You don’t have to be Lebanese to know the name Fairouz. Though she is feted as a national treasure of the Arab world, the musical legend is known and admired beyond the region. The iconic singer, who quickly rose to prominence with her harmonic vocals, had the ability to unite entire generations of Arabs through decades of conflict with her music, resulting in the popular saying “Lebanese people disagree on everything, except Fairouz.” To mark the occasion of her 84th birthday today (November 21), we round up seven lesser-known facts about the star.
#1. Fairouz had very humble beginnings. The singer grew up in a one-bedroom home in an old neighborhood in Beirut with her parents and three siblings. Several other families were also living in the house, and they all shared one kitchen. Her father, a typesetter in a nearby print shop, put aside some of his income for his children’s education, so Fairouz was able to attend school, where her voice would get recognition.
#2. Fairouz found her passion for singing as a child. Her family could not afford a radio, so she would sit on the ledge of the window to listen to songs coming from the neighbor’s radio. She would sing when she would fetch wood from the forest to make a fire for her grandmother, while making bread, and when tucking her siblings into bed. When she was 14, she started to sing in her school’s choirs and shows, and eventually caught the attention of a well-known musician at the time, Mohammed Flayfel, who encouraged her to pursue a musical career.
#3. Her father strongly opposed her pursuing a singing career. In an essay penned by her brother Joseph Haddad, he admits that their father was not keen on the idea of Fairouz singing professionally and preferred that she finished her high school studies instead. It was actually her mother’s brother (her uncle) who convinced Fairouz’s father to let her take the job at the Lebanese Radio Station. The only condition was that she not go alone, and had to be accompanied by her brother at all times.
#4. Fairouz isn’t her birth name. The musical icon was born Nouhad Wadie’ Haddad and adopted the stage name Fairouz, which means turquoise in Arabic, during her time singing for the radio station in Beirut. The decision for her stage name was made by Halim el Roumi, the man who discovered her. He was torn between Fairouz or Sharazade, but settled on Fairouz because her voice reminded him of a “rare gem.”
#5. She used to make USD 21 dollars a month at the radio. “I was told then that I’d be paid 100 pounds ($21) a month. To me, this was overwhelming. But at the end of the month I wasn’t fortunate enough to fill my eyes with a 100-pound note, because of the tax deductions. It took me a long time to get hold of a 100-pound note intact,” she recalled in a past interview. Today, she is the second highest-selling Arab female artist of all time (Umm Khulthum is first).
#6. The rising star met her husband – and fellow singer – Assi Rahbani was during her time at the radio station. The singer shortly began to compose songs for her, one of which was Ithab – the song that would catapult her whirlwind career. The two got married on January 23, 1955, and had four children together.
#7. She almost took Madonna to court. In 1992, the American singer sampled Fairouz’s El Yawm Ulliqa Ala Khashab in her hit song Erotica, without obtaining permission from the Lebanese star. The musicians would settle matters outside of the court, but Madonna’s album and single were both banned in Lebanon.