A beloved singer dragged into Lebanon's divisions

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BEIRUT (AP) - Through decades of conflict, there has been one thing all Lebanese could agree on: their adoration of the country's iconic singer Fairouz, who stood unquestioned above the fray with her anthems to Lebanon and Palestine and songs of love.

Now the 78-singer has been dragged into the thick of the country's bitter political and sectarian divisions after her son said in an interview that she loves the leader of Hezbollah, sparking an uproar among opponents of the Shiite guerrilla group.

Angry critics on Twitter and Facebook and in Lebanese newspapers have said Fairouz should stay out of politics, some even accusing her of treachery, while supporters have indignantly replied that she is free to support whomever she chooses.

Fairouz herself has remained silent. Throughout her career, she has never expressed her political opinions, and she rarely gives interviews.

The storm has brought warnings from politicians that Lebanon's society itself is fraying _ a measure of just how prominent a national symbol Fairouz is.

"This surprising campaign is an indication that the country is heading toward destruction," parliament speaker Nabih Berri, head of a Shiite party allied with Hezbollah, told the As-Safir newspaper.

The comments by Fairouz's son exposed the increasing divisions in the country over Hezbollah.

The Syrian- and Iranian-backed group gained prominence and support in Lebanon and around the Arab world for its fight against Israel. But it has long had opponents in Lebanon, particularly among the Sunni community, because of its domination of the country's politics and its state-within-a-state status, backed by its guerrillas, who are even more powerful than the military.

The criticism increased this year when the group sent fighters to back Syrian President Bashar Assad against rebels in that country's bloody civil war. Since openly joining the war in May, battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters have helped Syrian forces capture areas near the capital Damascus as well as the strategic town of Qusair near Lebanon. That has infuriated Sunnis in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, who largely support the rebels.

In mid-December, Fairouz's son Ziad Rahbani, a prominent composer and playwright who openly expresses his support for Hezbollah, told a news website linked to the group that his mother loves Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah "a lot."

He added that his mother "will be angry with me as she did last time when I gave a TV interview and revealed some of her personal matters. She boycotted me." Last year he told the Lebanon-based TV station Al-Mayadeen that his mother's political views are "not far from mine."

After the uproar began, Rahbani gave an interview to Lebanon's pro-Syrian Al-Mayadeen TV, saying Nasrallah and Fairouz are Lebanon's two most important figures over the past 60 years. He said those who criticize them are indirectly "defending Israel."

Fairouz, who is Christian, has been an icon Lebanese of all stripes can agree on, with her music touting love of the country above its divisions. That reputation was enshrined during Lebanon's bloody 1975-1990 civil war, when she stayed in the country. Love for her extends across the Arab world because of her songs to Jerusalem and the Palestinians, supporting their cause against Israel.

But her son's comments threaten to tarnish her.

"If you seriously love Nasrallah, do you know how many .... have been lost in Syria because of the war and Hezbollah's intervention in Syria?" Nadim Koteich, host of a news show on Lebanon's Future TV and a sharp critic of Hezbollah, said on his show recently, addressing Fairouz.

He also pointed indirectly at assassinations of nearly a dozen anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon since 2005, which some have blamed on Hezbollah, though the group denies any role.

"Do you know how many Lebanese were draped in Lebanese flags because of Hezbollah's policies?" Koteich asked, referring to flag-draped coffins.

Rahbani's comments appear to have caused disagreements within his family. His sister, Rima, who is a close aide to Fairouz, wrote on her Facebook page Wednesday that no one can speak for their mother, and she criticized Ziad for pulling Fairouz into "the narrow alleys of Lebanese politics."

Pierre Abi Saab, who heads the cultural section of Lebanon's daily al-Akhbar, told The Associated Press that Rahbani "said something that is probably true, but he had no right and had no authorization from the family to say it." He added that Rahbani is "known for saying everything in interviews without any self-censorship."

Politicians are saying people need to lay off the criticism, given Fairouz's status. Druse leader Walid Jumblatt issued a statement saying Fairouz should be kept out of controversy, describing her as "symbol of national Lebanese heritage."

Even Nasrallah spoke about the issue in a speech last week marking the assassination of one of his group's military commanders, though he didn't mention the singer by name.

"We have reached a point in the country when someone says he loves someone, this could lead to the country's destruction," Nasrallah told hundreds of supporters. "No one is allowed to love."


Follow Bassem Mroue on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bmroue

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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