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Volume 35, Number 1January/February 1984

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A Festival at Jerash

"A forum for old talent to mature and for new talent to bud"

Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

When the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts was held last August - among the impressive ruins of Jordan's 2,000-year-old Roman city - it filled the ancient colonnaded streets with music, dancing, poetry, handicrafts, people and merriment, restored life to the ancient stones and stimulated development of Jordan's national arts and cultural heritage at the broadest level.

In so doing, Jordan may also have set a timely example for other Arab countries groping with the same challenges: how to preserve and promote national culture and folklore - while simultaneously offering a variety of Arab and international performing arts.

The Jerash Festival idea had been bouncing around Jordan for decades, but nothing significant happened until Jordan's Queen Noor joined forces with the public-spirited, energetic Arts Faculty at six-year-old Yarmouk University to launch a three-day trial festival in 1981 - and surprised everyone. Largely a local affair, the trial festival was expected to draw no more than 15,000. But more than 50,000 people attended - a turnout that confirmed the assumption of the festival organizers that the Jordanian people were hungry for this kind of family-oriented cultural extravaganza.

Because of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the organizers decided to cancel a follow-up festival in 1982, but planning continued for the full-scale Jerash Festival that was eventually held last summer and drew more than 175,000 people.

The success of the festival is credited to two factors: the quality and diversity of the arts on display and the way the entire area of the ancient city of Jerash was exploited to allow as many as 10 different events to take place simultaneously.

Festival Director Dr. Mazen Armouti, who doubles as the head of the Journalism and Mass Communications Department at Yarmouk University, says the Jerash Festival differs in significant ways from other arts festivals in equally impressive sites - Baalbek, Carthage, Cairo - in the Middle East. From the start, the Jerash Festival was designed to be non-elitist and non-specialized. It sought, above all, to provide a showcase for Jordanian artists, craftsmen, dancers, folklore troupes, poets, writers, actors, sculptors, musicians and other artists.

The festival organizers, all volunteers, worked jointly with Yarmouk University and a Higher National Committee for the Jerash Festival, headed by Queen Noor, to offer activities and arts catering to the widest possible range of tastes. Thus, the 70 different individual shows, exhibits, displays and performances included plays, films and puppet shows; books for children; Chinese acrobats; American bluegrass music; local rock and traditional Arab music; Scottish bagpipers and drummers; Arabic poetry readings and literary discussions; Jordanian productions of local plays; five different Jordanian folklore troupes and the Jordanian armed forces band; folklore, theater, dance or music troupes from Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria, Tunisia, Austria, China, the United States, France, Italy and India; a display of local artists' and ceramicists' works; a pan-Arab book fair; an exhibition of the wares and production techniques of 28 different Jordanian craftsmen and women; two fashion shows that depicted contemporary and historical Jordanian and Palestinian dresses; and Arab and international films and slide shows.

This varied program was vital to the festival's success, but so was Jerash itself. The sprawling, well-preserved antiquities of the large Roman city with its two theaters, several temples, colonnaded streets, oval piazza, and ample open areas permitted guests to stroll at their leisure through the exhibits, rest among the ruins at will and choose from the 10 different activities taking place simultaneously. In various parts of the city, as a result, the festival took on a permanently bustling yet relaxed atmosphere: thousands of families strolling up and down the colonnaded streets, eating and drinking, enjoying an exhibit, listening to a music group, watching a folkloric performance, chatting with friends or simply sitting down on a fallen second-century Corinthian column capital and enjoying the spectacle of an ancient city ablaze with lights and the sounds of tens of thousands of people making - and enjoying - music and art.

In setting up the facilities for the different stages and exhibition sites, festival organizers barred permanent structures that could damage the antiquities. All structures setup were pre-fabricated wood and steel facilities that were dismantled afterwards and stored for future use, and all work was approved by the Department of Antiquities. Some of the more atmosphere-creating settings included the underground vaults of the Zeus temple that housed an exhibition of Jordanian paintings and ceramics, the south theater that accommodated the main ticketed events, the majestic steps leading up to the Temple of Artemis, which were transformed into an intimate stage setting with the added attraction of the moon rising behind the stage every evening, and the full length of the colonnaded side street, the South Decumanus, which housed the First Annual Arab Book Fair and some of the craft booths.

