Celebrating summer with festivals: Egypt and Arab region join the seasonal gleam

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 23 Jul 2016

From Tunisia and Algeria to Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine... Summer calls for festivals to infuse the regional stages with events featuring local and international musicians

Summer festivals
(Photos: Ahram, courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Seal photo: Reuters, Roman theatre in El Djem photo: Agnieszka Wolska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Each season of the year has its own charms. Summer is time for holidays, travel or at least some well-deserved break from the yearly routine. This is where artistic festivals step in, becoming a refreshing addition to life and its rejoicing livers across the world. At the same time, they become a magnet for the towns and cities or even remote locations where they are held. But while news of the many international festivals overwhelm us with their line-ups, let us not forget that the Arab region does not lag behind.

Yet, before we look into the selection of festivals offered by Egypt’s cultural scene – and before we peak into the summer energy of Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and even Palestine, before we even try to understand how distinctive those festivals are – it is important to shed light on one common characteristic that binds them: the celebration of arts and artists and the festive spirit enveloping theatres, stages, audiences and performers.

After all that is exctly what the word “festival” is about: it comes from Latin adjective “festivus”, or “festive” in English, and from its linguistic sibling “festus” which means “joyful”, “merry”, “cheerful” or simply “festive”. Naturally, today we often ignore the religious connotations that characterised the Latin adjective and “festival” is used for celebrations whether they are embedded in spirituality or not.

Festivals are as old as humanity. Going all the way back to ancient Egypt, we find plenty of celebratory music and dance. Though most such events had a cultic character, there were also numerous civil celebrations adorning the nobility’s banquets, serving as a show-off of combats or simply as street festivities.

On the other side of the Mediterranean and somewhat later in history, Greece gave birth to numerous festivals as well. Many of them were part of a doctrinal practice, where praise of gods was often accompanied by an athletic showcase (the Isthmian Games or Heraia), while the Pythian Games focused on music contests topped with athletic segments. Let’s not forget Athen’s famed Dionysia, an opportunity for the playwrights to present their creative accomplishments.

History spreads its wings over time, geography and cultures, providing testimonies to the large variety of festivals, including modern, commercially driven events. No matter how different they might be from their precedents in terms of content and purpose, whether they represent a doctrinal practice or a need to revolt against it, whether they are a simple celebration of a creative knowledge and skills or include competitions and awards, all share a celebratory character and aim to provide both participants and the audience a sense of joy and accomplishment.

Audience of all generations cheers during performance of Marcel Khalife at Al Azhar Park, 2014

Joy of the feast

No writer that I am aware of managed to capture the festive spirit better than the iconic 19th-century French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. He opens his famed novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame with a detailed depiction of the Feast of Fools, a popular medieval festival practiced in Europe, particularly in France.

And even if the festivities – which in Hugo’s novel take place in January 1482 – are an excuse for the author to elaborate on the many social pains inflicted by the monarchs and clerics of the time; even if it is an “accursed festival”, as puts it one of the characters, Pierre Gringore, the French poet and playwright who courted philosophy, this very first scene becomes a rare literary source of study of a popular festival, distant in time but not in character. This scene needs to be read, what is more, since the film speaks through ready images, erasing the richness, the tint of sarcasm and the high observational skills of the author’s sentences.

To paraphrase Hugo’s words, in the scene, we meet a goodly number of curious, good people who gather at the Île de la Cité, a Parisian island housing the Notre Dame cathedral, to follow the celebrations that are about to unfold. The author describes the discomfort, impatience, weariness, and occasional quarrels as people await the events of this day of cynicism and folly, then he moves onto the details of the crowd that listens, looks and enjoys the festival, and talks about the audience awarding the performers with an amiable applause.

Not only does Hugo create a phenomenal tableau of the historical, architectural, social and cultural panorama of 15th-century Paris, not only does he direct us to many hurtful realities of the time, he also introduces the large array of emotions that accompany the festivities. When he writes about the festive atmosphere, we see the anticipation, expectation, joy; we follow the sparkling energy which, even if it dies in the evening, echoes in people’s conversations and spirits for days and weeks to come.

