The shows go on amid tensions this festival season in Lebanon

Music, art, and religious festivals, large and small, have become summertime staples in Lebanon, providing entertainment and generating tourist dollars.

al-monitor Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife performs during a concert at the Temple of Bacchus on the opening night of the Baalbek International Festival in Lebanon, July 5, 2019. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Sep 27, 2019

The summer of 2019 in Lebanon was anything but calm, punctuated by episodes of violence and political conflict, but the country’s summer festivals, large and small, carried on, attracting and entertaining locals and tourists around the country.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, Lebanese villages and cities hosted more than 100 licensed festivals. Some of the events are famous — among them the Beiteddine Art Festival and ones in Baalbek, Byblos and Beirut — and others less so, such as the Ehdeniyat International Festival.

The Beiteddine Art Festival, which premiered in 1985, is one of Lebanon's oldest summer events. Named from and held in the capital of the Shouf Mountain region at a 200-year-old palace also taking its name from the city, the festival offers an ambitious program of concerts by Lebanese and international artists as well as art exhibits into late September. This year’s program featured a world premiere performance by the Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared and the acclaimed singer Yasmina Joumblatt accompanied by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. The actor Gerard Depardieu was also on the bill, singing French songs accompanied by piano.

Nora Joumblatt, president of the Beiteddine Art Festival, told Al-Monitor that turnout this year was around 28,000 visitors, which was below expectations. “The [attacks in June and July] had a negative impact on the number of visitors, especially for the first events of the festival,” Joumblatt said.

In early June an alleged Islamic State member killed four security officers in a drive-by shooting in Tripoli, and later in the month an attack against Refugee Affairs Minister Saleh al-Gharib in Aley, a village in Qabrshmoun, left two aides dead and led to clashes between rival political factions and government paralysis.

Joumblatt explained that 30% of festival visitors this year have been foreign tourists, mainly Egyptians, Iraqis and Gulfies, many of whom came for the concerts by the Iraqi singer Kazem al-Saher, who performed in early August.

In addition to the big international music festivals — such as those in Byblos or Baalbek — village festivals are also attracting attention. Zalka Assaf, media officer of the Bisri Festival, spoke to Al-Monitor about the Christian celebration held in Jezzine, a mountain town in the south-central section of the country.

“The event has been held for as long as anyone can remember to commemorate the birth of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary,” Assaf explained. “It starts at the end of August and ends in mid-September. Locals and those who come from other parts of the country gather for prayers and church services. There are also village dinners and gatherings. It ends with the Feast of the Cross celebration on the top of a hill in Bisri, where [people] light candles and hold a traditional village dinner,” Assaf said.

Approximately 4,000 people took part in the festival in the Christian village this year. Our Lady of Bisri Church, built in 1252 AD, is the second oldest church in Lebanon, after the Church of Mar Mama, in Ehden.

Lebanese towns also host summer sporting events, among them the Hammana Motor Show, held in late July this year, in the town by the same name some 16 miles east of Beirut. “The event attracted 25,000 visitors,” Rita Mansour, media officer for the event, told Al-Monitor. “It showcased old and new cars and over 500 motorcycles. It also featured concerts and art exhibitions, which contributed to boosting the economy in the area, not to mention the high sales of oriental foods and sweets.” 

Violette Balaa, an economist and publisher of the Arab Economic News, told Al-Monitor that the culture of festivals in Lebanon began with the Baalbek International Festival in 1956. In the last decade, smaller festivals have mushroomed, which has helped boost domestic tourism. The Lebanese government, however, has recently decreased its support for festivals due to budgetary austerity.

Culture Minister Mohammed Daoud told Al-Monitor that 400 million Lebanese pounds ($263,668) from his ministry’s budget were dedicated this year to local festivals, despite belt tightening by the government. He noted that the festivals, which he confirmed to be more than 100 a year, reflect Lebanon's cultural and creative identity and contribute to the economy by attracting foreign tourists, expatriates and promoting domestic tourism.

Balaa underscored the importance of tourism for Lebanon’s economy, asserting that it accounts for 23% of gross national product, despite setbacks this year. “Although the travel warning [to Saudis visiting] Lebanon was lifted Feb. 13, 2019, Gulf tourists are no longer flocking to the country as before, which is due to the [recent attacks],” she said. In addition, tensions flared this fall between Hezbollah and Israel, rattling nerves with threatening statements and missile firings.

Nora Joumblatt from the Beiteddine Art Festival pointed out that tourist visits surrounding her festival have led to new hotels and guesthouses being built in the past few years. During the festival, she said, hotels in the area are fully booked.

Tony al-Rami, president of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-clubs and Pastries, told Al-Monitor that in June the syndicate conducted an assessment on tourism that showed a 17% increase in visitors, from 197,000 to 243,000, compared to in June 2018.

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