Arts events help to attract tourists, but a lack of funding could leave them in limbo
Is it time for Lebanon’s festivals to face the music?
Shakira and Elton John played one-off concerts in Lebanon in recent months, but the summer music festivals that helped make the country a cultural lodestar for the Arab world are struggling.
In the 1960s and 1970s, jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Miles Davis, and the greatest Arab singers, Umm Kulthum and Fairouz, performed at ruined Roman temples during the Baalbek International Festival or at pretty seaside towns. Tourists from the Gulf came to watch and the festivals helped bring ordinary Lebanese people together. But that pre-war heyday is long gone.
“We worry that we will get to the point where we cannot go on,” says Nora Jumblatt, head of Lebanon’s Beiteddine Art Festival, which takes place in an elegant Ottoman-era palace in the Chouf Mountains, where her husband, Walid Jumblatt, is leader of the Druze sect.
While this year’s festivals are putting some well-known singers on stage, regional instability, Lebanon’s economic malaise and a funding crunch have hit organisers.
Years of political sclerosis have played havoc with fiscal policy, aggravating one of the world’s highest rates of public debt. As the government began tightening its belt, it cut subsidies for festivals and increased the taxes they pay. “We call on the Lebanese government not to reduce its help, not to increase taxes,” says Nayla De Freij, chairwoman of the Baalbek International Festival.
Gradual economic decline has hit private sponsorship. And fear of the Syrian war spilling over, as well as Lebanon’s growing entanglement in a regional power struggle, have kept tourists away.
But after a deal in 2016 that led to the first parliament elections for nine years in May, and as warfare in Syria has moved away from Lebanon’s borders, politicians have started to speak of recovery. “Today we are at a crossroads in Lebanon. We are starting to move towards rebuilding infrastructure and at the same time its economic vision is being formed,” says caretaker economy minister Raed Khoury.
Whether that can help the festivals, or bring back Gulf tourists, is uncertain. Big winners in May’s elections were Iran-backed Hezbollah. “What affected us is the absence of all the Arab brothers who came from their countries. We used to get a very big number and some of them used to fly in to watch one concert,” says Elham Kallab, head of the cultural board of Byblos International Festival.
The Byblos festival takes place on the ancient city’s seafront, near the old city, with its Phoenician temple, Roman theatre, Crusader castle and winding souk. “When we stand and look at the stage, with the Mediterranean in front of it and dozens of civilisations behind it, we feel so much pride to be in Byblos,” says Kallab.
The stage of the Baalbek International Festival – Lebanon’s oldest having been started in 1956 – is even more spectacular, wedged between the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus, among the largest and best preserved Roman temples in the world. But it, too, faces economic pressures. Like the other festivals, its revenue comes from ticket sales, sponsorship and government subsidy – all of which are under pressure. “There are challenges and we have to fight, but it’s very important that we preserve the standard of the festival,” says De Freij.
Festival organisers – and many politicians – see the events as important not only for the tourists they bring but because they portray Lebanon as a safe, stable and attractive place to visit. “They show this open, cultural image of Lebanon to the world,” says Nora Jumblatt, recalling the first Beiteddine festival during the civil war year of 1986 as an event that was able to bring people together.
But for all their importance to the tourism sector and even, for some people, to Lebanon’s image of itself, the festivals remain in difficulty. Zalfa Bouez, head of the Zouk Mikael International Festival, which takes place every July in the town of the same name in a Roman-styled amphitheatre, says: “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but this year is the toughest for the festivals yet.”