May Arida

Prestige issue 49, June 1997

A name that raises so much values, so many memories: beauty, culture, cosmopolitanism … and the memory of a festival that embraced the columns of Baalbeck.

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© Prestige

Double centerfold of the magazine Vogue USA.

May Arida, famous name in Lebanon and the world. How do you explain your encounter with fame? I was elected president of the Lebanese Committee of water sports in Lebanon from 1953 to 1961 and a member of the Support Committee for South Lebanon, founded by former Minister Dr Najib Abou Haidar, finally a member of Musical Youth and Vice President of the Friends Committee of the National Conservatory of Music. When President Camille Chamoun founded the committee of Baalbeck Festival, I was entrusted with the musical part, ballet. I was often invited by leading international figures in the flash of photographers. Thus, my photos have appeared in American journals such as Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar, Holiday, Vogue, French magazines like L’Officiel, Elle, Votre Beauté.

I will not forget to mention all the Lebanese newspapers and magazines that have published articles and photos of May Arida.

Your relationships, your acquaintances have without any doubt contributed to the realization of your projects. How did you meet the international who’s who? In 1947, I visited France for the first time. I have met Mrs Catroux, wife of General Catroux. I was young, on the lookout for discoveries. A strong friendship developed between us despite the age difference.

Madame Catroux was very affectionate with me. She introduced me to the famous Christian Dior who designed several dresses for me that I have worn during my trip to the United States. It is thanks to this great designer that I met the painter and decorator Christian Bérard, one of the most important theater and opera designers of our time. The same year, I met Princess Ghislaine de Polignac who invited me to a dinner where also were present the Duke and Duchess of Windsor … I have established with the Duke and Duchess very close ties. The couple did not fail to invite me to almost all the ceremonies and receptions that were held in their honor.

It was from that moment that Paris and New York have opened their doors to me.

In the 50s, the Lebanese woman had not yet acquired her rights. What was your contribution on this? I’ve never worked for and alongside the feminist movements. However, I constantly referred to women rights with the President and Mrs. Zalfa Chamoun, especially the right to vote which, incidentally, was acquired by the Lebanese in 1953, during the tenure of President Camille Chamoun.

Have you been able to reconcile between your business and your family life? I have spent all the time required with my family and my daughters. It’s a matter of good organization.

Have you raised your daughters in the manner of your parents or differently? I have instilled their education, culture, passion for sports, I gave them lots of love and taught them honesty by repeating: «Life is difficult, confront it with courage and serenity.» Today I am very proud of my four daughters.

The war has paralyzed the activities of Baalbeck Festival. Its committee had virtually no role to play. What did you do during that time? The Baalbeck Festival Committee has never slowed its activities and has continued to meet even in times of war. I remained in constant contact with most of the artists who participated in the festival and wished to return to appear.

May Arida

© Prestige

At the ball of Baron Alexis de Redé: the oriental costume from the 19th century to our days.

«Zalfa Chamoun supervised the design of the costumes of folklore»

How was born the idea of «Baalbeck Festival»? The merit should be attributed first to Camille Chamoun. The presidential couple was fond of music and art. Camille Chamoun had a big dream he wanted to achieve once elected at the head of the country: organize a special event, culture, tourism, specifically in the grand and historic setting of Baalbeck. The idea was not well defined.

In 1955, the theater group of Jean Marchal came to present its show in Baalbeck. The First Lady and I would have not missed it for anything in the world.

We were literally fascinated by the splendor of the show. She communicated her enthusiasm to the president who decided to found an international festival that brings together several artistic disciplines:

Theater, music, ballet, opera and Lebanese folklore.

To this end, he appealed to national figures: Sheikh Najib Alameddine, Sheikh Boutros el Khoury, Jean Skaff, Jean Fattal, Désirée Kettaneh, Charles Kettaneh, Carlos Arida, Khalil Hibri and many others, they were70. The President informed them of his plans and at the end of the consultations and the meeting they appointed a committee, which included Aimée Kettaneh, elected first president Salwa Saïd, Nina Gerjian, May Arida, Sélim Haïdar, Khalil Hibri, Jean Fattal, Jean Skaff. Samir Souki. Elia Abu Jaoudé, Fouad Sarrouf.

