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French Version

Baalbek Festival : A national symbol for all the people

Anchored in Lebanese and Near Eastern life - the Baalbek Festival marks the 50th year of its birth this summer

In 1955 on the occasion of the first Baalbek International Festival held in the ancient Roman ruins of the famed city in the eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon's second post-independence president Camille Chamoun wrote: "The historical role of Lebanon has been since time immemorial, is now, and will continue to be primarily the development of culture and civilization. In organizing this International Festival in the magnificent temples of Baalbek at which great classic works of music and drama of rare beauty and power have been presented, Lebanon has been conscious of and faithful to its heritage."

The president's rhetoric began the process that by 1960 had seen the Baalbek Festival become a hugely important national symbol for Lebanon - deeply associated with the country.

In that year, the then president of the Festival committee, Aimee Kettaneh, said in the official program that the festival was forever and finally "anchored in Lebanese and Near Eastern life. Years of effort and promise and initiatives are harvested today in a rich program spread over five weeks on this plentiful Bekaa plain to restore to it its cultural glow promised 2,000 years ago by the builders and great priests."

If Lebanon ever needed a modern national symbol for the nation and a belief and passion for culture, one embodied by Baalbek, then that day is today.

Thankfully, May Arida, the current president of the festival, announced yesterday at the luxury Albergo boutique hotel in Beirut, that Baalbek would not fail in its responsibilities in 2005 and despite the tense situation that has prevailed in the country since February 14 - when the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, led to massive protests and the eventual withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanon - the festival (albeit smaller than in recent years) would go ahead.

As Chamoun had noted Lebanon's civilizational and cultural mission half a century ago, Arida now noted the Baalbek Festival's role in pursuing the same mission today.

"During these last few historical months you (the Lebanese people) have manifested the desire to believe in a dynamic country, looking ahead to the future," Arida said.

"The duty of the Baalbek International Festival as a cultural and tourism pillar is to participate in this drive, and continue our action, with optimism and enthusiasm."

The only occasion on which the festival did not go ahead was in the violence-marked summer of 1958 and the civil war years from 1976 on. Since the mid-90s Baalbek has returned with a varied program of events - some not so well-informed and others brilliant.

This year, though the full program has not yet been announced, the concerts will nearly all take place on the steps of and inside the Temple of Bacchus, as opposed to the larger productions that have in the past taken place on the steps of what was once the massive Temple of Jupiter.

"We think it's good to change the site within the temple complexes of where we put on shows for variation. Last year we staged the Lebanese-French play "The Emigrant of Brisbane" on a stage between the temple of Bacchus and temple of Jupiter," said Nayla de Freige, vice-president of the festival committee.

Of what will in the end amount to four or possibly five performances (the committee are as tight lipped as ever) over the months of July and August in Baalbek, The Daily Star can reveal that one will be a famous American jazz band, one a major classical event, another a top French act and as tradition requires one will be an oriental evening - though which Arabic stars will perform is yet to be confirmed.

Nevertheless, the fact that in it's 50th year when Lebanon sadly is still suffering from rumblings of sectarian strife and residue of foreign occupation, the national symbol that is the Baalbek International Festival is going ahead, must be seen as a major recognition of the passion of all the peoples of Lebanon for peace and unity - and the pursuit of a vibrant cultural life.

It remains uncertain whether that other symbol of the nation and of the festival, Fairuz, associated inextricably with Baalbek, since her first show there in 1957, will grace the temple steps in 2005.

Beirut,05 16 2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star
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