Following the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs’ visit to Lebanon on October 16th 2020, Arancha Gonzalez Laya; the International Director of the Spanish Cultural Institute, Luis García Montero, mobilized his International Board and travelled across the Lebanese territory from May 10th to May 14th, 2021. The team’s dynamic schedule was devised in support of the cultural, educational, and humanitarian rehabilitation plan for the country, launched by the Cervantes Institute – Beirut headed by the Director for Lebanon, Yolanda Soler Onís. Instituto Cervantes- Beirut was severely damaged after the Beirut Port explosion on August 4th, 2020.
The core purpose of this visit to Lebanon, is threefold (video summary of visit below). First, to support the Lebanese population as well as the Institute’s local team in the process of its recuperation and unremitting efforts to continue its activities. Secondly, to further develop the Institute’s partnership with the Spanish UNIFIL Battalion “Miguel de Cervantes” at the military base in Marjeyoun, where Spanish classes are offered by six hundred trained Spanish volunteer soldiers to six thousand students from the South of Lebanon, in the context of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission. Thirdly, to visit the construction of a new modular prefabricated school in the area of the explosion, the Karantina, funded by the Spanish Agency for International Development – AECID for 1.9 million Euros, that will operate under Lebanese management and open its doors to six hundred students, this coming September 2021. The Institute has had an uninterrupted presence in Lebanon for thirty years despite repeated local upheavals and major operational challenges.
The Institute’s International Director flew in with the Secretary General of the Cervantes Institute Carmen Noguero, the Director of International Relations Rafael Soriano, the Director of Academic Affairs Carmen Pastor, the Director of Cultural Affairs Raquel Caleya, and were warmly welcomed by the dynamic Instituto Cervantes – Beirut Director, Yolanda Soler Onís. García Montero, is also a Professor of Spanish Literature and holds multiple responibilities in the management of the University of Granada. As a poet and narrator, he has received awards including the National Award of Literature (1994), the National Critics Award (2003), the Guild Award of the Libraries of Madrid (2009), the Award of Poets of the Latin World (Mexico, 2010), the Award Ramon Lopez Velarde (Mexico 2017), or the Award Parallel 0 (Ecuador, 2018).
The first day started off with a press conference organized by KAMSYN PR and a visit to the Miguel Delibes exhibition, “Common Homeland – Delibes through illustrations”, at the Cervantes Institute- Beirut Digital District BDD, in the presence of the Spanish Ambassador to Lebanon José María Ferré de la Peña, as well as other Latin American Ambassadors to Lebanon, such as that of Mexico, Argentina, Columbia, Chile, Cuba, Paraguay, Brazil. The thirty original illustrations created by fifteen renowned Spanish illustrators were inspired by texts and children’s characters from the narrative work of Miguel Delibes, notorious Spanish novelist and journalist who was a member of the Royal Spanish Academy for thirty-five years, having begun his career as a cartoonist and columnist. The International Director emphasized on his first day that, in addition to disseminating the Spanish culture and language in Lebanon, the Institute’s main focus is to facilitate the knowledge of the Lebanese culture in Spain.
He found it “significant that the local activity kept on going seamlessly all these years, an evidence of keen interest and mutual care between the Spanish and Lebanese cultures. Our conception of culture goes beyond its traditional definition to also encompass music, gastronomy, and other forms it can take today. In other words, we perceive this exchange as anything that can bring the two cultures together”. It is a commitment to accompany the local center closely in rolling out the programs and activities in times of crisis in Lebanon and the special attention needed at the moment is offered in a humanitarian spirit of solidarity.
Beirut is important since the Institute’s very foundation. Its work there started in 1955 as a Cultural Center, and became the Cervantes Institute in 1961. The number of students enrolled shows a high proportion of youth. “For each country, we strive to find the tools that correspond to its needs. Here we deemed it helpful to give special attention to education, culture, and the “Fernando Del Paso Library” he adds. It is noteworthy that the latter was named after a Mexican writer, demonstrating the Director’s belief in a representation and inclusion of twenty-one countries or communities that speak Spanish in the Cervantes Institute’s activities, such as Mexico, Argentina, Columbia, or the United States, pointing out that they are factored in as part of his work of cultural dissemination at the Institute. This is the broad framework in which he wishes to affirm his presence in Lebanon.
