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Life's a peach: Bikfaya brings people together.

Summary: Winding past bars and restaurants late Friday through the busy Beirut streets balancing a box of 24 peaches with the name Bikfaya splashed across, someone calls out "You have Bikfaya peaches!

BIKFAYA, Lebanon: Winding past bars and restaurants late Friday through the busy Beirut streets balancing a box of 24 peaches with the name Bikfaya splashed across, someone calls out "You have Bikfaya peaches! Tell me you're bringing them in here to share!" The boxes of fruit are fresh from the mountain village whose name is synonymous with the pale-pink, sweet peaches that are so iconic as to demand their own annual town festival that took place this weekend. The three-day event which wrapped up Sunday drew hundreds from the local area and beyond for peaches but also music, food, crafts, and activities that filled the main Place Du Serail square.

Though the festival is only in its fourth year, the village's connection with the peach is long-standing. It dates back to the '40s when Bikfaya native Maurice Gemayel, uncle of ex-Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, acquired seedlings developed in California by plant genealogist Ernest Brown Babcock -- who the Babcock variety is named after -- and brought them back to Lebanon to be planted across the Metn region.

Local resident Hanna Najjar's uncle was the first to be tasked with planting the Babcock saplings at his farm on the edge of Bikfaya. Born and raised in Bikfaya, Najjar still carries on the family business and proudly sells the peaches grown in his 5,000-square-meter orchard. "They were planted all over the region and the best were in Bikfaya, the climate and the weather were suited to the fruit," he told The Daily Star in front of his festival stall, spilling over with the ripe fruit. "The area is magnificent for peaches."

Characterized by their sweetness and small pips the fruit are a great source of pride for locals. "For me, they are the best peaches in the world," Khalid Shahid, who grew up in the village, told The Daily Star. This is the second year he has returned to his hometown with his wife and two children for the Peach Festival, but peaches aren't the primary reason for a visit back to his roots. "Firstly [it's] to see childhood friends, and the second is for the peaches."

This gets to the heart of the thinking behind the festival. Nicole Gemayel, now Bikfaya mayor, was one of the initiators of the festival, continuing the legacy of her family whose connection to the region is longer and more deeply rooted than that of the peaches her ancestor brought to the area. "The goal is to bring people together," she told The Daily Star. "We wanted to bring a good atmosphere to the village."

Before the Civil War, the village was famous for a flower festival, also founded by Maurice Gemayel, that was held annually from 1934, bringing visitors and fame to the village. The idea behind the Peach Festival and the Christmas market, also held in the main square in December, are an effort to revive this festival tradition. "We looked for a theme, and landed on the peaches. It's something that is unique to Bikfaya, we wanted a theme that was related to our tradition," she said.

The festival takes place at the height of the peach season. There are only a few short weeks for people to get the most of the succulent fruit. However, stocking up on their own boxes of fruit is only one of the reasons for the snaking traffic jam along the winding road to the village on the opening evening of the festival.

At the top of the hill visitors found something for everyone -- face painting and ice cream for the young, a beer bike for the young at heart, a screening of the European Cup final for sports fans, and of course music and dance performances well into the evenings.

It's clear walking through the market stalls, watching neighbors, and old friends call out greetings to each other, that the festival may hinge on the famed peaches but it's fundamentally about community and local pride.

"Each village has a festival celebrating the fruit that is particular to that community and the identity of the village," Gemayel said. "It attracts a lot of people to the village, and not just for the festival, so more people visit the village bringing with them some new energy."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jul 11, 2016
Words:755
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