An Homage to a Lebanese Icon we just lost…
Her name is ‘Sabah’. Morning. When I hear her name I remember a river, my dad with his then black mustaches, ducks floating idly by waiting for us kids to throw peanuts at them, small hotdogs, tabbouleh-our ageless Lebanese parsley-based salad. I remember trees, green lush poplar trees with thick trunks that must still have our carved initials. I also know it’s a Sunday. We always went to Kfarhelda in the hills of North Lebanon on Sundays. To a restaurant by a river. We travelled in several cars, coming from many directions, we met there. I loved how the summer Sunday trips were the highlight of our lives as kids. Lebanon was innocent then, or so it seemed. Sunday outings with family and friends and their kids. Swings, we were always fighting over the swings to push each other so hard to try and touch the sky, rushing up to take a swift slip down the metal slides burning hot from the summer sun hurting our legs, most of us in shorts. I loved the tranquility and peace of being a kid on an outing with the family. My parents, relatives and friends talking and laughing. My aunt glaring at me for being mischievous, feeding hotdogs to the ducks and slipping grilled meat to the restaurant’s mutts under the table. They all drank arak, a spirit made from grapes and flavored with aniseed. I drank arak too, on tomato. My aunt carved out the hearts of big mountain tomatoes and poured arak and salt in them, a few ice cubes, then cut into wedges and intoxicate the kids. Finger-licking good.
In the background, beyond the chatter, beyond our names being called to get away from the river as no one felt like jumping in after us, beyond the spasmodic clinking of arak glasses that increased in frequency after each round of Sahha (cheers or santé in Lebanese Arabic), beyond the sound of our hearts thumping in our ears from running in the sun, trying not to fall in the rushing river water, beyond all noise, in the background, a steady, clear, playful, mountainous voice. Sabah. She was to me the happy singer. She was a coquette who married many times, she had people who loved her and those who loathed her, she was a movie star, a philanthropist, but most of all, she sounded like my Sunday outings with my family.
Today I heard that she is hospitalized and is not in good shape. She is an octogenarian at least, the subject of her age crept up in Lebanese households every time her songs were played on the radio or every time she appeared on TV. “Sabah, how old do you think she is?” or “Can you believe she got married yet again?” or even “Who does she think she is, dressing like a young woman and going on stage? She’s old, she belongs in an old people’s home”… and other gracious thoughtful comments along the same lines. People either swore by her, or absolutely hated her. What was sure was that she never left anyone unaffected. A reaction was always forthcoming when one heard her smiling voice. To me she was the opposite of Fairouz in character. Fairouz, our serious wonderful diva, was married only once, she was reputed to have had a torturous married life, had a handicapped child who later died, and ended up singing like an angel in mourning. She sounds divine, but has never been known to smile, at least not to my knowledge. Sabah on the other hand had none of the decorum of Fairouz, she was married over and over and over (can you blame her? you had to be married in those days to go out with people, and she seemed to fall in love a lot), she dressed like a rock star, and always had a joke and a ringing laugh.
She was the sound of my sundays. She will always be that. Now that sun has set, this is life, and I am that much sadder for it.
I have posted a youtube clip of Yana Yana, one of my favorite Sabah songs that played back over and over in my dreams of the peaceful childhood I left behind.
Now excuse me while I feed the famished ducks some hotdogs.