Art and Culture: An Alternative to Violent Sectarian Conflicts?


In order to overcome conflicts and build bridges in society, Lea Baroudi, a founding member and director of Lebanon’s MARCH organization, shows how theatre overcomes social and political divisions in Lebanon.

Tripoli — Lebanon’s second largest city after the capital Beirut — has suffered from decades of unrest, instability and violent clashes fueled by deep rooted sectarian divides. The two most impoverished neighborhoods, the Sunni majority Beb el Tebbeneh and the Alawite majority Jabal Mohsen, have undergone dozens of rounds of violent clashes over the four decades.

UN Statistics show that 69 percent of families in Jabal Mohsen and 87 percent in Beb el Tebbeneh live in poverty. This is where the Lebanese non governmental organization MARCH set out to achieve conflict resolution through arts and culture.

The conflict between residents of the two neighborhoods began with the start of the Lebanese Civil War. Apart from the sectarian divide, today the two communities support opposite sides of the conflict in Syria, which has further exacerbated the unrest and violence in Tripoli since 2011. Ironically, the street dividing both neighborhoods is called “Syria Street”, and it saw the most violent clashes in this most recent round of fighting.

From the Trenches of Jabal Mohsen and Beb el Tebbeneh to Center Stage:

That’s when MARCH went up to Tripoli and held auditions for more than 100 potential candidates from Jabal Mohsen and Beb el Tebbeneh to act in a theater play. We ended up selecting 16 finalists, 8 from each community. Their profiles were almost identical: they were 16 25 years old, they had left school early, most of them participated in the armed clashes and all of them were unemployed. This particular profile, sadly, was not difficult to find.

The idea we had was simple: Have these young Tripolitans star in a dark comedy based on their lives and circumstances and tour it across Lebanon. The plan was to give them a platform to vent their concerns, but also to let other Lebanese hear their side of the story, without mentioning the word reconciliation as a desired outcome for the group.

The recruitment part was the first and possibly hardest part. “I’ve never been to a play and you want me to act in one?” one of the newly recruited actors asked, unable to understand how we could be fit to perform on stage or why anyone would care enough to come watch him perform. That particular sentence was very telling as to the sense of loss of self esteem that these young people feel.  

Persuading the recruits to stick to the rehearsals was tough, besides the initial absences and tardiness, the mood was tense, and I still recall the surreal experience of performing body searches at the door of the rehearsal hall to make sure the young men were unarmed: Guns, knives and razor blades were confiscated. These were men who saw themselves as mortal enemies, filled with anger at their circumstances, and many of them have been carrying a gun since the age of 15. Weapons and violence were part of what defined them as men and were the man avenues down which they channeled this anger.   

The purpose of the play inspired by their lives was to allow them to share their stories and get to know each other, give them a real sense of worth, as well as channel their anger and grievances into a peaceful, more constructive outlet.

To achieve that, over a period of 6 months, our volunteers were trained by many prominent drama and theater professionals. MARCH hired Lucien Bourjeily to write and direct the play and help mold the fighters into stage actors. George Khabbaz, Nadine Labaki, Rafic Ali Ahmad and Rita Hayek all leading actors and directors in theater and cinema, visited the youth during the rehearsals and conducted workshops and discussion sessions to give the young men and women more guidance and advice and help them build more confidence on stage.

And slowly but surely, by sharing their stories with us and each other, these young men realized they were much more alike than they thought. After long months of perseverance and rehearsals, during which these would be actors distanced themselves from the violence that had consumed much of their youth, friendships were built, and the play – “Love and War on the Rooftop,” a local take on “Romeo and Juliet” –   was born. The play toured across Lebanon with full house performances and standing ovations.

What began as a pilot project with just 16 people then grew into something bigger. More plays, several rap groups, graffiti artists, song writers, break dancers, and other arts and culture initiatives followed on the heels of “Love and War on the Rooftop.” These different and diverse undertakings allowed youth who were taught to hate each other, to meet and express their frustrations – as well as their hopes and dreams – through the arts.

While the participants were impacted most by this experience, the residents of both neighborhoods also felt the effect as saw the problems they face every day tackled on stage. With that, our participants had become activists, shedding light on the problems as they worked together on the solutions.

