Beirut Christmas carolling comes with a revolutionary twist

Beirut Chants is not just about bringing culture to the masses and bonding over beautiful music; it is also about voicing a powerful message.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Sheikh Ahmad Hawili (L) and soprano Ghada Shbeir. (Beirut Chants Festival)
Sheikh Ahmad Hawili (L) and soprano Ghada Shbeir. (Beirut Chants Festival)

BEIRUT - While the drums of the popular anti-government rebellion were beating in Beirut’s streets during violent clashes in recent days, Christmas carols and Muslim Sufi hymns were sung in churches for the annual Beirut Chants Festival.

The pre-Christmas event, with 28 free concerts over December 1-23, offered the public a much-needed break from the pressures of the political and socio-economic crisis gripping Lebanon as attendees indulged in peaceful and spiritual, yet revolutionary, musical performances.

“We believe that music should be free for all, as we believe in tolerance and coexistence among different cultures and religions because we believe in unity,” said Micheline Abi Samra, founder of Beirut Chants Festival.

“Definitely the intercultural Islamic-Christian aspect is always present in the festival, and every year it is more pronounced and more sophisticated. Quranic chants are being chanted in churches at the same time as Christmas carols to encourage tolerance and mutual acceptance and understanding and to get to know each other better,” Abi Samra said.

Since the festival was founded 12 years ago, Lebanon has united each December for concerts in that very spirit, using culture and music to spread a message of hope for the country. This year it is even more pronounced with the anti-government rebellion that united protesters across Lebanon’s religions and regions.

The concerts draw thousands of people to churches around Beirut every night for one or two hours of music — some classical, some religious and some unexpected, such as the revolutionary and nationalistic songs that marked some of this year’s concerts.

“This year, it is a miracle that we are still going on. I myself cannot believe it when I look at the churches and I see that every single night crowds are more numerous with different ages, different backgrounds and yet they are one when they listen to beautiful music,” Abi Samra said.

Beirut Chants is not just about bringing culture to the masses and bonding over beautiful music; it is also about voicing a powerful message.

One of the most acclaimed concerts was a religious event that combined Quranic singing by Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmad Hawili and soprano Ghada Shbeir at the Saint Joseph Church in downtown Beirut.

Sheikh Hawili, a Lebanese Sufi singer, and Shbeir, who has a doctorate in Syriac chants, the oldest form of Christian singing, enchanted the audience.

“I found it unique and mesmerising,” said audience member Randa Imad. “The fact that there are a cleric and a vocalist singing lyrics from the Quran and the Bible, sometimes as a duo or alternately, was fascinating. The church was packed. The atmosphere was great. They even placed seats in the alleys to accommodate the crowd.”

Beirut Chants began in 2007 when Abi Samra said she wanted to make use of the beautifully renovated churches in Beirut and thought to bring life to those spaces to “feel that the community is participating and living the Christmas spirit in a beautiful way.”

The revolutionary mood prevailing in Lebanon affected this year’s festival, intertwining with the Christmas spirit.

Members of the rebellious young generation seeking change while expressing their attachment to Lebanon were well-served by Lebanese musician, composer and pianist Guy Manoukian, accompanying al Fayha choir, a group of 100 singers from all denominations. National and patriotic songs inflamed the Assembly Hall at the American University of Beirut (AUB), where the concert took place.

“What I lived in that particular concert I haven’t lived for 12 years since Beirut Chants started. The national mood and the ambiance were already there… Emotions were high. People sang along and cried,” Abi Samra said.

The performance by an ensemble from the Balamand University Choir and soprano Reem Deeb at the Assembly Hall was another highlight of the festival.

Deeb presented a surprise song that sounded as a perfect contribution to the revolutionary situation. Some of the lyrics translate as follows: “In times of pain and poverty, Beirut cries for people’s hunger and people’s eyes weep for people’s thirst, yet, the Christmas spirit gives people back their dignity and faith.”

An AUB student who attended the performance said the surprise anthem was “a beautiful addition to the festival, especially in times of hopelessness.”

The people who gave standing ovations at the concerts understood the message of love and tolerance and the big hope that the differences in the Lebanese society are its strengths, Abi Samra said.

“We should work on more projects that make us all one nation,” she added.

Lebanon has been rocked by unprecedented popular protests over official mismanagement and corruption since October 17.

A riot police officer stands next of a Christmas tree during a protest near the parliament square in downtown Beirut, December 14.        (AP)
A riot police officer stands next of a Christmas tree during a protest near the parliament square in downtown Beirut, December 14. (AP)
Lebanese visitors gather around a Christmas tree made of discarded plastic water bottles in the  northern coastal town of Chekka, December 15.	  (AFP)
Lebanese visitors gather around a Christmas tree made of discarded plastic water bottles in the northern coastal town of Chekka, December 15. (AFP)
24