Hugo’s descriptions are timeless; they work beyond the cold January of 1482 and the Feast of Fools, and are equally valid descriptions of the spirit that envelopes other festivals held across history and geography. Of course Hugo’s thoughts go deeper than the seemingly amusing festival – not to everyone, as we discover – but this is a different story…

To people and audiences in general, as well as to the performers, joy is among the main expectations we have when thinking about a given festival. As I have said, Egypt and the region have a few such celebrations either already underway or about to kick off. A brief look at the festivals offered in the Middle East and North Africa points to numerous events. Their aim is to showcase local and regional musicians to the audience, introduce new or insufficiently known talents and offer the best of the international crop.

Some festivals offer one or more events per day; their duration ranges from a few days to a few weeks, providing a variety of performances, but there are also those that have a more relaxed time span and return with one event – usually a performer of renown – every few days. Most of the music festivals taking place in the Arab countries are not competitive, becoming a platform for sharing the culture and this sheer festive joy.

The Caracalla Dance Theatre performs during the Beiteddine Arts Festival, 2012

Offerings of the Arab region

In Lebanon, the Baalbeck International Festival (22 July-28 August) is an example of a line-up that is not too compact with perfornmaces from all walks of life: classical music, traditional Arabic, jazz, electronic, etc. Founded 60 decades ago, this year the festival will feature nine days of music and performances featuring the Caracalla Dance Theatre, the electronic New Age musician Jean Michel Jarre, the British singer and songwriter Mika, Belgian classical musicians (bass-baritone José Van Dam, bass player Jean-Louis Rassinfosse and pianist Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven), the American singer and actress Lisa Simone, jazz with the Bob James Quartet, Lebanese Abeer Nehme and Egyptian Sherine Abdel Wahab.

This year the Baalbeck Festival comes with a challenge, however, since the curfew on Syrian refugees is in place, lasting from 8 pm to 6 am. Though last June, the Baalbek-Hermel Governor Bashir Khodor justified the curfew decision with security concerns following suicide bombings in bordering villages, it will exclude Syrian communities from participation in the festival events.

Another well established Lebanese event is the Beiteddine Art Festival. Founded in 1985 and held within the 200-year-old palace in the Chouf mountains, the festival has come to be one of Lebanon’s most important annual events. In its history, Beiteddine hosted many shining stars of the regional and international arts scene. This year, running between 8 July and 9 August, the festival offers one remarkable performance every two to three days: from the Merchants of Bollywood show, king of soul and pop Seal and a French ballet troupe to jazz and flamenco performances, as well as top Arab artists. At the same time this year the festival puts on display photos and documents reflecting the recent destruction of Syrian heritage with a focus on Palmyra.

But while Levant impresses with its programming, at the other end of the Arab world, over 3.5 thousand kilometres to the west, lies the historic Tunisian town of El Djem and its iconic Roman amphitheater of Thysdrus. During a few chosen summer days this UNESCO World Heritage site houses the annual International Festival for Symphonic Music. The festival’s 31st edition kicked off on 9 July with the orchestra and choir of the National Radio Company of Ukraine performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. A few more events are on the programme before the festival closes on 20 August. They include Vienna’s Wiener Opernball Orchestra and the Maggio Musicale Orchestra from Florence.

And let us not forget the International Festival of Carthage, an event lasting a few weeks in July and August which features many performing art genres: from classical to jazz and folk, theatre, film and ballet. Just like the previously mentioned festivals, Carthage impresses with its star-spangled programming. And, almost parallel to Carthage, comes the International Festival of Hammamet (9 July-20 August), offering theatre, music, dance and folklore almost every day in an open-air setting.

Speaking of classical music which serves as either a segment or the focus of the aforementioned festivals, Algeria is bracing itself for the International Festival of Classical Music at the end of the summer, in September. The festival is usually short and compact. It lasts approximately one week with a few events taking place daily.

