Lebanon's Summer Festivals

Etel Adnan

Dear Elie,

As I write this I have been listening to the radio and watching TV, and it is impossible not to be moved and profoundly upset by what has followed Sharon's visit to the holiest of Jerusalem's mosques. It is hard to realize that we have spent a lifetime witnessing such scenes of provocation and arrogance. But I intended to write about my summer in Lebanon and, in fact, the very joy of that recent summer should be and is a response to tragedy and outrage: we must - at any price, in any times - answer despair with the affirmation of life.

The summer in Lebanon was marked by a number of small festivals and two major festivals: the one in Baalbeck and the one in Beiteddine.

The Baalbeck Festival has, for the Lebanese, great symbolic value. Since before the war and for more than 20 years, this organization has displayed the greatest competence, and its quality has earned its international standing. The festival is beautiful in itself and located in a magical place. Every aspect of the festival earns the public's interest.

The Baalbeck Festival is now trying to reach the level of its prewar programming, but the old infrastructure has been destroyed, and its organizers have had to rebuild from nothing. Even the festival archives were destroyed during the civil war. For the 2000 season I would say that the best moments included a concert by the Lebanese singer Fadia al-Hajj and the first visit to Lebanon of the Merce Cunningham Dance company from New York.

Nora Jumblatt, the wife of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, poured her intuition and efforts into the creation of the Beiteddine Festival at the end of the civil war.

The nation seized upon her idea: the festival instantly became a symbol of Lebanon's will for cultural resurrection. The town of Beiteddine is about 40 minutes from Beirut by car and the location for one of the most beautiful palaces of Arab architecture anywhere in the world. The Jumblatts restored the palace (which is now also the presidential summer residence) and provided all the equipment needed for a music festival of major standing.

The most remarkable event in this year's Beiteddine Festival (a year which also featured Jessye Norman's success singing to Duke Ellington's "Sacred Music") was the return of Fayrouz to the Lebanese stage.

Fayrouz gave two concerts and the festival added a third one by popular demand; she sang a few of her old classics, but mainly new songs set to music by Ziyad Rahbani, her son, who is a great and versatile artist - pianist, composer, stage director, singer, and performer. Public response was delirious. As I went to these concerts I felt the urge to record my impressions and pay tribute to Fayrouz: this was published the morning of the added concert, August 6, in the French-speaking Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour, where I was on staff in the early 1970s. I would like to share that experience with Al Jadid and its readers. 
- Etel Adnan

Ascent to Beiteddine

By Etel Adnan

The simple trip from Beirut to Beiteddine that the public had to make in order to hear Fayrouz August 4 and 5 suddenly transformed into a real pilgrimage. Each night more than 5,000 people took to the road, with fervor, for the "comeback" of the great singer whose reputation has for a long time spilled over Lebanon's borders.

Fayrouz appeared to a shower of applause. She had the audience under her spell from her first words. She stood straight in the midst of a symphonic orchestra, in front of an immense crowd, looking at the public and beyond, searching within her soul to find the ambiguity which turns, with genius, the introspective figure that she is into a popular star.

"She projects a strange eroticism; she unveils all that she is and all that she could be, but still keeps her secret, which both maddens and transports her audience: they have to deal with a pop star and a recluse in the same moment, in the same intonation."

Some would say that her voice isn't as powerful as it used to be but singing is not a sports competition; she has the courage to face the public at an age when so many have stopped decades before.

Yet, this indescribable voice has grown with time, has acquired a strange power of intimacy and emotion: while, in the past, she reigned as a queen over a public subjugated by her incomparable voice, these last days she has sung for each of us, as if she were reaching directly into the region of the spirit where body and soul meet upon a common frontier. Though remaining distant as she can be, and always is, she came close to our souls and, in the end, spoke to us about our own selves.

Despite the many sorrows betrayed on her face, her voice expressed a profound generosity that the audience, essentially young people, applauded by whistling, stamping, dancing, and listening.

As she proceeded from song to song, she receded into her memory. Her old power returned, and with it those inflexions which are hers in particular, and with which she transforms the most ordinary words into a mystical experience.

She knows how to rise and remain still, like one of these genial icons that one unexpectedly finds sometimes in little-known churches on little-known islands; she transfixes the crowd with her immense eyes and seduces, charms, and casts a spell on them. She projects a strange eroticism; she unveils all that she is and all that she could be, but still keeps her secret, which both maddens and transports her audience: they have to deal with a pop star and a recluse in the same moment, in the same intonation. Her voice is a musical instrument, close to the instruments of the orchestra and still very distinct, remaining audible in an ocean of sounds, an instrument that she seems to have invented and yet seems so natural.

Fayrouz gave the festival its etymological sense of a popular and sacred feast. Accordingly she often reproduced some mythological gestures, bringing her pale hands around and on her face, to greet the crowds and receive from them the homage which was overwhelming her.

And then, little by little, towards the end, her audience lit the night with their cigarette lighters, little trembling lights which created thousands of little boats riding upon a sea of people; they came to hear her until the last ballad, to reassure themselves that this legend was alive and real, this woman sorrowful and triumphant like no one else has ever been. AJ

The French version of this article appeared in the Beirut-based French daily, L'Orient-Le Jour," August 6, 2000

This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 32 (Summer 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid