Phil Collins performing at BIEL (the Beirut International Exhibition Centre) presented by the Beiteddine Festival
In 1997 I had been commissioned to visit the Casino du Liban in Jounieh, Lebanon to look at their theatrical facilities and write a detailed report for the Chairman. I had never been to Lebanon before and arrived with a certain level of trepidation based upon my knowledge of this country's turbulent history and in particular the invasion by Israel in 1982 and the subsequent civil war, which had only simmered to a stop in 1990 or around that date. However, I was also aware that Lebanon before the war had a wonderful reputation as a vacation playground and known as "the Paris of the East".
I got off the British Airways flight and stepped into a land that has become one of my favourite countries in all of the world (and I have worked on concerts in 36 countries to date). Beirut Airport was a chaotic babble of noise - I felt I had arrived at a Souk! The air was hot but I was relieved to find a driver waiting for me in amongst the teaming hordes, whom I later learned were waiting for a newly married couple to arrive and have a party with dancing in the arrival's hall - very Lebanonese - loved it!
I was immediately attracted by the Mediterranean coast line and the lovely sandy beaches - no wonder this place had been holiday paradise before the terrible wars that tore this country apart.
I was driven to the Casino du Liban, which is the only Casino in the country and had been famous before the hostilities for producing Las Vegas type shows and actually exporting them to the USA and other countries. The Casino has a small but excellent theatre seating about a thousand people plus a large cabaret room Salle des Ambassadeurs. Anthony Phillips (former Director of the Royal Festival Hall and the South Bank Complex) and I eventually wrote a 90 page report for the Casino about the potential entertainment policy.
However, during my first trip to this troubled but fabled land I met a wonderful women who not only became a good friend but who had created a remarkable festival based in the incredibly beautiful Chouf Hills - Nora Joumblatt.
Nora is the wife of one of the most colourful and influential politicians in Lebanon, Walid Joumblatt. Walid Joumblatt of Kurdish origin is one of the two leaders of the Druze peoples and head of the Progressive Socialist party - His father Kamal Joumblatt had been assassinated by Syria in 1977. Nora is of Syrian and Latvian parents and I am sure she won't mind me describing her as an incredible force of nature as well as being a very beautiful lady. She created what was to become one of the leading arts and cultural festivals in Lebanon and the Mediterranean region - THE BEITEDDINE FESTIVAL - which takes place every July (or August) subject to the dates of Ramadan in the Presidential Palace of Beiteddine.
This festival was founded 30 years ago to keep cultural life alive in Lebanon during the civil war. It was a brave and remarkable achievement by Nora and her team of dedicated ladies to not only form a superb arts festival but to keep it alive during the most difficult times.
The first artist I contracted was (I seem to recall) Placido Domingo - it wasn't easy to get star artists to go to Lebanon - it took some convincing but the more artists that went to this great festival the easier it became to persuade them to perform there. Elton John was the next major coup - to get one of the leading pop stars in the world to perform at the Festival was such a thrill and Elton performed two shows at the Palace. These concerts were becoming a major life line to the Lebanese - they hadn't been forgotten - the world was recognising Lebanon and the cultural scene was suddenly booming.
The Beiteddine Festival was not the first festival in Lebanon but it soon became the most important - back in the 1950's The Baalbek Festival had been created on the site of the amazing and historic Roman Temple of Jupiter - this formed a stunning backdrop for artists to perform.
However, after the war the Beiteddine Festival slowly but surely become the premiere festival in the region. I am honoured to have played an important role in this - Nora, Hala, Safa, Wafa, Yakout, Rajai and all the team have become a part of my family and I have not only grown to love this festival but also Lebanon itself.
The hills, ravines, beaches, the sun and snow all make up a breathtaking land. Christians (Maronites, Orthodox etc)), Druze, Muslims (Shia and Sunni) have all lived peacefully together - however, the regions pressures (Syria, Israel, Iran) etc, etc have caused such suffering in this land of milk and honey. Today we read of Hezbollah, ISIS and all the nightmares that haunt all of us - and particularly this region - but somehow the Lebanese remain upbeat and do their best to enjoy life - I have massive respect for the people and a deep endearing love of their land
Yes you can swim and ski all in one day - that's true:
The hills and views are breathtaking
The ski slopes amongst the famous Cedar Trees are amazing
The history of the region is unparalleled - This is one of the Crusader Forts
The International Herald Tribune published a full page article awhile back extolling the virtues and achievements of this small country becoming a major centre for the arts and culture - I feel proud to worked with these people to help them achieve this.
The Beiteddine Festival is now planning its 2016 programme and I urge all of you to visit this great festival and splendid land.
Thank you for reading this blog - I could write for hours and hours about this country and the shows we have presented - however, I hope you have enjoyed this brief trip to a country that I am sure not many of you know. One of the hidden treasures of the world