arab perspective. Not once did the public turn against him at this time. Even when the Lebanese civil war was in full swing, most of his political opponents were so taken with his musical talent that they completely overlooked his evident hostility towards them.


However, in recent years this has changed and a considerable number of Lebanese people have turned against the artist. Such hostility was first seen in select circles in the mid-nineties, spreading after 2005. Nowadays he is surrounded by critics. No longer is he beyond reproach. People are no longer prepared to indulge him, or forgive his mistakes as they did before. Where exactly did Rahbani go wrong?


     People are no longer prepared to indulge him, or forgive his mistakes as they did before. 

The answer lies in his theatre, especially his capacity to make prophesies. We could even say Rahbani’s theatrical productions have reflected the direction of his personal life. In 1974, he produced a musical play called Nazl al-Sourour [“Happiness Hotel”], which was akin to a theatrical, political and linguistic earthquake. The play destroyed any false sense of security in Lebanon, and exposed deep-rooted flaws in a society on the brink of erupting. Besides the political satire, musical ingenuity, shocking lyrics, novel language and animated characters introduced by Nazl al-Sourour to its Lebanese audience, Rahbani also used the play to predict the country was heading for war. Rahbani appears in the play as a foolish, wronged husband who is addicted to gambling and alcohol.


By 1978 in the aftermath of the ‘Two Year War’ (1975 to 1976), Lebanon was stuck in a mire. Most of its people caught up in the harsh reality of an unresolved conflict. Life dragged on between sporadic outbursts of fighting, anarchy and economic and moral collapse, while politics suffocated. Sectarian divides intensified, with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) ensnared by the Syrian occupation on the one side, and the first Israeli invasion of south Lebanon on the other. At this time, the title of Rahbani’s play asked the question on everyone’s lips, Bennesbe La Boukra Shou? [“So, what of tomorrow?”]. Rahbani confronted the issue of moral decline, harsh living circumstances and insecurity, coining slogans that were seized with enthusiasm by a disillusioned country. He declared his people had been defeated, playing a character who had sold his dignity, working as a barman in a tavern and making his wife work.


After this, Rahbani composed Film Ameriki Taweel [“A long American film”] (1980), a musical exploring the conflict between the mad and the sane. Set in a mental hospital in Beirut, as a microcosm of the country and its situation, Rahbani made the statement that logic and rationality no longer exist, and Lebanon had been attacked by a wave of insanity, without any hope of a cure. Language had reached its limits and been destroyed, leaving behind a muddled reality. Rahbani saw reverting to such madness as the only option. Neither his ideological beliefs nor his political viewpoints could satisfactorily explain what was happening around him. The play reflected an early condemnation of everyone involved in Lebanon’s struggle. For Rahbani, everything was lost and all meaning had gone.


This embodied the full force of Rahbani’s prophesy. He moved on quickly. In 1983 he wrote a play called Shi Fashel [“What a failure”], which proclaimed the total failure of Lebanese totalitarianism and the historical model of the Lebanese nation. At the same time, he mocked and completely sabotaged the ideals nurtured by the earlier Rahbani generation in their theatre, offering his works as an alternative model for the Lebanese identity.

[al-Araby al-Jadeed]

Yet, rather than being an expression of failure, his play turned out to be a failure. That is, all the essentials of Rahbani’s theatrical genius – his rich language, imagination and criticism – fell to pieces in this production. The 1982 Israeli invasion had cast away the PLO, the Lebanese left, and instigated a total breakdown of Lebanon’s political and economic systems, inflicting a brutal blow to society. Rahbani lost the essence of the national movement, and therefore his skill as a composer. It was both a failed play and a play which took failure as its theme. Rahbani features in it as a simple theatre director, lacking imagination and trying to finish a production he is working on.


As a result, it was not until 1993 that Rahbani began working on a new project, making a comeback with the play Bikhsous al-Karameh wal-Shaab al-Aaneed [“On dignity and the stubborn people”], which looked into and rejected the future. Rahbani appeared terrified of the post-war period in Lebanon, and the play betrayed a loss of his former ability to combine sharp wit with linguistic flair. It was characterised instead by stammering and a lack of eloquence. Even his music seemed lost and faltering. For the first time, we saw Rahbani turning against his own people, criticising and rejecting the Lebanese reality. His cynical mood was amplified by the collapse of the Soviet Union, confounding his communist beliefs. Fear consumed him, and his only escape was to take on the role of a Nazi officer in the play.

Rahbani’s disengagement from his Lebanese audience became more pronounced with his play Lawla Fos’het al-Amal [“A glimpse of hope”] (1994). Once again, his critics showed him no mercy, heightening his belief he was being targeted. The fears that still haunted him and his ever-growing cynicism crippled his language, depriving him of his former flashes of brilliance and insight. He turned into a stubborn, outspoken communist, just like the party. At the same time he seized any opportunity for self-promotion offered by Syrian-Hizballah guardianship. 


Since then, Rahbani has not produced any more theatrical works, yet the drama in his personal life continues. Today the Lebanese people watch as one moment he is kissing the feet of Hassan Nasrallah, and the next he is at Saad Hariri’s side, or running off to join Vladimir Putin’s Russia Today news channel. It is a performance which inspires neither our laughter, enjoyment, nor sympathy.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.