Lebanese summer festivals celebrate life, culture
Beirut - International rock sensation Mika, world-famous jazz singer Lisa Simone, electric music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre and the Romeo and Juliet ballet were among the array of music celebrities and cultural events featured at Lebanon’s vibrant summer festivals in 2016.
In addition to 12 international events, including renowned festivals in Baalbek and Beiteddine, 78 local cultural and music celebrations were scheduled across the country. All the while, not too far away, war raged in neighbouring Syria while Lebanon is waging its own fight against fanaticism and intolerance.
“This is a proof of Lebanon’s resilience and attachment of the people to their right for life, joy, and culture. This is our way to resist against terrorism.” said Lebanese Minister of Culture Raymond Areiji.
“Our country is physically attacked by these terrorists who do not like our culture, our diversity and open-mindedness. They want to destroy this feature (of Lebanon), while we fight (back) by promoting and developing our cultural life. This is what I call ‘cultural resistance’.”
Lebanon has been hit by several terrorist attacks since the Syrian conflict erupted more than five years ago, including a spate of suicide bombings in June on the border village of al-Qaa, a short distance from Baalbek.
“Despite the potential risks, people are travelling to Baalbek and attending the festival. They are defying certain possible dangers, refusing to be intimidated but (on the contrary) encouraging cultural activity,” Areiji said. He stressed the army and security forces had stepped up security efforts to ensure public safety during festival season.
Commenting on the flurry of festivals sweeping the country, Areiji said: “In Lebanon not everything is explainable, neither in politics nor in the society.
“The festivals have had a contagious effect. Traditionally, it has been Baalbek and Beiteddine, then came Byblos and Tyre festivals. Today, in every region you have an association organising such events with the aim of reviving the local economy and attracting visitors. Why not, since it has a lot of positive impact?”
In addition to promoting Lebanon’s image and enhancing the local economy, the festival season invigorates domestic tourism, the minister said, adding: “It motivates people to travel around the country and interact with compatriots from other regions. They get to know each other better, which is a healthy sign.”
Festival organisers are happy to see their efforts to put on world-class shows being appreciated.
“We should congratulate the Lebanese public for their joie de vivre and for not letting fear ground them. Anxiety and apprehension prevail not only in Lebanon but in France, Brussels and Istanbul, etc. Today, there is no more danger in Baalbek than elsewhere,” said Nayla de Freige, head of the committee of Baalbek International Festival, which marked its 60th anniversary this summer.
Organising a festival in Baalbek, a short distance from the Syrian border, is particularly challenging despite the unique venue at the heart of the famous Roman metropolis in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley. “It has been a permanent challenge but, year after year, we have acquired this dynamics aiming higher, especially as we celebrate our 60th anniversary, we wanted to reinforce our cultural message,” de Freige said.
Convincing international artists to perform in the Middle East proved to be a daunting task. “At first no one wanted to hear about coming to the region, so we decided to proceed differently, getting in touch with artists who already have affinities with Lebanon and know the Lebanese public,” de Freige said. “Big names in the music world like Mika, Louisa Simone and Jean-Michel Jarre were happy to oblige.”
The Ministry of Culture has just rehabilitated the exterior of the Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek’s most impressive monument and where the festival’s main events take place. The work consisted of reinforcing the temple’s columns, cleaning the stones, fencing the site and restoring passages.
All the historic sites from Baalbek to Tyre, Byblos and Beiteddine Palace are placed at the disposal of festival organisers for free as part of the ministry’s contribution and support, Areiji pointed out.
He noted that, despite the very difficult conditions that the region is experiencing, Lebanon has been enjoying a vibrant cultural life, be it in cinema and theatre productions, artistic creations or literary work.
“The Lebanese cinema is improving despite its limited means; every day there is a signing of new books and inauguration of arts exhibitions, new museums and art galleries are opening in addition to annual cultural events such as Beirut Art Fair and Beirut Art Week. I believe that we have a very healthy cultural life and people are attached to it,” Areiji added.
De Freige said cultural life should continue against the many odds to which Lebanon is exposed. “Today, terrorism is spreading fear and destabilising the whole region,” de Freige said. “Nonetheless, we should keep on moving ahead and use all our energy and dynamism in advancing cultural life. It is with culture that we can combat extremism.”