Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s oldest and most prestigious annual arts festival is moving out of its majestic 9,000-year-old venue for the first time, in order to escape Syria’s violent spillover into the country.
The Baalbeck International Festival was last disrupted during Lebanon’s conflict with Israel in 2006, and was suspended for more than two decades after the country’s civil war broke out in 1975.
This year, festival organisers decided to press on with plans – in spite of a barrage of rockets that have recently hit the city of Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley, a tourist attraction that boasts ancient Roman ruins.
Making do without that backdrop for its shows, the Baalbeck International Festival leaves its host city this summer for the relative safety of the capital, Beirut.
The festival was established in Lebanon’s “golden years” of the 1950s, and hosted a number of musical greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Sting and the late Arab music sensation Warda al-Jazair. The concerts are normally perched inside the two immense, well-preserved Roman temples dedicated to Bacchus and Jupiter.
“[Baalbeck International Festival’s relocation] sends a message that we are insistent about this country and carrying on, and that life goes on.”
– Fadi Abboud, tourism minister
The festival’s relocation to a yet-to-be announced venue in Beirut will accompany a delay to its five scheduled acts by more than one month. The festival’s headline act, US soprano singer Renee Fleming, has cancelled.
“[The festival’s relocation] sends a message that we are insistent about this country and carrying on, and that life goes on,” said caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud.
“We have a security situation… so we cannot risk keeping the location.”
Baalbeck, a stronghold of the Lebanese political-militia group Hezbollah, was hit for the first time by rocket fire from war-torn Syria this month. Two rockets landed near the city’s Roman ruins, while another three struck the city centre.
The attack came after Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters wrested control of the Syrian border town of Qusayr from rebel groups on June 5.
The city’s surrounding areas of Arsal, Hermel and the Bekaa valley have been frequent sites of Syrian rebel fire over the past year, causing several deaths.
The cross-border fighting in these areas, as well as intensified sectarian violence in the northern city of Tripoli have kept visitors away from a country that relies heavily on tourism. The country also suffers from a power vacuum after Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s resignation earlier this year, and parliament’s constitutionally questionable extension of its tenure this month by a year and a half.
The number of visitors to the country has dropped by 12.5 percent since last year, and by more than 53 percent since fighting broke out in neighbouring Syria in 2011.
Still, Abboud insisted the numbers are “not catastrophic”, adding that ticket sales to the country’s festivals are in a “very good” state. “Gulf Arab tourists may be boycotting Lebanon this year, this does not mean that the Lebanese are, too,” he said.
Several Gulf Arab states have recently advised their nationals against travelling to Lebanon, though visitors from the Gulf accounted for a considerable portion of the country’s income from the hospitality industry between 2000 and 2010.
Yet many Lebanese and foreign performing artists are refusing to sidestep the nearly one-third of the country engulfed in violence – insisting the show must go on,
Jounieh’s international festival opened last week with an extravagant fireworks show, and young people from around the capital flocked to Beirut’s Central District for a 50-musician strong music festival organised by the French embassy.
“We were born in war,” said Hala Chahine, director of Lebanon’s Beiteddine International Festival. “We are used to this situation, and the festivals come as an act of peace. So we will keep going on until the situation becomes unacceptable, and for as long as people attend our shows.
“People want to come out to the shows to get a change of air from the situation in this country.”
Some 3,500 people showed up for Beiteddine’s opening show in the Chouf Valley, as well as more than 70 Lebanese and international artists. Nearly a dozen international musicians are set to perform in Lebanon in the coming months, including US hip-hop artist Akon and singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey.
“It’s a pity that we’re not going to see this setting last year … But the relocation is also important due to the security situation. I’d rather that the festival happens.“
– Haig Papazian, violinist
So far, only Fleming has cancelled her show. The festival’s organisers say the cancelation was made prior the outbreak in violence in Baalbeck, however.
For the Lebanese, Baalbeck Festival’s relocation from the awe-inspiring ancient city represents a painful compromise that must be made, so ordinary life may continue.
“The setting was surreal and out of this world, with the walls and pillars appearing completely out of scale,” said Haig Papazian, violinist of the homegrown music sensation Mashrou’ Leila, of their performance in the Bacchus Temple last year.
“It’s a pity that we’re not going to see this setting this year… But the relocation is also important due to the security situation. I’d rather that the festival happens.”
Follow Tamara Qiblawi on Twitter: @tamaraqiblawi