Carmen Noguero explains that the pandemic has impacted the forty-five countries in which the Institute works, but in Lebanon the crisis is also political, socio-economic, and was further aggravated by the explosion. “We are here to determine the scope of our work on the ground and pinpoint the specific ways we can be of most help. We will visit all our branches including Kaslik and Tripoli”. Yolanda Soler Onís emphasized the cultural added value of the center and the importance of facilitating the bilateral cultural relations between Lebanon and Spain, with elaborate activities such as the translation workshops.
In an effort to reach the population in its entirety and cover the Lebanese territory, the Institute decided to expand its work. García Montero announced the opening of a new Spanish Institute extension in Baalbek, the Bekaa Valley, during his day there on April 11th, as an addition to its existing presence in Beirut, Kaslik, Tripoli, and Marjayoun. The Institute also presented the first book of the “Cuadernos” series at the emblematic Palmyra Hotel, in the presence of the Spanish Ambassador to Lebanon H.E José María Ferré de la Peña,the President of the Lebanese University Fouad Ayoub, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities Ahmad Rabah, the Director of the Translation Center Rabih Machaalany, the Governor of Baalbek Bachir el Khodr, and the Director of the Cervantes Institute of Beirut Yolanda Soler Onís as well as the Poet Talal Haidar and esteemed religious and cultural leaders from the region . “Cuadernos de Baalbek”, is a bilingual Spanish-Arabic edition.
Instituto Cervantes reasserts its unwavering commitment to Lebanon by opening a new extension in the Beqaa Valley, and launching the work of the veteran poet and filmmaker Talal Haidar, as the first edition of a long series of upcoming publications called “Cuadernos de Baalbek” (“Notebooks of Baalbek”), to promote Lebanese translators and the translation of Arabic texts to Spanish, as well as to introduce local authors along with their rich culture to Spanish speaking communities worldwide.
In addition to covering the entire stay of the team there, the historic Palmyra Hotel offered an adjacent space for the new extension of the institute to open its doors. Rima El Husseini from Al Mithaq Association (AMA), as well the owner of the Palmyra Hotel, and the Cervantes Institute are partnering. El Husseini’s wish is to continue offering her utmost in sustaining the cultural activities to open windows of opportunity to the development of youth and the area.
The Institute and the Lebanese University had previously signed an agreement that made this promising achievement possible today. Their cooperation relies on various curriculums of accompaniment, translation, and teacher trainings. This special collaboration was presented to the audience by Dr. Antoine Abrass.
This initiative will give the Lebanese culture visibility in Spain and the Hispano-American countries. Baalbek, a town of about twenty-five thousand inhabitants will have access to an elaborate extension, that may further grow in future. García Montero insisted on the importance of the publication as an example of how “we aim to bring the culture of Lebanon to Spain, and introduce the culture of Spain and Latin America to Lebanon”. He pointed out that with this mutual literary diffusion, the cultural relations between the two Mediterranean countries are strengthened through poetry, which is “closely linked to life and the mother tongue”.
He explains that our native language is the vehicle for expressing our first words and emotions. He was moved to witness first-hand all the work that has been done in Marjayoun and pointed out that he considered it to be the center of the world, just as all places where human life is found are the centers of the world.
García Montero and the Ambassador of Spain to Lebanon H.E José María Ferré de la Peña visited the prefabricated modular school construction site handled by a mixed crew of Spanish and Lebanese engineers. The Spanish Agency for International Development AECID identified an adequate piece of land and built a nine hundred and ten square meter school from scratch including ten classrooms, laboratories, and information technology rooms, in an area where ten academic establishments were destroyed by the explosion, in addition to one hundred schools, eight universities, and twenty training centers.
The Cervantes Institute contributes with Spanish teacher trainings, academic material for teaching Spanish, and Library material like books, audio-books, printed references, and access to the electronic library of the Institute which contains one million and a half titles (also including books, digital resources, electronic books, a virtual reading club, audio-books, databases, periodicals, and videos).