The weight of this event can be measured with a sample of last year’s programming, which featured the Tunisian Symphony Orchestra, the Mzansi String Ensemble from South Africa, L’Orchestre Lamoureux from France, the Ukrainian National Radio Orchestra, the Jilin Symphony Orchestra from China alongside musicians from Poland, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic and Japan, among many others. Apart from its ambitious programming, the Algerian festival’s pride is its very affordable ticket prices, allowing many social strata to enjoy the international performers.

We should also mention Tunisia’s 58th International Festival of Sousse (15 July-17 August) which for one month is home to many renowned musicians celebrating the diversity of Arab culture, the Lebanese International Byblos Festival, which over three-weeks offers a few concerts with highlights including Kenny G and Carole Samaha, as well as the Palestine International Festival for Music and Dance (27 July-8 August) in Ramallah, Jenin, Jerusalem and Hebron, featuring the Sweden-based Tarabband, the Tunisian musician Ghalia Benali, the Iraqi-Swedish musician Nadin Al-Khalidi with his band, among others.

The number of music and performing arts celebrations on Arab stages seems endless, however – and too long to even approximate here. But it is worth mentioning that in Morocco the more important events, including the Fes Festival for World Sacred Music in May, have already ended.

El Djem
Roman theatre in El Djem, Tunisia, 2009 Photo: Agnieszka Wolska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Egypt's summer in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour

Egypt’s summer is no less vibrant. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s International Summer Festival, for one event, steps into the game with great force. The largest of its kind in the Mediterranean city, the Bibliotheca’s Summer Festival was inaugurated in 2002. Following the 2011 revolution, the festival faced the challenge of political and social instability, which resulted in numerous cancellations. Since 2014 and its 12th edition the festival began solidifying again, expanding in number of days and enriching its line-up with many new regional names, while attracting audiences in the thousands, growing significantly from the 12th to 13th edition.

The festival’s 14th edition will open on 29 July with a concert by the Lebanese composer and oud master Marcel Khalife, followed by one or more daily events and offering a rich programme for all musical tastes alongside film screenings, plays and theatre.

The festival will continue until 8 September, featuring numerous regional musicians such as the Syrian Faya Younan, the Lebanese Tania Saleh and Rima Khcheich, the Algerian Souad Massi as well as an array of established Egyptian singers and musicians including Hany Shaker, Ali Al-Haggar, Omar Khairat, Hanan Madi and Mohamed Mohsen, together with several independent bands. Honouring India, two days of performances from India will add a special flavour to the event. With such packed and vibrant programming, Alexandria is to experience a true festive spirit, no different from those of major festival venues in other Arab countries.

In the meantime, the Cairo Opera House has already launched its summer programme with events taking place between 15 July and 30 August in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour. Though this year’s programme relies mainly on returning Egyptian musicians – Manal Mohie Eldin, Eskenderella, Nesma Abdel Aziz, Mohamed Mohsen, the Egyptian Mawawleya, Iman Al-Bahr Darwish, the Boghdadi jazz band, etc – the festival also includes a few international remarkable performers who bring a nice change to the line-up, examples being Djuki Mala troupe from Australia, Syrian star Faia Younan among others. 

While Cairo audiences can enjoy their evenings in the opera’s open air theatre, the increased number of events in Damanhour is an important development reaching out to the Beheira audiences. At the same time, we are still waiting for the opera to reveal the programme of the upcoming edition of the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing, scheduled for August, which is always attended by Egyptian families in the hundreds.

Meanwhile, Cairenes are preoccupied with the 9th National Theatre Festival which opened on 19 July; for nearly three weeks it will bring 37 plays from 11 governorates to 14 stages around the capital.

And so we have a few weeks to indulge in the festive spirit. Whether in Cairo, Alexandria, Carthage, Baalbeck or Algiers, music and dance will help us keep moving on through the following months. To quote Hugo speaking of ten o’clock in the morning the day after the festival: “The pavement is covered with rubbish; ribbons, rags, feathers from tufts of plumes, drops of wax from the torches, crumbs of the public feast.” More important, however, is what happens to the people who have attended. They wake up changed, every time 

Audience during the 13th Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival, 2015

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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