A Cultural Café on the Former Front Lines to Solidify the Reconciliation:

With so many projects ongoing, MARCH felt the need to create something more permanent and sustainable. We began working on a project that would add to the positive impact, while acting as a hub and safe space for the youth, addressing one of the main root causes of the conflict: fear of the ‘other. In February 2016, MARCH opened the “Kahwetna: Cafe bi Kaffak” cultural cafe in a war torn building on the former frontline of Syria Street. Today, the cafe employs youth from both areas who jokingly tease each other on how they use to point guns at each other and now they point espresso, cameras or mics. The café also serves as a location for young men and women from the area to meet and unite around positive ideas, and to keep working, performing and learning together while spreading the message of peace to a wider audience. Residents of these neglected neighborhoods now have a safe space that allows them to express themselves together through art, culture and learning, away from sectarian and political manipulation.  

Today the café hosts concerts, movie screenings, workshops, classes and festivals, all organized by the youth and for the youth of both communities.

The Example of Beb el Dahab

Though the approach of art and culture has shown to be highly effective, it can only contribute to sustainable change if it is accompanied by an improvement in the youth’s poor socio economic conditions, and by making young people feel they have some control over their lives. This is what drove MARCH to initiate the project of Beb el Dahab in late 2016. While working on peace building in the area, the MARCH team discovered that the neighborhoods of Beb el Tebbeneh and Jabal Mohsen historically shared the name Beb el Dahab (literally: Gate of Gold), because of the combined economic prosperity of the area before the civil war, a fact that can help the communities remember a common history of peaceful coexistence. The project brings together the most at risk young men and women from each neighborhood to rehabilitate shops on the former demarcation lines destroyed by violence, poverty and neglect over years of conflict

Apart from promoting peace building, the project aims at providing palpable change in people’s economic situations by helping them develop capacities and skills that they will be able to use after completing the project. The main philosophy behind Beb el Dahab is that these former fighters, now armed with professional skills, are unlikely to fire on something they helped rebuild. The project has succeeded over several phases in rehabilitating around 200 shops with 230 youth working in the process, both men (working construction, for example) and women (designing shop signs and marketing materials, among other things).

To complement its initiative, MARCH accompanies the rehabilitation process with a lengthy soft skills program at “Kahwetna” that includes art, culture, sports and personal development, ranging from anger management, team building and drug awareness sessions, to cultural outings, and language classes for the youth as well as promoting sports as healthy means of encounter and outlet to people’s frustration and building bridges through the Beb el Dahab  Football Tournament. The tournament brings in around 12 mixed teams bi annually of former fighters from Beb el Tebbeneh, Jabal Mohsen and Members of the Lebanese Army, to compete for the title, in order to contribute to building bridges between the LAF and the community.

The project has succeeded so far in reconciling hundreds of youth from both areas, who now call themselves the “Beb el Dahab squad,” proudly showing passers by the shops and signs they contributed in rehabilitating.  

The success of the project comes from the fact that it addresses some of the main drivers that are leading the youth to resort to violence and radical ideologies. These include a lost sense of belonging and identity, limited education and very high illiteracy rates, perceived (or true) injustice and very poor socioeconomic conditions. These elements were suffocating any hope in the hearts and minds of these young adults, making them angry, vulnerable and more easily manipulated, leading them to resort to violence and to yield to radical, violent ideologies.

All of these youth were looking for income, but we found that they also longed for a sense of purpose and hope in the future. And its hopelessness that extremist groups seize upon to attract new recruits, offering them a new identity, and a cause to fight for.

Challenging this requires a holistic approach to provide the youth with an alternative that is “cool” yet remains angry:  a way to vent, a sense of purpose and empowerment, and the feeling of being heard and relevant. This approach may not convert the hardcore extremist leaders of any movement, but they have proven to be important tools in luring away some recruits.

Art, culture and personal development helped us create a third community out of the hardship of the two divided one.

It provided these youths with part of what missing from their lives: it broke down the barriers of fear, humanized them, helped them vent their anger and frustrations and it created a sense of belonging, purpose and self esteem. And most importantly it made people listen without judgement, it gave them a voice and made them feel relevant. It gave them hope in a better future. And that is the key to everything.