In addition to exposing the Jordanian public to a sample of the world's best folkloric troupes, the festival also allowed Jordanian performing artists to rub elbows and exchange ideas with their counterparts from the Arab world and further afield.

"We wanted it to be a people's festival," Dr. Amouti said in an interview, "and we wanted to allow tens of thousands of Jordanians, particularly those who do not travel abroad, to be exposed to art forms that they might not otherwise have a chance to see, appreciate or enjoy"

Among prominent non-Jordanian groups that performed at the festival were the famous Arab singer Fayrouz and the Lebanese Troupe, (See Aramco World, January-February 1982), the Reda Folklore Dance Troupe of Egypt, the Hall-Rogers Modern Dance Troupe, the Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver bluegrass band from the United States, the Pipes and Drums of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from Scotland, the Hanjo Acrobatic Troupe from China, and the Parvatiya Kala Kendra Folklore Troupe from India, to mention only a few.

Leila Sharaf, deputy chairperson of the Higher National Committee for the Jerash Festival, noted in an interview that the emphasis on foreign folkloric troupes, instead of more sophisticated art forms such as symphony orchestras or Shakespearean drama, was intentional. The committee wanted to offer shows that were "closer to the heart and tastes of the Jordanian public..." She added: "The effects of the Jerash Festival can only be fully assessed after many years, because behind the immediate objective of providing an enjoyable cultural outing for Jordanians and their families, there is the longer term aim of using the Jerash Festival as a means of promoting a dynamic cultural movement that would spread throughout the country and reach into all quarters of our national cultural life and heritage."

One of the key guidelines of the festival organizing committee was to make sure that at least 50 percent of the activities were Jordanian, even though in most cases the Jordanian performing troupes were less developed than the foreign talent. The point was to expose local performers and artisans to an audience of tens of thousands of Jordanians, as well as to their Arab and foreign counterparts.

"No culture can develop without sustained interaction with other cultures and arts from abroad," Mrs. Sharaf notes, "and it has been a weakness of Jordanian cultural development in the past that there has been very little contact with established artists from other countries."

Dr. Armouti said that an average of nearly 20,000 people attended the festival every day during the nine days of activities, reflecting the need among Jordanians for such organized cultural activities.

The size of the Jerash antiquities and the use of 10 different exhibition and stage sites among the ruins allowed for the large turnout. The festival was open daily from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, with most activities taking place in the evening - when the Jerash setting was made all the more dramatic by the hundreds of floodlights that illuminated all the monuments. The fine August weather, with guaranteed clear skies and evening temperatures that averaged 20 degrees Centigrade (68 degrees Fahrenheit) simply added to the pleasant atmosphere.

The sheer number and variety of offerings meant that many people went to the festival two or three times, and some of the more enthusiastic members of the public attended daily to be sure to catch all the performances and exhibits that interested them. Future festivals will probably be expanded to two or three weeks, with fewer performances per evening, to alleviate some of the crowding problems that were experienced this year at the most popular acts, particularly the Fayrouz and Reda performances. Future festivals may also limit attendance to a maximum of 15,000 people per day, so as not to overtax the infrastructural facilities such as water, seating, toilets and food and beverage stands. Up to 25,000 people were accommodated on some days last year, and during peak attendance periods the sheer numbers of visitors caused the old colonnaded streets of the city to become clogged in places.

The festival organizers openly admit that they are still learning how to put on such a large public event -even though, in terms of the number and variey of offerings, the Jerash Festival is the largest such festival in the Arab World. Indeed, the fact that it is organized and managed entirely by volunteers - including a 400-strong contingent of student ushers from Yarmouk University makes its success remarkable.

