Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani once said: “After years of thirst, a voice like fresh water has arrived.

"A cloud, a love letter from some other planet: Fairuz has overwhelmed us with ecstasy.

"Names and figures of speech remain inadequate to define her. She alone is our agency of goodwill to which those of us looking for love and poetry belong.

"When Fairuz sings, mountains and rivers follow her voice. Through her, every one of us is made to blossom. Upon hearing her voice, our childhood is moulded anew.''

For nine days (from January 28), there was nostalgia in the air as the Syrians headed to the Damascus Opera House to listen to Fairuz, the Lebanese diva.

She was joining Damascus as Capital of Arab Culture-2008 celebrations. Some walked out of the opera house in tears, remembering a bygone era of love, youth and family.

Others were dancing, recalling her famous tunes. All of them were smiling.

On all the nine consecutive nights, she received standing ovations, with thundering applause, as she staged her 1970 musical Sah Al Nawm (“Did you sleep well?'').

An iconic figure not only in Syria but also throughout the Arab world, Fairuz was an all-time favourite for the Damascenes.

Making her debut on Damascus Radio in 1952, she went on to perform, year-after-year, at the Damascus International Fair.

The person who recognised the potential in her voice at an early stage (in 1952, when she was still known as Nuhad Haddad) and promoted her in Damascus was then director of Syrian Radio, Sabah Qabbani.

Fairuz gave her last concert in Damascus in 1985. Since then, she has kept a distance from the Syrian capital, prompting many to believe that she was part of the anti-Syrian team in Beirut, which was formed after the end of the civil war and came out in the open after the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

By coming to Syria and staging a grand performance, Fairuz proved those who doubted her friendship with Syria wrong.

One of them

“What is so great about Fairuz singing in Syria?'' asks an 80-year old Damascene, when approached by Weekend Review.

“We have been attending her concerts for years, right here in Syria! Is it now an event for Fairuz to sing in Damascus?

"Its just like saying: ‘it is an event for Sabah Fakhri [a Syrian singer from Aleppo] to be singing in Aleppo!' This media buzz is ridiculous!''

That is how most Syrians responded. Fairuz was, as far as they were concerned, “one of them''.

Leading Syrian comedian Duraid Lahham told Weekend Review: “There is an eternal love between Damascus and Fairuz — not just Fairuz but Asi and Mansour Rahbani as well [Asi and Mansour Rahbani, known as the Rahbani brothers, are famous for their songs, plays and music compositions. Asi was Fairuz's husband].

"Their greatness is that they did not sing for rulers, sultans or Kaisers but for winter and snow, road, sand and love.

"They sang for cities such as Baghdad, Amman, Jerusalem, Beirut and Makkah but their most beautiful work was for Damascus. Fairuz made 17 songs in all for Damascus and has pledged an eternal love for Damascus.''

Some of these songs were written either by the Rahbani brothers or the Lebanese poet Said Akl.

Fairuz never sang for rulers — she sang for cities and towns. In 1969, her music was banned from radio stations in Lebanon for six months because she refused to sing at a private concert in the honour of the Algerian president Houari Boumédienne during his visit to Lebanon.

“There is politics in everything in the Arab world. In the 1960s, the progressives used to listen to Fairuz. She was one of us. The reactionary elements used to listen to Um Kalthoum,'' said a Syrian who had come to the opera.

Why are the Syrians so excited about Fairuz? One reason is their enchantment with her “heavenly'' voice and the fact that her songs such as Ya Mukhtar Al Makhateer (Oh Mukhtar of Mukhtars), Zuruni (Visit Me), Bayaa Al Khawatem (The Ring Seller), Hanna Al Sakran (Hanna the Drunk) and Sailini ya Cham (Ask me, Oh Damascus) have become eternal classics in Syria.

They have been playing on Radio Damascus from 7am to 9am everyday, month after month, year after year, for as long as anybody can remember.

