For You Baalbeck: A tribute to Middle East’s oldest international festival
BEIRUT - Under the slogan of Ilik Ya Baalbeck — For You Baalbeck — Lebanon’s world-renowned Baalbeck International Festival will take place at the majestic temples of the Roman acropolis, defying security challenges on the porous Lebanese-Syrian border, just a few kilometres away.
The 2015 edition of the oldest and most prestigious cultural event in the Middle East is scheduled to kick off July 31st with a special tribute to the city. About a dozen internationally prominent Lebanese musicians, writers and composers, including Gabriel Yared and Abdel Rahman El Bacha, created original works dedicated to Baalbeck.
“It is a cultural battle that we have been waging for years,” Nayla De Freij, chairwoman of the festival’s committee, said in an interview with The Arab Weekly. “Challenges related to security and unpredicted developments in Lebanon have existed for many years. Nonetheless, we have always prepared the event with the mindset of holding it in its original venue, the temples of Baalbeck.”
In the past two years, the spillover of border violence from neighbouring Syria led to moving the festival from its majestic venue to the more secure premises of an old silk factory on the outskirts of Beirut. The festival was half way through in Baalbeck last year when a battle broke out in the adjacent border town of Arsal between the Lebanese Army and Syrian Islamist rebels, in which 17 soldiers were killed and 27 taken hostage.
The festival’s ensuing shows were relocated to places nearer Beirut.
“We got used to facing and adapting to permanent challenges. It is not only this year… when there is a difficult situation, it is in all of Lebanon, not in Baalbeck only,” De Freij said, stressing that the festival’s mission is to keep alive artistic endeavours, even in an unstable geopolitical environment. “Our role is to put up a cultural resistance in order to keep this city lively.”
Baalbeck Mayor Hamad Hassan sounded upbeat about the safety of the upcoming festival. “The security situation has significantly improved and the security threats which had prevented the organisers from holding the festival inside the ruins in the past two years do not exist anymore,” Hassan said confidently.
“The (Syrian) Qalamoun area, from which a few rockets were fired at Baalbeck in the past, is now safe and secured by the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah, which means that there is no real or serious threat for the festival,” he told The Arab Weekly.
Syria’s Qalamoun region, which straddles the eastern border with Lebanon, was the site of recent clashes during which fighters of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah beat back Syria’s Islamist rebels. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been fighting on the side of the regime forces for more than two years.
“The fact that the festival will be held in Baalbeck is in itself a good indicator that the security situation is under control,” Hassan said.
Baalbeck Governor Bachir Khodr pointed out that exceptional security measures would be implemented during the festival, which is scheduled for July 31st through August 30th. “Security forces and the army will be deployed on the road leading into the city,” Khodr told The Arab Weekly. “We definitely do not need such high (security) measures but it gives extra assurance for visitors during the festival.”
The festival was established in Lebanon’s “Golden Age” in 1956 and has hosted a number of the greatest artists in the West and the Arab world, including Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Sting and Arab diva Oum Kalthoum, and saw the debut of Lebanese singer Fairuz.
The concerts are normally staged in impressive, well-preserved Roman temples dedicated to Bacchus and Jupiter.
From 1975, the festival was interrupted as the country plunged into its 15-year civil war. It resumed in 1997 but was dramatically disrupted in 2006 when Israeli bombardments began on the night of the pre-opening performance that is traditionally dedicated for the people of Baalbeck. It was the start of a 33-day war that killed more than 1,200 people and devastated the Lebanese infrastructure.
Finding artists of international portfolio to perform in Baalbeck, a Hezbollah hotbed, has proved to be tricky. De Freij explained that the committee has developed a tendency to approach artists who have affinities or existing ties with Lebanon.
“It is not only about Lebanon, you also have performers who prefer to stay away from the whole region,” she said. The festival’s 2015 edition is to feature jazz legend Richard Bona, Moroccan tango vocalist Hindi Zahra, oriental diva Mayyada el Hennawi and world-famous disco and funk music band, the Earth Wind & Fire Experience.
Baalbeck’s residents are said to be looking forward to the event, which they hope will attract thousands of visitors and tourists, who have been kept away by poor security.
“We await the festival season each year with the hope that it will revive the economic activity in the city and compensate for slower days during the year,” said Ihab Raad, owner of a souvenir shop near the citadel.
To his neighbour, Mohammed Shouman who runs a tourism services agency, the festival “will surely have a positive impact on the city and encourage the people to come to Baalbeck”.
On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Baalbeck International Festival, the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France has scheduled a special evening on July 6th to pay tribute to the “resilience” of Baalbeck.
When the lights go up at the Temple of Bacchus on July 31st and the festival’s opening act of Ilik Ya Baalbeck starts with the sounds of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, a collective show of joy and happiness is the least one could expect.