What is the hotel’s history?
There was a hotel in the same location called the Grand Hotel, that had been there since the 1930s. It had become derelict and was listed in an auction. My father, Emile Bustani, was a businessman and entrepreneur, and when he heard that the hotel was going to be auctioned he was interested. My mother and father used to go dancing there in the ‘30s. He bought it and wanted to transform it. They had to pull the old hotel down and the new construction started in 1962. When he died in 1963, my mother continued and completed the interior.
The hotel must have had a big presence early on for you – how did you get involved in running it?
The grand opening was in 1967 and that same year there was the Arab-Israeli war, so it didn’t start on a good foot at all. Back then there was a French general manager who was very nice, but wasn’t so successful. I was criticizing him all the time and so my mother asked me if I thought I could do better? I said yes. I planned to just work there for three months, but I stayed three years. After that, the Lebanese Civil War took place. The hotel was like a sitting duck on top of the hill – everybody was shooting at it. Afterwards the hotel was in complete shambles, we had to re-do everything.
Why do you think Al Bustan became such a Lebanese landmark?
When we returned again after the Civil War I was insistent that everything should be like it was in the ‘60s. If a table was broken, we redid it in the same manner as before – we treated everything in this way. People stay here and they have an idea of what Lebanon used to be like.
How did the Al Bustan Festival start and what was the aim?
It started in 1994. I realized that classical music had disappeared from the scene in Lebanon. This saddened me because I benefited from being around in Lebanon during a wonderful time when we had very good musicians who came from all over the world. For the first year we had only 30 percent occupancy but that slowly changed. We never thought we would continue as long as we have; it’s been 23 years. We are very pleased because we have succeeded in our mission to bring back classical music.
How has the festival itself evolved?
It has changed musically. The first year we only had one “tutti frutti” of opera, with four singers. Now we have full operas. Though our hall is small – we have to remove three rows of chairs to fit the orchestra, since we don’t have an orchestra pit – and it is very difficult and expensive [to organize], now people are enjoying it and we are happy that our program has become much more dense and important.
What is the feedback of the musicians who perform at the festival?
We have return artists that we ask back every year. They love the festival and are very happy to come. We actually have a problem… they never want to leave!
What is the theme for the 2016 edition of Al Bustan Festival?
The theme is “Midwinter Night’s Dream,” which covers Shakespeare in music. Next year is 400 years since his death, so we are featuring some of the music that was inspired by him.
Is there one Shakespeare play that you always return to?
Shakespeare sounds wonderful in Arabic because it’s rhythmic. I think the one that I like the most is Hamlet – we are bringing Hamlet here (4 January) with a performance from The Globe Theatre.
What is in the future for the Al Bustan Hotel?
We are building a beautiful hammam and spa. There was a 100-year old house next to the hotel that was falling to pieces; we built the spa there. We kept the outside exactly as it was before, even numbering the stones during construction so we could put them back in place. It should open in three to four months time.
Name one special feature in the hotel that guests shouldn’t miss?
Without any hesitation, the bar. It has this view of Beirut, as if you are in a plane, coming into the city to land.
A history in brief
1930s – Lebanese businessman and statesman Emile Bustani and his future wife, Laura, courted in Beit Mery’s Grand Hotel over tea and dancing.
1962 – Emile starts construction of the Al Bustan, but tragically dies in 1963 when his plane crashes into the sea. Laura continues the hotel’s renovation.
1967 – The new hotel opens. Laura names it Al Bustan (The Garden) – it was the first hotel of the time to take an Arabic name, when Beirut’s hotels all took European names.
1992 – After the Civil War, renovation of the destroyed Al Bustan Hotel begins again – it was the first five-star hotel to be renovated after the war.
1994 – Emile Bustani’s daughter, Myrna founds the Al Bustan International Festival of Music & the Performing Arts.
Al Bustan Festival, 16 February-20 March, albustanfestival.com, 04 870400