Ironically, the play she acted in, Sah Al Nawm, is one of the least known of her stage productions, although it was originally recorded and staged in Damascus in 1971 and featured one of her famous songs for Damascus.

On another level, Fairuz reminds the Syrians of a bygone era. For many, it reminds them of the days of their youth, when they were either in college or were teenagers.

To many, Fairuz reminds them of families with whom they used to attend her shows at the Damascus International Fair in the 1960s and 1970s.

Her shows were never cheap — often unaffordable for grassroots Syrians, who used to listen to her from a distance. The one-time upper class that used to attend Fairuz is no longer the upper class.

The one-time Damascus International Fair that used to host Fairuz is no longer there — it was relocated by the government a few years ago and has lost the aura it used to have in the hearts of the Damascenes.

The Syrians were so happy for her comeback because she reminded them of the “good old days''.

Many in Lebanon were, naturally, not-so-pleased about Fairuz showing up in Damascus.

This mainly applied to the March 14 Coalition headed by parliamentary majority leader Sa'ad Al Hariri. Akram Shuhayeb, a March 14 MP, called to Fairuz not to sing in Syria.

He said: “Those who love Lebanon do not sing for its jailers … Our ambassador to the stars, you painted for us the dream nation, so don't scatter that dream like the dictators of Damascus scattered our dreams of a democratic free country.''

Two days later, his words were echoed by the formerly pro and at present anti-Syrian MP, Walid Jumblatt.

The website, Now Lebanon, proclaimed: “Fairuz must decide. She is a Lebanese icon and, as such she must repay the people who have backed her and who love her with a modicum of solidarity.''

The Syrian press responded with aggressiveness and so did members of the Rahbani family, including the musicians Elias (Mansour's younger brother) and Mansour, who said that her visit to Damascus was “a message of love and peace from Lebanon to Syria: a message of friendship, not subservience''.

The Rahabnis and Fairuz were clear: Fairuz was not just a Lebanese singer and would defy anybody who said or believed that she was.

The fact that she had equally sung for Damascus, Baghdad, Amman, Makkah and Beirut is testimony to that. She wants to be known — and remembered — as an Arab singer.

Hind Kabawat, a woman activist in Damascus who is a friend of the Lebanese diva, told Weekend Review: “Fairuz is modest. Her modesty is [her] greatness! When I was young, she taught me how to love the homeland.

"When I grew older she would tell me: ‘It's not [just] important to love the homeland, what is [also] important is [to] preserve it!'''

Jamal Mansour, a writer, says: “For Syrians, Fairuz transcends nationalities. She transcends boundaries and age.

"She already has an iconic status and nothing will manage to take that away from her or from the multitudes of Syrians who love her.''

Sahban Abd Rabbo, a webmaster, however, thinks otherwise. He says he got plenty of objections on the website he created in 2005, during the lowest point in Syrian-Lebanese relations, because it commenced with the voice of Fairuz.

“The website was patriotic,'' he explained, “and people thought that it was improper to feature Fairuz at a time when many of the Lebanese were saying bad things about Syria.

"The Syrians fired back: ‘Fairuz is Lebanese.' There are plenty of Syrian singers out there that you can use for a nationalistic website; why Fairuz?'''

A Syrian professor said: “When one is young, they will no doubt love the music of Fairuz.

"As we grow older and appreciate music more, we find that much of her work was taken from foreign classics, in terms of music, while her voice is limited [when compared with Asmahan or Um Kalthoum] because she doesn't change pitch.''

Most Syrians, however, found her amazing although they all acknowledged that the songs were pre-recorded, her acting mediocre and that she had aged over the years.

Regardless, the Damascus Opera House remained sold out for nine consecutive nights, although Class A tickets were at the high price of 10,000 SP ($200 USD). To many Syrians, that is an entire month's salary.

Cheaper tickets — for SP2,000 ($40) and SP5,000 ($100) — were also available and sold like hot cakes.

Dr Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.