Come for the music, stay for the arak


It seems like there’s a summer festival in just about every village in Lebanon, with more launching every year. Surprisingly, one of Lebanon’s largest cities, Zahle, hasn’t had an international scale festival like those of other large, historic cities until now. At last, Zahle is on the international festival map with not one, but two new festivals this summer, providing more reasons to visit the pearl of the Bekaa.

Zahle International Festival

On July 15, the Zahle International Festival plans to launch at the newly built Elias Skaff Forum, with José Carreras and 70 musicians from the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. One third of the original Three Tenors, and one of the world’s top singers, Carreras is currently on his final world tour. The following night, two of Lebanon’s biggest pop stars, Nancy Ajram and Ragheb Alama, will be performing. The second weekend of the festival features another Lebanese pop superstar, Assi El Hallani, and a night of Spanish and Cuban music and dance, Noche Latina.

Festival founder Myriam Skaff credits her late husband, politician Elias Skaff with the idea of the festival, explaining that it has been on hold for four years due to instability in the Bekaa region. She hopes the initiative will draw in tourists and have a positive economic impact on Zahle. Expecting an estimated 8000 attendees, she says that some of those coming from Jordan, Cyprus, Turkey, and the GCC have already booked local hotels. “Of course, all local businesses will benefit from these crowds visiting the city,” she says, adding that such festivals also forge stronger relationships within the local community. “People in Zahle are glad and proud that their city is hosting these international events and attracting all these visitors and tourists, and this can only be reflected in their relationships with one another regardless of their different political affiliations. This positive spirit is really needed in a city like Zahle,” she says.

Oumsiyat Zahle International Festival

A month later, The Oumsiyat Zahle International Festival will be held at Zahle Municipal Park. Internationally acclaimed Lebanese soprano Hiba Tawaji opens the festival on August 11 with her beautiful melodies, produced by Oussama Rahbani. The second night of the festival features beloved French songstress Patricia Kaas, back in Lebanon and performing her hit songs for the first time in Zahle. One of the most popular Lebanese singers of today, Wael Kfoury, will close the festival.

Oumsiyat festival president Magda Rizk says that it’s time a historic city like Zahle, which already has so much to offer, also hosts international events the way other cities have renowned festivals in Lebanon. “We want to create movement in the city and Zahle deserves this,” she says, adding, “This is what the people of Zahle have been dreaming of.” Explaining all the hard work that went into the research, program, organization, and production, Rizk hopes all of Lebanon will come to Zahle for the concerts and that the festival will add value to the local community by bringing culture directly to their doorstep. She says, “People need to be exposed to these kinds of cultural events, especially young people.”

A tale of two festivals

It’s not easy to organize a festival of that scale, let alone for the first time, and both organizers expressed numerous challenges, from establishing an identity, planning finances, working on logistics and production, as well as coming up with programs that accommodate the audiences they wish to attract. Rizk says they went for a varied program to attract the widest possible audience including people from surrounding areas — a strategy many large festivals implement. Skaff stresses the importance of teamwork, saying: “I was supported by a great, dynamic, and hardworking team who wanted the best for their city.”

The two festivals are not collaborating and the municipality of Zahle is working only with the Oumsiyat festival. At a press conference for the Oumsiyat festival, the city’s mayor Assad Zogaib expressed his hopes that Oumsiyat — which means nights — would be just that, nights spent in Zahle, saying that festival goers should use the opportunity of already being in Zahle to stay longer and enjoy its local flavors. He added that all initiatives that help the city are encouraged.

Zahle has been getting the nation’s attention in recent years, particularly for its 24-hour electricity — a luxury Beirut can only dream of. Yet the city has traditionally been a popular destination for tourists. Also known as the City of Wine and Poetry, it is home to poets like Said Akl and has a long history of winemaking and arak production. Perched just above the Bekaa Valley, with its historic churches and archaeological sites, Zahle was recently bestowed the title of UNESCO City of Gastronomy. One of its most popular spots is the Berdawni River promenade, a trickle surrounded by lush greenery, sprouting with traditional restaurants, where for decades Lebanese have gathered under the shady trees over sprawling mezza and arak. This is where Mayor Zogaib hopes visitors will gather after the concerts are over.

It’s not clear why the festivals have chosen to launch at the same time, in the same city, both claiming to want to help Zahle, but not working together for the same goal. Executive Life hopes the two organizations behind these beautiful initiatives find ways to work around their differences to produce the kinds of events the city, its people, and Lebanon surely deserve.


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