How many international troops did Baalbeck Festival host? 122 troops participated in Baalbeck festivals in addition to Lebanese troops, the Rahbani and Fayrouz, Romeo Lahoud and Sabah.

Who introduced the Lebanese dabke in the Festival? Zalfa Chamoun. It is to this end that she sent two Lebanese to Moscow. Marwan and Wadiha al Jarrah followed folklore courses with Igor Moïsiev and returned teaching for the first time in Lebanon Lebanese folk dance. The first musical presented in Baalbeck by the Rahbani brothers and Fairuz was called Traditions and Lebanese customs. All the costumes were made at the presidential palace under the supervision of Zalfa Chamoun.

What was the cultural and artistic contribution of the festival to the public and Lebanese artists? A considerable contribution. The public had the chance to discover the greatest artists in the world at very affordable prices.

As for Lebanese artists, it was just great that they could appear with international troops side by side. Lebanese artists have mostly had the opportunity to present their show on the most fabulous scene that is, the steps of the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbeck. Thousands of tourists and journalists came especially from around the world to live in the age of these wonderful Lebanese nights.

So you knew a large number of local and international artists. I go back in memory to the years 1956 and 1957, to the very first festival to quote the illustrious Charles Mouche, maestro who founded the Paris orchestra, one of the most important groups in the world, but also the pianist William Kempff, Jeanne Moreau, Madeleine Renault, Fayrouz, Sabah …

The following festivals hosted an impressive galaxy of famous artists: soloists Samson François, Gina Bachauer, Rostropovich, Richter, Rosalind, Elias, Elizabeth Shwarzkopf … Operas of Paris and Milan, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, with the Royal Ballet, the Ballet of the XXth century of Maurice Béjart, Ballet Rambert, The Dance Theatre of Alwin Nikolais … symphonic orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic with Von Karajan and many others.

«I was very related to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor»

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© Prestige

Baalbeck 1963. Prince Albert, who became King Albert II of the Belgians.

You were close to major foreign personalities.Which has impressed you most? I knew King Farouk of Egypt, the Shah of Iran, King Hussein of Jordan, King Faisal of Iraq, Albert II, King of the Belgians and Queen Paola. But it was General de Gaulle who left me the strongest impression.

«It is the general De Gaulle that most impressed me»

You hold high French and Jordanian distinctions … France because of my activities in the Baalbeck Festival that helped strengthen cultural ties between the two nations.

Jordan also gave me a decoration for organizing with my brother Simon Khoury, world champion in waterskiing, the first tourist festival of water skiing in Aqaba at a time when nothing was going on. Since then, the festival is held every year on November 14, day of the anniversary of King Hussein.

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© Prestige

In l’ Officiel, the reference magazine for fashion

This summer you finally realize your dream, the «rebirth of the Baalbeck Festival» .Yes, it is certainly rebirth but actually my first dream realized it was the historical work «Baalbeck, the rich hours of the festival» 4000 copies of the album were printed and additional 1,500 in 1997.

As for rebirth, my second dream, it shall be liable to the Caracalla troupe with Andalusia: the lost glory and wonderful artist Rostropovich, who played in Baalbeek in 1969 and returns this year on the steps of the temple of Bacchus to interpret with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France under the direction of Marck Janowski the Dvorak cello concerto on July 30. Mr. Rostropovich and the orchestra of Radio France will travel by MEA.

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© Prestige

Baalbeck Festival 1969: May Arida hosted this year the pianist Richter and the great cellist Rostropovich who affectionately nicknamed her «Mayouschka». He will return in the summer of 1997 to participate in the rebirth of the Baalbeck Festival.

Isn’t it strange that great Lebanese singers like Fayrouz or Magida Roumi are absent of this event? Magida Roumi has other commitments. As for Fairuz and Mansour Rahbani, they no longer have the time to prepare a new program. Five months is not enough.

Have you ever considered a career in politics? Absolutely not, all my efforts converged to art, artistic activities, Baalbeck Festivals … Interview by BARIA’A SREIH