Singing Like His Life Depends on It

nizar fares

Most of us couldn’t sing even if our lives depended on it. But for Nizar Fares, current director of Boston College’s Middle East Ensemble, it was the thing that almost got him killed.

In 1999, three years after winning Studio El-Fan, a Lebanese talent show similar to The Voice, Fares was invited to perform in Libya. Little did he know, one of the spectators would be Muammar Gaddafi, then the dictator of Libya. Infatuated with his performance, Gaddafi demanded that Fares record one of Gaddafi’s personally written pieces. After remaining in Libya to record two of Gaddafi’s songs, Fares prepared to depart back to his home in Lebanon. Unfortunately, returning home would prove to be a lot more difficult than that.

Fares was told to remain in his hotel, and then was prohibited from leaving his room indefinitely.

“I didn’t know why back then, and I had to stay cool because they might have good intentions,” Fares said. “But after 30 days, I was facing death every day because, you know, it’s Gaddafi. Many leaders got into that country and disappeared so, who am I?”

He was on the verge of complete starvation, refusing to eat for four days at a time in fear that his captors were poisoning his food. The only thing that got him through, Fares said, was praying, reading the Bible, and playing his oud, a Middle Eastern instrument similar to the guitar. He was eventually released, but only after 30 days of persistent physical, mental, and emotional suffering.

He plummeted into a deep depression. Being held hostage, unsure of whether or not he would make it to the next day, had a profound effect on Fares.

His dejection persisted. Fares hoped to spawn a successful singing career after winning Studio El-Fan along with continuing his academic pursuits. But these dreams were crumbling in his feelings of helplessness and despair.

His faith, however, persisted. Fares continued to pray and read the bible, and two months after being released from Libya, came across the Gospel of Matthew 6:26.

“It talks about the lilies and the birds, and how he is able to feed them and take care of them and how they are much better,” Fares said. “So I prayed that prayer. ‘Lord if I am much better than birds and lilies, and you are able to take care of them, then you are definitely able to take care of me.’”

Any young and successful artist develops a sort of ego, Fares noted. When he began his singing career, he admitted, his drive was for the fame, the wealth, the music videos, and the like. But after being held hostage and experiencing two months of utter despair, on the night he read Matthew 6:26, Fares redirected his gaze.

“On that night I told Him, ‘It’s not me anymore, it’s you,'” Fares said. “So I slept that night, and I woke up a new human. No trace of depression. I was full of joy and full of peace.”

From that day forward, Fares dedicated his voice to God, becoming fully immersed in his new vision, mission, and ministry. He recorded three Christian songs that year, all hits within a week. Fares has since recorded 14 Christian albums, three of which are for children.

Fares now travels all over the world doing extensive work for refugees throughout the Middle East, Australia, and Europe. He plays music in refugee camps, and provides whatever it is people need most, be it clothing, food, emotional and moral support, or prayer—he never just sends out money. Fares described that he is committed to being fully present to help how he can best serve those in need. He spent his Easter this year with refugees in Sydney, and will head to Greece and Turkey for two weeks to do similar work starting May 1.

“Nobody really knows the magnitude of sadness and the magnitude of distress that these people are living,” Fares said. “That is why I am going there … doing field work, relief work, and also I do concerts.”

One of Fares’ most memorable—and most heart-wrenching—experiences in working with refugees is the story of a woman called Umm Imad. A Christian who lived in northern Iraq, her neighbors broke into her house, poured gasoline on her daughter, and then lit her on fire. Six days later, the Islamic State invaded her town, and everyone fled, forcing Umm Imad to leave her daughter in the hospital with severe, life-threatening burns.

Two months later, the hospital located Umm Imad and told her to come back, and that her daughter was asking for her.

“The daughter said, ‘I won’t leave this world until I make sure that you forgave the people who burned me,’” Fares said “‘On the third day, Jesus told me that you forgave them, so now I can go in peace,’ and she died.”

Despite these agonizing and sorrowful experiences, Fares emphasizes how he believes God’s hand is still ever-present in life.

“We have the chance to get closer to God or to deny him and deny his presence,” Fares said. “And what I have seen in these people is them getting closer to God.”

Despite his commitment to mission work with refugees, Fares found time to earn his Ph.D. in musicology at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in 2012. That same year, he, along with his wife and two young boys, received green cards to come to the United States. They arrived in 2013, and Fares became a guest artist and lecturer, directing workshops and performances at Tufts and William and Mary. After receiving a call from Ann Lucas, an associate professor in the music department at BC, he began directing the Middle East Ensemble in Jan. 2016.

Since his arrival, Fares has grown the Middle East Ensemble from 10 musicians to 28—teaching multiple students one-on-one to help them understand the complex Middle Eastern scales that are not typically, if at all, present in Western music.

On top of his tireless work with refugees, direction of the Middle East Ensemble, and time spent with his children and wife, Fares is applying for a grant to write a book on the development of Arabic ornamentation and how it evolved between 1904 and 1970. The purpose of the project would be to provide a practical approach for both Western and Middle Eastern people to learn the complex Middle East musical tradition, which he would write in both English and Arabic.

Fares’ schedule is multi-faceted and intense, but he is not intimidated by the business. He continues to work 18-hour days, he said, as he has done so for the past 17 years since being released from Libya.

“I think there is a lot to be achieved,” Fares said. “There is a lot to be done. And time is my enemy.”

Although his voice was once what brought him close to death, it has become the very thing that gives him, and thousands of others, life.

Featured Image Courtesy of Nizar Fares