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100 years of Assi Rahbani


On the fourth of the fertile month of almond and rose buds, Assi Rahbani was born. The country was a young idea that had not yet reached its third year. Antelias, the birthplace, was a coastal Lebanese village that was fragrant with lemon blossom, and rejoiced when the waves crashed against the rocks of its shore.

If he were destined to reach his hundredth year today, Asi would have seen the transformations that befell the country and its villages. Dreams vanished, but the “great Rahbani” is steadfast as an absolute truth and disobedient to absence. Residing in yesterday, rooted in the present and extending its roots to all the coming times.

Asi and Fairouz (Twitter)

“No matter how little we say about Asi, and whatever the state does to honor him, it is little, and this also includes Mansour and Fayrouz,” author and music producer Osama Rahbani told Asharq Al-Awsat on the occasion of his uncle’s centenary. As for the journalist and researcher Mahmoud Al-Zibawi, who delved deeply into the legacy of Al-Rahbanah, he believes that the real honor is the formation of a committee that will classify what has not been published of his lyrical paintings that are on the Damascus and Lebanon radio stations, and work to publish it.

Osama Rahbani acknowledges the family’s negligence towards the “huge Rahbani repertoire that needs concerted efforts to collect it,” lamenting “the many works that went into broadcasting the Near East.” However, the songs, plays, and films that spread over four decades of the work of the Rahbani trio Asi, Mansour, and Fayrouz became ammunition for the coming centuries, and not only for the first Rahbani century.

“Vote memorize, Numya record me”

“He was a volcano boiling with work… He wrote quickly and did not stop at the obsession of making something more beautiful, but rather let the narration flow so that the flow would not be interrupted,” recalls Osama, his uncle Asi. In the mind of Al-Zibawi, too, “Assi is the embodiment of passion and a person obsessed with his work.” It was not surprising that the phone of one of his friends rang at three in the morning, and Asi’s voice came out from the speaker, reading to him what he had written or taking his opinion on a tune he had just finished.

The wedding of Asi Rahbani and Nihad Haddad (Fayrouz) in 1955 (Twitter)

According to what al-Zibawi heard, “some of Mrs. Fairouz’s exercises and recordings could have lasted 40 continuous hours. He re-registers if he does not like a detail, and this used to exhaust her.” Although he is the husband and father of four children, “Assi remained the professor who married his student,” according to Al-Zibawi’s description. One of the phrases that the student remembers most about her teacher is: “Now, memorize it, write it down.” Fayrouz was exhausted, and she often admitted it in her interviews before she let out a silent sigh: “He was a dictator, demanding, cruel, and never easy to be satisfied… It was very difficult with art. When he decides something to walk in, he doesn’t care about my positions.

Yes, Assi Rahbani was a dictator in art, according to all those who lived with him and worked with him. “All geniuses are dictators, and this is necessary in art,” says Osama Rahbani. Moreover, this cruelty did not come from nothingness, so Asi and Mansour are the sons of Al-Waer and deprivation.

Asi’s shoulders were weighed down from childhood by worries greater than his age, so he and his brother assumed responsibility for the family after the death of their father. He was the moral and material support of his household. Like a coat that kept the cold away from them, as on that stormy night in which he rode a bicycle and drove it under the ropes of rain from Antelias to Dora, in search of Mansour, who was late returning from his job in Beirut. Osama Al-Rahbani narrates that “it was a very touching moment between the two brothers, during which they saw their dire financial situation… They never forgot that scene, and from such situations they derived their strength.”

As in childhood, when it was raining and water entered the school, Mansour thought that the flood mentioned in the Bible had begun. He gets terrified and screams for the teachers to go to his brother, but Asi meets him and hugs him to calm him down.

Assi Rahbani (Getty Images)

“An evening of love”… on credit

Seasons of splendor followed the years of Asi Rahbani. After a faltering start and a fierce war against his old style of music, he took the paths of glory. Armed with his imagination, embroidered with the stories of his grandmother Gita and his father’s “Antariyat”, Hanna Assi, he invented stories that were dimmed by the dissenting voices’ magic. As for melody, he invented tones that did not conform to the prevailing theories, and “created a new formula for the distribution of Arabic music,” as Osama Rahbani explains.

Assi was ready to lose money for the sake of artistic profit. Mahmoud Al-Zibawi says that, due to his idealism, he “recorded the play (Night of Love) twice and did not like the result, so he borrowed a sum of money to record it a third time.” He adds that “many legends have been woven around the Rahbanes, but the only real legend is the beauty of their work.”

The legend of Assi would not have been complete, had it not been for the voice of that girl who entered Nihad Haddad’s golden cage, and “Fayrouz” flew from him.

“I surprised him,” Al-Zibawi confirms. And he continues, “But none of them knew how to distinguish between Nihad Haddad and Fayrouz.” “She is, of course, the inspiration,” says Osama Rahbani. “He glimpsed in it the character he always wanted to draw, and saw a woman responding to that character.” He adds that “Assi pushed Fayrouz’s voice to the top, because in art he was violent and believed in fanaticism. He hated musical relaxation and linked success to a strong artistic course, and this is present in Fayrouz.

Assi Rahbani and Fayrouz (Twitter)

A brain the size of a country

From the height of glory, Assi Rahbani was robbed of a stroke in 1972. “The saddest thing is that Assi fell ill while he was at the peak of his giving and creativity, and the Lebanese war exacerbated his illness and made work very difficult,” according to al-Zibawi. Anxiety about the uncertain tomorrow was no stranger to him. Since an explosion in one of the quarries claimed the life of his aunt’s husband, Youssef Al-Zinati, whom he considered a super hunter and inspired by characters for his theatre, he was haunted by bewildering questions about death and its aftermath. The brain, which the treating French physician described as one of the largest he had seen, returned to shine like the moon of the nights of harvesters, lovers, and a radiant homeland. Asi got up and returned to the bouzouki he had inherited from his father, and to his nobility and generosity, which Osama Rahbani recounts a lot about.

After the illness, Asi’s harshness at work softened and his usual generosity doubled. Osama Al-Rahbani says, “The maximum moment of his joy was the moment of giving.” He gave of his money and his thoughts, and was known for his hand that was always placed in his pocket, in preparation for distributing money to the needy on the street. As for inside the house, generosity embodied pleasant and funny habits, such as buying 20 identical sweaters and distributing them to the men and young men of the family.

During his last years, as the war raged, Assi Rahbani’s concern for family members increased. He did not provide a joke or a story to calm the children’s fear, as on that day in the summer of 1975 when Bikfaya, the family’s resort, was targeted. Osama Rahbani recalls how Assi entered the room in which the trembling children of the family gathered, and began to imitate American actors shooting in Italian films, to make them forget what was outside of real bullets. Amidst the destruction, he built for them a homeland of a beautiful imagination, just as he did and is still doing in his hundred years, with the Lebanese.