BEITEDDINE, Lebanon: The atmosphere at the Ottoman-era palace of Beiteddine was festive Thursday evening, a far cry from the tension that has gripped the country in the wake of last week’s spate of bombings. Two hours before Lebanon’s beloved diva Majida El Roumi took to the stage, eager concertgoers were already queuing at the entrance, shopping for locally made soap in a startling range of hues and reaching up to snag plastic glasses of wine from the trays jerkily swaying above their heads, supported by two men on towering stilts.
An hour after the scheduled start time of 8:30 p.m., the rowdy seats at the back had begun chanting the singer’s name, while latecomers struggled to find empty chairs amid the near-capacity audience. The orchestra, lead by Elie al-Alya, received a smattering of applause as they walked onstage, which became a roar as the singer appeared on the balcony of the palace, dressed in a flowing, full-skirted white dress and a glittering jacket embroidered with gold thread.
Sparking in the stage lights, she descended the stairs and launched straight into “Sayedi El Rais” (Mr. President) written by Henri Zougheib and Habib Younes for the 1998 album “Ouhibbouka wa Baad” (I Love You and More). As Roumi began to sing, showers of sparks fell from the front of the palace’s beautiful facade, eliciting gasps from the audience and emitting a sound like rushing water.
Live video footage relayed on two big screens flanking the stage showed close-ups of the statuesque singer, before panning over the crowd and zooming in on the empty presidential chair facing the stage, beside which hung the Lebanese flag.
After finishing the rousing number, Roumi gave a short speech in which she displayed characteristic nationalistic fervor and a willingness to address political figures head-on.
“‘Mr. President’ is a poem that I first sang many years ago,” she told the assembled crowd. “Every time I sing it, I voice a cry to the president, Lebanon’s free and independent president. His presence on this chair – the cry has been always to him. His place is protected in my conscience and sanctities, and if he’s absent today, this cry needs to be directed to someone. In the end, there are people responsible for us.
“To every official who’s responsible for determining our faith, I direct this cry to him with all the tears that it carries, with all the pleading that it carries, with all the love and the nationalism that it carries.
“What I am saying has no political background,” she continued. “Simply, I am a Lebanese citizen. ... It is our right, after all, that we have been through for many years, to dream in a country that befits our suffering, that befits the martyrs who fell. This is a cry from my heart, from my conscience. I hope it reaches all officials.”
Known for her Arab nationalist sensibilities, Roumi also voiced her support for the rest of the region.
“Although I have been pressured not to perform national songs,” she said, “I couldn’t honestly not sing about the martyrs who are falling in many Arab countries. I am Lebanese, but I am a Lebanese Arab. All Arab countries mean a lot to me. My heart is with Egypt, with Tunis, with Syria, with Iraq, with Yemen, with Libya, with Palestine. My heart is with all of them.”
Roumi performed for over two hours, regaling audiences with tracks from her two latest albums, the 2006 “Etazalet El Gharam” (I Quit Love) and 2012’s “Ghazal.” She also performed a number of her best-known hits spanning four decades, including her first pan-Arab hit “Kalimat” (Words), written by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and composed by Ihsan El-Mounzer, and Qabbani’s “Beirut, Sit El Dounya” (Beirut, Lady of the Universe), composed by Jamal Salameh.
Audiences sang along, clapped and cheered, standing up to shimmy in the aisles and calling for their favorites. When Roumi performed her newest work, “The Freedom Hymn,” a patriotic song arranged by Selim Assaf using lyrics based on a poem by renowned Lebanese poet Talal Haidar, the cameras zoomed in to show Druze leader MP Walid Joumblatt clapping merrily along in the front row.
Festival director Hala Chahine told The Daily Star before the concert that Roumi was invited to perform in part as a response to recent unrest in the country.
“We normally like the opening to be either a production or a Lebanese act,” she said. “This year, our opening is Lebanese and our closing is Lebanese. We’re starting with Majida El Roumi and we’re closing with the leading theater director Wajdi Mouawad. [Roumi] has been in Beiteddine several times [but] she hasn’t been here for five years and her public misses her. ... Her songs have always had a touch of nationalism. Especially these days with what’s happening, we all need a certain push.”
In spite of the troubling security situation, Chahine said that the festival is determined to keep going.
“The past three years have been quite unstable, especially during the festival,” she said, “but we have continued. The public has been loyal to the festival, they have been coming regularly. We lost the attendance from the Arab countries, which represents 10 percent. We lost some of our international audiences, and we lost some of the Lebanese who live abroad, who used to come.
“We are affected by this, but we have to continue. We were born during the war. Beiteddine came as an act of faith that in Lebanon life has to continue despite everything, so in the last 29 years, we have been going on. ... I think it’s a duty.”
The Beiteddine Art Festival continues July 2 with a performance by British soul, pop and R&B star Joss Stone. For more information, please visit www.beiteddine.org.