July 25, 2008 / 12:10 AM / 9 years ago

Festival spirit defies instability in Lebanon

6 Min Read

BEITEDDIN, Lebanon (Reuters) - Lyrical notes from the saxophone of U.S. jazz artist Branford Marsalis waft into the cool night air of a mountain palace courtyard in Lebanon.

The applause generated by the fine music also seems to carry overtones of joy and relief that Lebanon's summer festivals are back after two years of cancellations forced by a war with Israel in 2006 and battles with Islamist militants last year.

"It means normal life is coming back, hopefully, and it's a positive sign," said Karen Kilejian, a supermarket finance officer, outside the early 19th-century palace of Beiteddin.

Grappling with instability is nothing new to organizers, audiences and performers at cultural events in Lebanon.

The festival at Beiteddin, in the Shouf hills southeast of Beirut, began in 1985 at the height of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war -- years when the glories of Baalbek's venerable festival were a distant memory and its brooding Roman ruins lay silent.

The casually dressed audience at Beiteddin were glad of a chance to escape, if only briefly, from the political tensions and eruptions of violence that beset their tiny country.

"You have two kinds of people, those who live by their culture and those who live by arms," said Jean-Marie Megalbani, a 63-year-old surgeon. "We hope that the cultural aspect will prevail, that democracy and human rights will prevail."

For Majida al-Roumi, a Lebanese singer renowned across the Arab world, the revival of Beiteddin, where she will perform on August 9, and the other festivals proves Lebanon's resilience.

"The Lebanese people have a fighter's will. They don't surrender to death," she told Reuters in the lush garden of her family's home at Kfarshima, overlooking Beirut airport.

"The will to live is stronger than death, happiness is stronger than sadness, and peace is stronger than war."

Nevertheless, organizers still faced tough decisions before going ahead with the 2008 festivals, all planned while Lebanon was gripped by a paralyzing political crisis which degenerated briefly into street fighting that killed 80 people in May.

"Against Hatred"

Acknowledging that political conditions were very difficult, spokeswoman Asma Freiha said the Baalbek festival had a cultural mission to the Middle East and helped lure tourists to Lebanon.

"It's like a challenge that beyond all odds we can do something cultural, just to be there against the war and the hatred and all these problems," she said.

Baalbek festival was founded in 1956 and in its pre-civil war heyday drew performers like Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Um Kalthoum, Herbert von Karajan, Jean Cocteau and Fairuz.

This year's line-up is less stellar, but just as eclectic a mix -- from Algerian singer Wardeh to Mexican diva Astrid Hadad, classical soprano Hamik Papian and Brazilian jazz singer Tania Maria, as well as Lebanese-born British pop star Mika.

Mika, brought to Lebanon in partnership with the Beiteddin festival, will perform in downtown Beirut on July 27 with a target audience of 15,000 to help the budgets of both festivals.

Organizers are keeping their fingers crossed that nothing will happen to disrupt their programmes this year.

Wafa Saab, spokeswoman for Beiteddin, recalled the misery of 2006 when war between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israel broke out on July 12, two days before the first scheduled performance.

"Everything was ready, we were just waiting for the artists to come," she said. "Then we had to cancel everything."

This year potential performers were hesitant to commit themselves, given a political crisis which had left Lebanon without a president for six months until May and without a functioning parliament or an uncontested government.

"Some of them needed a lot of convincing. Some were not convinced," Saab said. "We couldn't blame them."

She said the festival sought to bring only high-quality acts to Lebanon, where "a lot of the performing arts, music, theatre and others has been really commercialized in recent years."

Some critics say the festivals have also succumbed to the trend and do little to enrich an impoverished local arts scene.

"They open up the cosmopolitan spirit among Lebanese, the openness to the outside and the relation between East and West," said Abbas Beydoun, cultural editor of Beirut's as-Safir daily.

But he argued that the money spent on the festivals, or even the small government subsidy some receive, was needed more badly by Lebanon's ailing theatres and nebulous film industry.

"We have the festivals, but no (local) theatre companies," he complained. "The actors and directors are all out of work. Like all countries, Lebanon needs a cultural and artistic base."

Whether such worries are valid or not, they don't spoil the mood of festival-goers in Beiteddin's elegant arched courtyards.

"The atmosphere is beautiful and the natural acoustics are very nice," said housewife Tamara Zeidan. "We try to ignore the political upheavals and live our lives as much as we can."

Editing by Jon Boyle

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