"We learned a lot from this year's festival," Dr. Armouti said, "and we will make changes in future festivals to iron out some of the practical problems and inconveniences. Some of the events that required paid tickets will probably be made free, and each venue will have more seats. The festival will be longer than nine days, and individual tickets should be less expensive." But the thing that will not change, he said, is the broad scope of the Jerash Festival. "We insist on maintaining the variety of arts and cultural events available at the Jerash Festival in order to offer something of interest to all tastes and to all parts of the Jordanian public. After all, it is the main aim of the festival to promote and encourage local culture and arts in all fields, and to achieve this... it is imperative that all facets of Jordanian, Arab and international culture, art and folklore be on show at the festival."

Certainly, the different kinds of activities that enlivened the air and stones of the Jerash ruins gave the festival its special atmosphere. The 28 different handicrafts that were exhibited in individual booths along the Cardo... the main colonnaded street running through the heart of the ancient city... included craftsmen demonstrating how they produced their wares: rug weavers from Madaba and north Jordan, glass blowers from Hebron, dollmakers from Zerqa, straw workers from the West Bank, brass, copper and silversmiths, woodworkers, and stone cutters. They, and many others, contributed to the colorful and educational atmosphere along the Cardo. The craftspeople sold thousands of dinars'-worth of goods, as their work was exposed to an audience of some 175,000 people in the span of just nine days. As one craftsman commented: 'This is probably a bigger audience than most of us would aspire to reach during a lifetime of work."

The enthusiasm worked both ways, as many spectators were introduced to a variety of local crafts that they never imagined existed in Jordan. In future festivals, the organizers plan to continue their policy of assuring balanced representation of crafts from all parts of Jordan, permitting only genuine artisans to be represented while excluding any purely commercial merchants.

A new twist, starting with the 1984 festival, will be a coordinated regional and international promotional campaign to link the festival with Jordan's overall tourism marketing effort. The ancient city of Jerash, with over half a million visitors a year already making it Jordan's top tourist attraction, should take on an increasingly significant role in Middle Eastern archeology because of the discoveries being made by a five-year excavation and restoration program that has teams from eight different countries working simultaneously to dig and study the remaining unexplored parts of the city. Some of the initial important finds continue to confirm that Jerash, besides being an important Roman provincial city, was a major Byzantine Christian city with at least 15 churches, and an important early Islamic (Umayyad) city in the seventh and eighth centuries. Far from being simply another collection of Roman ruins, Jerash is proving to be an important historical site that was occupied and flourished during a 1,000-year stretch of ancient history from 300 B.C. through A.D. 700. The continued excavation of the city, combined with the powerful drawing card offered by the annual Jerash Festival, should gradually transform Jerash into one of the Middle Easfs top tourist destinations.

Another possibility is for the Jerash Festival itself to sponsor local groups or even national folkloric troupes. Among the possibilities, Dr. Armouti says, are national theater, dance and music. The lack of any outstanding national Jordanian troupes that equal the international stature of the Fayrouz or Reda troupes was one reason why the festival insisted on allowing many smaller, local Jordanian troupes to participate - thereby giving more groups a valuable chance to perform before large audiences and simultaneously giving the public an opportunity to sample the full diversity of Jordanian culture.

"The Jerash Festival is one big event in the summer," says Mrs. Sharaf, "but the plan now is to see the festival as a catalyst that would in turn promote a dynamic cultural movement throughout the country and throughout the year. We have to create a national cultural infrastructure based on hundreds of local clubs, groups, theaters and associations that would sponsor and promote local talent. The long years of stagnation of arts in Jordan's modern history, coupled with Jordan's lack of a strong historical artistic tradition such as existed in Damascus, Cairo or Baghdad, mean we need something to breathe some life into the culture and arts of the land of Jordan. We hope the festival will do that, by providing a forum for old talent to mature and for new talent to bud."

Rami G. Khouri, senior editor of the Jordan Times, covers Jordan for Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 34-40 of the January/February 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1984 images.