Though funded by the Spanish Government, this will be a Lebanese school in every sense of the term, managed entirely by locals. Half of the students will attend in the mornings and the other half in the afternoons, all aged twelve to sixteen.
Last but not least, during his visit to Marjayoun on May 13th, García Montero felt proud to know more about the achievements of the Spanish UNIFIL Battalion stationed at the ‘Miguel de Cervantes’ Base, who teach the Spanish language to the Lebanese population after having been trained by the Institute to do so. These teachings are imparted in over thirty centers, including colleges, municipalities, places of worship, or social centers, located across twenty different towns in the South of Lebanon. He was heartened to witness first-hand the fruit of this collaboration with the Ministry of Defense.
Brigadier General Jose Antonio Miragaya, Head of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s South sector, and Commander Romero, in charge of the civilian-military co-operation emphasized the importance of this program, which in addition to teaching the Spanish language, also allows for interaction and better communication with the local population.
Some United Nations’ interpreters also learned Spanish through the “Cervantes Program”, which the Ministry of Defense and the Cervantes Institute created jointly in 2005 to promote the teaching of the language in countries that are not Spanish speaking, where Spain has detachments deployed on an international mission for peace, as is the case in Lebanon.
García Montero inaugurated the photographic exhibition “En primera linea” (“On the front line”) in the presence of the photojournalist exhibited, Diego Ibarra Sanchez, portraying the impact of war on children’s education. The exhibition can be accessed online by clicking here. A video digital visit is also available.
The local Director of the Cervantes Institute, Yolanda Soler Onís, elucidates that the reason why the Institute never closed its doors is that it believes in providing people with a way to truly escape from difficulties. This possibility to learn the Spanish language and culture is key to improving lives and opening new horizons, in addition to showing the rich heritage of the country in its totality rather than letting it be defined by depictions of war and conflict. Similarly, it is important to spread the Spanish culture and values locally.
By making accurate knowledge accessible both ways, we encourage a dialogue of peace. “A language promotes culture but also communication. For instance, during our visit at the military base in Marjayoun we also met alumni, of which two ladies told the story of how the program changed their lives, as they went on to become interpreters at the United Nations, in a zone where such possibilities seemed inexistent” she says. Collaboration and support have been essential in implementing this vision.
In addition, it is a platform for other universities, writers, poets, to make their contribution, such as the young translators’ workshops devised by Noura el Sayed Rodriguez, Head of the Spanish language and translation at the Université Saint Joseph, and Director of the Poetas Cervantes en Arabe (POCENAR) program (that translated Spanish poetry into Arabic in Morocco for a pan-Arab access), was one of the experts who offered her know-how in translation techniques to ensure a comprehensive view of translation. A concert entitled “We sing the same language” is scheduled from June 21st to 25th featuring the famous singer Caco Senante, to celebrate the summer solstice with music from various Spanish speaking countries.
The Director of Cervantes Institutes worldwide García Montero, also recognized during his visit the work of the institute staff who have already retired, and of those who suffered the Explosion of August 4th 2020 at the Instituto Cervantes in Beirut: Professor Marina Rodríguez (retired), Rosa Vizoso, Marie Rose Karamoun (retired), Mohammed Jradi, Bilal Abdo and Elie El Kik (retired).
These rays of hope have been made possible by the deep regard found between the two cultures and the readiness of the Institute and locals alike to lend a hand. The Beirut Digital District and the ZRE Group have provided continuous help to offer access to as many students as possible to Spanish classes, and aided in maintaining the salaries of the Institute’s local employees despite the volatile financial situation in Lebanon. Every step of the visit touched, shook, and inspired its participants both local and international, with renewed hope through this collaborative fine-tuning in addressing the state of emergency.
Special REPORT KAMSYN / Words by Sherine Bouez – Communications Consultant
Photos Sky Beirut, Marc Fayad & KAMSYN PR
Video & Editing Sky Beirut
Direction KAMSYN PR